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Black & Veatch Sponsored Series

The Last Mile of Decarbonization

The Road to Net Zero is Paved with Emerging Technologies

By Kate Zerrenner
City Skyline Net Zero Decarbonization

Countries and companies must undertake aggressive decarbonization measures if they hope to align with the Paris Agreement and limit global temperature rise to 1.5 degrees Celsius above pre-industrial levels. Initial emissions reduction plans typically include proven technologies and solutions such as investing in solar and wind power, energy efficiency and electric vehicles. But the evasive, final stretch when the low-hanging fruit already has been picked can present the biggest challenges. 

“Electrification is a big part of the first miles,” Jason Rowell, associate vice president and technology portfolio manager with Black & Veatch, told TriplePundit. “The last mile is defined by what you can’t do by electrifying, and by what you have to do to add resilience and reliability to a generation mix that is heavily powered by renewable energy.” 

Under the Paris Agreement, many countries have set stringent targets to meet by 2030, and companies are following suit with their own 2030 decarbonization goals. Black & Veatch, a global consulting, engineering and construction company specializing in critical human infrastructure, has spent years advising companies and individual business lines on how to reach their goals authentically and in time.

“A detailed assessment is critical to creating an effective net zero roadmap,” Rowell told us. “Solutions are technology agnostic. Companies have to understand their individual needs and develop solutions based on those needs.”

The last mile of decarbonization

The space between renewable energy, electrification and full decarbonization is populated by technologies that include long-duration, readily dispatchable energy storage available for when it’s needed. Rowell noted that in the future, events like the power blackouts during the Texas ice storm in February could be avoided if ERCOT, the state’s grid operator, invests in a week or more worth of backup to provide low-carbon power into the mix should traditional assets fail. 

In addition to long-duration storage, Rowell highlighted several key technologies that can help industries and economies to fully decarbonize, including hydrogen, automation and smart grids, alternative fuels and carbon capture. 

Hydrogen, in particular, could play a significant role, especially in energy intensive industries such as steel and cement production that are major carbon emitters and hard to decarbonize because they have production processes that can’t be fully electrified, Rowell said. Both industries also have significant roles in upgrading and maintaining much-needed infrastructure systems in cities and communities worldwide.

The vast majority of hydrogen produced today is fossil-fuel-based. Retrofits of existing or new facilities will require carbon capture and storage (CCS) technologies to reduce the environmental impact. CCS is not yet widely available for commercial use and remains an expensive option for fossil-fuel-powered generation, but it may be a critical technology while we still use fossil fuels, Rowell said. 

Importantly, though, while most of the hydrogen available today is sourced from natural gas, increasing interest is turning to “green” hydrogen, produced through renewable energy-powered electrolysis that “splits” hydrogen gas from water. In this form, hydrogen can act as a long-term backup energy storage tool to balance intermittent renewable energy. “Hydrogen allows you not to overbuild on renewables,” Rowell told 3p. “In the spring, we might have excess renewable generation compared to load; and in summer, excess load. Hydrogen allows balancing of load and demand.”

Unfortunately, green hydrogen is still expensive, although experts predict the costs will begin to drop as more companies and policymakers become interested in it. Automakers and energy sector companies (both utilities and oil and gas) are exploring it, and investment in the technology will help drive down costs. 

Crossing the finish line on decarbonization 

Most of these last-mile technologies are still emerging but mainstreaming them is achievable. 
As with many new technologies, the key is setting the right incentives to enable economies of scale. 

“Right now, hydrogen and carbon capture are where solar was 20 years ago and batteries were five years ago,” Rowell explained. “Incentives like low-carbon fuel standards can accelerate driving costs down. A lot of our clients want to make hydrogen, but the economics don’t make sense without incentives to scale up the technologies.”

Those incentives may not be needed in 10 to 15 years. Rowell said the rate at which decarbonization technologies are needed will increase as the intensity of climate change increases, and hydrogen and CCS costs could drop faster than solar costs did. 

In the end, the challenge often is more political than technical, and Rowell believes that educating policymakers, corporate decision-makers and the public is key. “There are so many misconceptions about hydrogen,” including the notion that it will be a direct replacement for natural gas he said. “That’s not the case. But if we look where hydrogen plays — as a backup, as a complement to batteries — we can use it that way and it’ll be cost effective. We have to look at the total value chain, because that’s when you can see what solutions make sense.”

There are no easy solutions for climate change, but reaching the decarbonization finish line requires a comprehensive look at the potential solutions for the entire system. The technology exists, but the incentives have to be properly lined up. Options for one technology may not make sense, but when viewed in light of the entire value chain, the economics can start to look more appealing. 

Over the next several months, in partnership with Black & Veatch, we’ll take a closer look at some of the technologies reshaping the climate conversation with the potential to push us over the finish line — including hydrogen, long-duration energy storage and the electrification of heavy vehicle fleets. You can follow along with the series here.

This article series is sponsored by Black & Veatch and produced by the TriplePundit editorial team. 

Image credit: Carlos Alfonso/Unsplash

Kate Zerrenner headshot

Kate is a writer and policy wonk, with a focus on water, clean energy, climate change and environmental security. She spent over a decade running energy-water nexus and energy efficiency programs at Environmental Defense Fund as well as time at the U.S. Departments of Energy and Defense, U.S. Government Accountability Office, and state and federal legislatures. She serves as an Advisory Board member of CleanTX, which aims to accelerate the growth of the clean tech industry in Texas.

Read more stories by Kate Zerrenner