Plus: Growing hydrogen investments
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NOV 17, 2021

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Demand for clean energy is growing, so it better be there

Tadeu Carneiro, a 40-year veteran of the metals and mining industry, has bet his career on making steel from zero-emission electricity.

An engineer by trade, Carneiro and his team at startup Boston Metal are working to perfect the technology in a pilot plant in Massachusetts, but there’s an essential ingredient he needs that he has less control over: ample supplies of clean electricity.

“If you don't believe that electricity will be abundant, reliable, cheap and green in the future, then forget it,” said Carneiro, CEO of the company. “But then forget about the electrification of everything…. We have to believe that we will have abundant, cheap, green and available and reliable electricity in the future.”

Last week, Cipher looked at the growing local opposition to power lines and wind and solar projects. This week, we’re laying out why all that clean energy matters for our entire economy.

Indeed, it’s not just Carneiro and his green steel.

To clean up our economy, experts agree we need to electrify as many parts of it as possible. In turn, that electricity needs to be powered by clean resources, like wind, solar and nuclear power, as fast as possible to make the biggest dent in heat-trapping emissions.

If all goes as most countries are planning, that clean energy will light and warm our homes, power our cars and even fuel manufacturing like steelmaking, which currently accounts for 9% of the world’s carbon emissions.

To do all this, the world’s electricity capacity needs to increase anywhere between four and nearly eight times its current size, much of that wind and solar, according to BloombergNEF.

That’s a lot to ask of our aging electricity system, which in the United States is still nearly 60% coal and natural gas. What’s more, many states are shutting down zero-emitting nuclear power plants.

A recent study by Princeton University posited different pathways to a net-zero emission U.S. economy by 2050. Researchers found that the electricity sources for heating and manufacturing changed a lot depending on the different mixes of zero-carbon energy sources.

In a scenario with large amounts of wind and solar electricity, two notable things happened: 1) Hybrid boilers for heating proliferated. Such equipment can switch back and forth as needed from renewable electricity to natural gas. 2) “Green” hydrogen made from electrolysis using wind and solar power also proliferated.

Hydrogen can be used in several different kinds of energy applications, including storage, manufacturing facilities and long-haul transportation.

“Both of those are large flexible demand sinks and they can suck up whatever extra wind and solar there is and allows you to use a lot more renewable electricity to displace industrial fuels than you would otherwise,” said Jesse Jenkins, Princeton University professor and co-author of the study.

In a scenario with constrained wind and solar resources, electric boilers and green hydrogen give way to much more “blue” hydrogen made from natural gas with carbon-capture technology. Nuclear and gas-fired plants with carbon capture also play a much larger role in decarbonizing electricity.

Those technologies are critical hedges against potential constraints on renewables expansion, which could be driven by limitations on transmission or opposition to wind or land impacts of solar,” Jenkins said.

Green hydrogen has a particularly—some say disturbingly so—big appetite for clean electricity. BloombergNEF found that in its scenario depending heavily on wind and solar, more than 50% of global renewable electricity capacity would go to hydrogen production, which ultimately would feed 22% of the world’s final energy consumption.

“In terms of energy throughput, that’s not great,” said Seb Henbest, BloombergNEF’s chief economist.

Raffi Garabedian, CEO of startup Electric Hydrogen Co., is working on technology producing hydrogen from wind and solar. He says the proliferation of green hydrogen could actually help integrate more wind and solar into the energy mix and make use of such resources in areas not close to population centers.

He cited plans in Western Australia as an example of building wind and solar for the express purpose of green hydrogen, which would then be used to make zero-carbon ammonia. Ammonia can be used for electricity storage or as transport fuel.

He likened the dynamic between renewable electricity and hydrogen to a chicken-and-egg dilemma. He says the cheap prices for wind and solar today could help secure contracts with consumers of green hydrogen.

“With that contract in hand, we have the resources to build incremental solar or wind generation and hydrogen electrolysis,” Garabedian said. “So, in effect, the availability of very productive, low-cost [hydrogen] technology will also pave the way to greater adoption of wind and solar.”

Note: Boston Metal and Electric Hydrogen are part of the investment portfolio of Breakthrough Energy Ventures.
Amy’s Lunchtime Reads
and Hot Takes

Nuclear Fusion Attracts Startups—and SkepticsThe Wall Street Journal (paywall)
My take: Finally, a realistic take on the state of fusion. The past few I’ve read have been all rah rah without any reality check. Plus, the illustrated comparison of nuclear fusion and fission is helpful.

E.U.'s big climate ambitions have the scent of wood smokeThe Washington Post
My take: This is an under-appreciated story building on the Post’s recent great investigation into emissions. I wish there were more details showing how emissions at a biomass plant could be even worse than at a coal plant (I didn’t know that).

Subaru Finally Has an SUV That’s Good for the Great OutdoorsBloomberg News (paywall)
My take: Amen! Although it’ll be some time before this is widely available. I tried to buy a Subaru Crosstrek plug-in hybrid in Washington state and couldn’t.

Macron says France will build new nuclear energy reactorsReuters
My take: Such an acknowledgement of nuclear power’s benefits—secure, clean and affordable energy—could have been made before shutting down plants and would have made things a heck of a lot easier for France. This doesn’t erase the big concerns about nuclear power, but its benefits are clear, too.

Calif.'s last nuclear plant needed for 100% clean grid—expertsEnergyWire (paywall)
My take: Paging France (and Germany and Japan).

Australia’s coal mines are booming while Glasgow talks weigh action on climate changeThe Washington Post
My take: The family at the end intrigues me the most because they really capture the challenge: Their financial livelihoods are attached to the coal industry, yet they fear for their children’s health—and the planet’s—because of it.

More of what I’m reading:
  • How the rise of copper reveals clean energy’s dark side – The Guardian
  • Big business and COP26: are the ‘net zero’ plans credible? – The Financial Times (paywall)
  • Policing of Net-Zero Claims to Take Shape in 2022, UN Chief Says – Bloomberg News
  • In France, the People the Climate Summit Forgot – The New York Times
  • How Much Do Electric Vehicles Cost to ‘Fill Up’ Compared With Buying Gasoline? – The Wall Street Journal (paywall)
  • Bill Gates' TerraPower to build $4B nuclear power plant in WyomingAxios
Venture capital pouring into hydrogen
Source: International Energy Agency • Amounts are in constant U.S. dollars (2019). 2021 data is up to mid-June. Early-stage VC includes seed, Series A and Series B.

Investments into a range of different hydrogen-related technologies are increasing around the world, the International Energy Agency said in a recent report on the topic.

The above chart shows the geographic focus, while the report itself (on page 166) shows the different technology areas.

Feline power
My take: My cat Santosha was excited about watching the recent Last Week Tonight segment about electricity on our new TV. For those uninitiated, my kitty became an Internet sensation after jumping around in the background during this PBS Newshour appearance of mine earlier in the year. I was also impressed and entertained with the Last Week Tonight story, which was both funny and accurate.
Each week, I feature a photo that is somehow related to energy, the thing we all need but don’t notice until it’s expensive or gone. Email your ideas and photos to
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