The POWER Interview: GenCell's CEO on Importance of Clean Energy

The coronavirus pandemic is expected to slow the growth of renewable energy in 2020, owing to supply chain disruptions and an economic recession. It could make hitting targets for clean energy adoption more difficult, particularly in the short term.

Will government officials look to adjust their goals for renewable energy? Perhaps, but with most of the targeted goals 10 or more years away, it’s likely they will take the long view, with adjustments happening down the road depending on market conditions.

Rami Reshef, CEO of GenCell, an Israel-based fuel cell technology company, in a recent interview with POWER talked about the importance of renewable energy, including fuel cells, which convert potential chemical energy into electrical energy and generate heat as a by-product. While chemical energy is stored inside batteries, fuel cells can continuously generate electricity as long as they are supplied with fuel (hydrogen) and an oxygen supply.

Rami Reshef

Reshef said investments in clean energy should always be a priority for governments, along with investment in energy infrastructure that contributed to the grid integration of renewable energy resources.

POWER: What are the biggest challenges for utilities that have announced clean energy goals? How can they secure regulatory support? How can they secure financial support for new technologies?

Reshef: While present-day utilities have all announced clean energy goals, transitioning from standard practices to meet these goals is a long and arduous process. Utilities in most cases by definition are large and cumbersome organizations that face enormous pressure to meet many difficult and often conflicting goals. First and foremost, utilities are challenged to provide their customers with a stable, reliable and resilient flow of power to meet their energy demands at any power level, at any time and in increasingly severe weather conditions. Utilities must invest significant resources to maintain power generation and transmission equipment and infrastructure for safe operations throughout their long lifetimes and in strict compliance with governmental regulations, while at the same time aiming to keep costs down to minimize electricity rates.

POWER: How aggressive should utilities be in moving toward clean energy targets?

Reshef: Generally serving hundreds of thousands if not millions of customers, utilities manage large-scale operations involving multiple sites across long distances and employ highly skilled engineers and innovative technologies to ensure that sufficient power will be available to customers at all times.  Bearing such heavy responsibility for critical public services, utilities tend to be conservative in outlook and cautious about effecting any change that might endanger the stability and availability of power transmission. The need to meet clean energy goals can be very difficult for these risk-averse organizations. Nevertheless, as the issues of climate crisis persistently remind public and private decision-makers of the dangers of continuing business as usual, and in parallel dynamic disruption in the energy economy is bringing to market numerous new players and models, utilities are cautiously adopting clean energy goals to align with market demands.

POWER: What are some of the challenges utilities face?

Reshef: Meeting ambitious clean energy objectives to reduce carbon emissions and to improve energy efficiency, [that] mandates that utilities radically revise their standard energy generation practices. Replacing a steady stream of processed oil or coal that delivers a regular energy output with intermittent power sources such as photovoltaic panels or wind turbines that deliver energy only when the sun shines or the wind blows introduces new and difficult challenges for the utilities. To ensure stable power, the utility must balance intermittent sources with complementary storage and generation solutions that provide backup energy when the intermittent sources are not available.  Utilities are today investing in diverse technologies to achieve this balance.

Today regulators have established incentives to encourage utilities to move to clean energy but have also already set in parallel regulations to safeguard that these new practices maintain the safety and resilience of the utility’s infrastructure and operations. With the increasing urgency of climate issues, the rapidly expanding and diversifying energy market and the increasing public support for sustainability targets, more and more funding is being made available to support utilities in taking active steps to transition to clean energy production. However, as the headlines are filled with more reports of power instability due to changes in the energy mix that are causing recurrent outages, there is already significant backlash that reminds utilities to be cautious. Therefore, in tandem to investing in clean energy sources, utilities must also invest in robust clean auxiliary and backup power solutions to ensure power stability and continuous availability.

POWER: What are the biggest challenges for cities and states as they try to add more clean energy to their electricity supply?

Reshef: Cities and states are experiencing disruption in their electricity supplies as utility networks are increasingly expected to offer electricity on-demand. Many progressive local power networks are incorporating multiple distributed energy resources, offering large customers—now more commonly known as prosumers—a wider choice of power suppliers as well as the ability to adopt proprietary energy generation and storage solutions that will enable them to produce and consume their own energy behind the meter. In locations where frequent severe weather, seismic activity or an extremely high proportion of intermittent renewable energy inputs to the grid cause high grid instability, initiatives are coming to market to deploy microgrids that are either partially or completely detached from the grid.

In this environment, demand for backup generators has grown healthily and utilities are comprising a smaller proportion of the electricity market. Until today cities and states have routinely depended on diesel generators for backup power for critical assets in many different public sector and municipal applications. Regulations require that these generators be fired up every month as part of regular maintenance, releasing CO2 emissions that contribute to the pollutants in our atmosphere. By replacing these generators with clean power sources that run on emission-free fuels such as hydrogen, we can significantly reduce the cities’ and states’ carbon footprints and eliminate pollutant emissions.

Hybrid solutions incorporating fuel cells, batteries and other ESS systems ensure continuous power supply and response to peak demands. Cities and states need to stay on top of these dynamic changes to ensure that the public systems meet the power needs of all stakeholders in the network and to ensure that auxiliary power systems are in place to protect all consumers, especially in severe weather conditions which occur so much more frequently in recent years.

POWER: Most people think of solar and wind power, and energy storage, when they think of how cities and states will achieve clean energy goals and satisfy government mandates. Are there other technologies that will become more readily available—and be cost-effective—to help achieve clean energy goals?

Reshef: Following the deep disruption occurring in the energy economy and increasingly diversified range of power generation and storage solutions contributing to the energy mix, demand is growing for solutions using an increasingly wide and innovative range of different technologies. Fuel cells have been available on the market for a long time, but they did not achieve mainstream adoption because the market did not support the conditions in which fuel cells could be cost-effective.

On the one hand, fuel cell manufacture would require high capital investment, both due to costly raw materials as well as due to the high production costs per unit that are typical of the early market. Another barrier to fuel cell adoption has been the complex maintenance procedures and services required to maintain the equipment in the field. Today the rapid expansion of the hydrogen economy is eliminating the most critical traditional obstacle to fuel cells, namely the high cost of the hydrogen fuel supply chain. Growing acceptance of hydrogen in various industries, improved safety training and awareness has simplified the logistics, increased the availability and reduced the cost of hydrogen fuel.

These developments have made fuel cells a more attractive and cost-effective as well as clean and emission-free proposition, delivering highest resilience and longest-duration power for as long as hydrogen supply can be made available. As more countries are announcing hydrogen roadmaps that drive investments in hydrogen-powered energy projects to achieve clean energy goals and satisfy government mandates, the interest and investment in hydrogen fuel cells is expected to increase.

POWER: Should nuclear power be considered part of a clean energy strategy?

Reshef: I don’t pretend to be an expert on nuclear power. In some countries nuclear power is still deployed as a viable solution, while in others, decision-makers prefer to invest in other energy solutions that are considered to be safer. In critical assets where nuclear reactors have been deployed to ensure highest reliability power as a substitute for diesel generators, fuel cells can provide the same level of reliability.

POWER: What are the building blocks of a clean energy strategy?

Reshef: To develop a clean energy strategy, utilities must carry out long-term investments in technology, policy, infrastructure and education, both of employees as well as of consumers. Utilities should be gradually reducing investments in fossil fuel-based energy generation, moving from coal and oil processing to transitional phases involving natural gas and brown hydrogen processing and then on to processing of completely clean energy sources. These clean energy scenarios include electricity produced by surplus sun, wind, and hydro power plants stored as green hydrogen that is produced by large-scale electrolysis.

In another scenario this surplus renewable energy can be used to run reformers that produce green ammonia. The green ammonia and the green hydrogen can be stored and used when needed to run fuel cells that generate emission-free electricity. Other scenarios may use bio-waste processing or wave energy or other innovative clean energy sources to decarbonize the grid. The substantial proportion of intermittent renewable sources will require balancing and timing in sync with energy storage solutions to protect grid stability. Of course, the engineering changes will need to be supported by definitive modifications in government budgets, policies and regulations to oversee and enforce execution to ensure that the building blocks become the foundation of mandatory clean energy legislation.

POWER: Should state governments work across borders to facilitate access to clean energy research and technology?

Reshef: Governments around the world can benefit from sharing research and technology not only one with another but with academic institutions, public non-government organizations and industrial and commercial research initiatives, all seeking to facilitate the transition to clean energy. The stronger the cooperation and collaboration, the faster the transition can be executed, and this is critical as in the face of climate crisis we are running out of time.

POWER: What are the best ways to promote investment in renewable energy, energy efficiency, and even in advanced and cleaner fossil-fuel technology? Should making coal- and natural gas-fired power generation cleaner, when possible, be part of the discussion?

Reshef: In the current state of affairs, we believe that investments in clean energy should be prioritized above all other initiatives. The energy community should sponsor clean energy projects, research, policy roadmaps, set up coalitions, in short take every possible step to move clean energy from theory to action. One key measure that is essential to promoting clean energy is through successfully showing ROI on investments in clean energy. There is no doubt that the ability to demonstrate cost reduction alongside pollution reduction increases the chances of a clean energy investment initiative to prove successful.

Likewise, we need to encourage the efforts of energy stakeholders that have to date invested in coal and natural gas power generation who are now working to decarbonize these processes, aiming by so doing to accelerate and reinforce their commitment to clean energy goals and gradually erode entirely their use of coal and natural gas in favor of cleaner energy alternatives.

POWER: How important will investment in energy infrastructure, primarily for transmission and distribution, be for achieving clean energy goals?

Reshef: Investment in infrastructure for transmission and distribution of clean energy sources is crucial to bring the deployment of these systems to scale. We need wide-scale investment by the private sector to build out and ensure that the global infrastructure for transmitting and distributing clean energy is stable and reliable. Upscaling these systems to achieve economy of scale will enable cost reduction that is crucial for achieving positive ROI on these investments that is essential to making comprehensive clean energy systems viable and competitive.

Darrell Proctor is associate editor for POWER (@DarrellProctor1, @POWERmagazine).

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