Full electrification of the economy is simply not an attainable goal, former US Energy Secretary Ernest Moniz said at an industry forum Sept. 15, as he advised policymakers and the private sector to turn more attention to low-to-no-carbon fuels and carbon-negative technologies.
Receive daily email alerts, subscriber notes & personalize your experience.Register Now
"I believe when you think this through that you reach the conclusion that while electricity and electrification are the lead horse in the decarbonization race, we also need a fuel," Moniz said during a fireside chat at Siemens Energy's North America Energy Week conference.
The economy in general and particularly the hard-to-decarbonize sectors, such as the transportation, industrial and agricultural sectors, will need a fuel source, and there are a number of possibilities if sufficient attention is paid to the issue, Moniz asserted.
Among those possibilities are biofuels, which Moniz said "have been a promise for a long time without fulfilling the promise," as well as newer fuel alternatives such as an emerging class of carbon-neutral electrofuels produced with hydrogen and hydrogen itself.
Renewable Fuels Association members in July pledged to President Joe Biden that ethanol would achieve a net-zero carbon footprint, on average, by 2050 or sooner. Renewable fuel producers on RFA's board further committed to reducing greenhouse gas emissions from ethanol by at least 70%, on average, compared with gasoline by 2030. Corn ethanol already cuts GHG emissions by about 50% compared to petroleum, according to experts at the departments of Energy and Agriculture, Harvard University, MIT and other institutions.
Deflecting from innovation needs
Moniz warned that statements about full electrification of the economy were deflecting from the need to innovate to usher in significant volumes of low-to-no-carbon fuels at a low cost.
But even with electrification and a green fuel option, the US cannot fully decarbonize the economy, he argued, insisting that direct air capture and other carbon dioxide removal (CDR) technologies will be necessary to eliminate carbon from dilute sources, namely the atmosphere and the upper layers of the ocean.
He took issue with "detractors who view [CDR] as a focus on offsets and ... a bad thing."
Because CO2 in the atmosphere is a cumulative issue, Moniz said "How you get to net-zero, the trajectory through 2030 and 2040 is very important." Further, "we don't want to stop at net-zero," but continue on to "an economywide negative carbon world," he said, asserting that some are getting too caught up in the net-zero emissions by 2050 mantra.
"You cannot have a net negative economy without negative carbon technologies, and so we should be working on that much, much harder than we are today," Moniz said. "And we should not equate negative carbon technologies just with direct air capture, which is getting a lot of attention and I think is very important, but there are many, many other pathways to negative carbon."
A concerted effort must be made to make those pathways "viable, starting by the end of this decade and growing to a very substantial contribution by midcentury," he said.
Along those lines, if he were back in office at the Department of Energy, he said a top priority, from the energy transition context, would be to steward the energy innovation agenda in the US and abroad, with an emphasis on "stimulating major international collaboration" on the three big pillars for reaching success: electricity, fuel and CDR.
Secondly, he said DOE should take a look at its large-scale demonstration projects and deployment efforts.
"Let's face it, we're fairly desperate to accelerate the pace of change," he said. So things like the DOE loan program, for example, need to play a larger role, he contended.
"Back in the earlier Obama period, one failed loan became a big fiasco," he said. "The reality is the loan program as a portfolio was extremely successful in deploying $30 billion of debt financing and doing its job, starting up some areas, bringing in private capital, and then being able to walk away from them, and letting the private sector do the job."
He pointed to DOE's debt financing of the first five utility-scale solar plants in 2009 and 2010 and how that helped spur 60 or 70 more plants without government backing. "That's the kind of success story that I think we need more of."