Five Key Transformations Required to Achieve Net-Zero in the U.S.

During President Biden’s first year in office, his administration published a document titled “The Long-Term Strategy of the United States: Pathways to Net-Zero Greenhouse Gas Emissions by 2050.” The document says all viable routes to net-zero involve five key transformations. They are:

  • Decarbonize electricity.
  • Electrify end uses and switch to other clean fuels.
  • Cut energy waste.
  • Reduce methane and other non-CO2
  • Scale up CO2

Which of the key transformations will play the biggest role in reaching the U.S.’s net-zero goal is still up for debate. “The first step—decarbonize electricity—is critical and may be one of the most important steps in achieving net-zero emissions,” Brendan O’Brien, business development manager, and strategy and sales leader with Burns & McDonnell, said as a guest on The POWER Podcast. “That transition is going to include a lot of things that we’re probably familiar with today, like clean energy driven by solar and wind, but also it’ll look to the future for decarbonized technologies and decarbonized solution.”

O’Brien noted that the U.S. is targeting 100% clean energy by 2035, and he suggested the transition is already well underway. “It’s been occurring and even accelerating in recent years,” he said. “It’s been driven by plummeting costs in key technologies, like solar, onshore wind, offshore wind, and batteries, which you’re seeing more and more as deployed technology of the utilities in the United States. All that’s being bolstered by policies and regulation that has been enacted by various governments. And then also—the final—the big push is really coming from the consumer. More and more consumers are demanding clean energy and clean power, and the power generation market in the United States has been reacting to it.”

Complexity is added to the equation with the second key transformation, that is, electrifying end uses. O’Brien said the transportation sector’s shift from internal combustion engines to electric vehicles will require a 65% increase in power generation. That’s on top of other load growth from manufacturers reshoring operations, as well as the need to replace retiring power generation units, specifically coal plants.

“I think there’s going to be quite a fun challenge of figuring out what the energy mix is going to look like over the next 10 to 25 years to meet these targets,” said Megan Reusser, hydrogen technology manager with Burns & McDonnell, who also participated on the podcast. “What we really need to be looking at is the whole picture,” she said, noting that there are many sectors trying to electrify including industrial applications, agriculture, and forestry, among others. “Transportation is one piece, but when we start putting all the pieces together, it’s going to be large amounts of generation required,” said Reusser.

Hydrogen—Reusser’s specialty—is likely to play a couple of important roles. “Number one would be kind of the easy plug-and-play option, which would be utilizing a source of green or clean hydrogen to displace natural gas. So, essentially, you could use hydrogen for direct power generation in place of natural gas, or you could use hydrogen in a fuel cell vehicle, as an example,” explained Reusser. “But hydrogen can also be used to decarbonize hard-to-abate sectors. So, if you look at refining as an example that already uses hydrogen, you could displace that hydrogen with a source of clean hydrogen to continue to decarbonize that process.”

Reusser noted that it’s going to be very hard to electrify everything. She said industries such as maritime shipping, air transportation, steel manufacturing, and cement are industries that could benefit from clean hydrogen. “You need the molecule, not the electron,” she said.

Meanwhile, cutting energy waste is a no-brainer. “Cutting energy waste is a critical component of the decarbonization journey. This means making existing and new technologies more energy-efficient in a proven and effective strategy. So, anywhere that we can reduce the amount of energy that we’re consuming, that’s going to help decarbonize,” said Reusser.

Likewise, reducing methane and other non-CO2 emissions follows a similar thought pattern. Avoiding the release of greenhouse gas emissions means not having to make up for them elsewhere, which is where scaling up CO2 capture comes into play. “We cover a wide range of these different technologies. So, we’re looking at carbon capture and sequestration, whether that is amine technology or membrane technologies—doing a lot of work in the direct air capture, or DAC, markets. So, looking to essentially remove CO2 from the atmosphere that’s already there, and then sequester that with various technologies,” Reusser explained.

In the end, it’s likely an integrated approach will be necessary to reach the U.S.’s net-zero target successfully. “There’s not just going to be a single solution that’s going to get us there. If you dive a little bit more into the U.S. strategy that we were talking about today, it really lays out the groundwork of how to get there. And as you dive into that, you’ll see that it doesn’t just focus on one single industry or one single technology, it’s really across the value chain on how we can accomplish this by working together,” concluded Reusser.

To hear the full interview with O’Brien and Reusser, which includes much more about energy transition and path to net-zero, listen to The POWER Podcast. Click on the SoundCloud player below to listen in your browser now or use the following links to reach the show page on your favorite podcast platform:

For more power podcasts, visit The POWER Podcast archives.

Aaron Larson is POWER’s executive editor (@AaronL_Power, @POWERmagazine).

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