Since the early 1800s, western civilizations have rapidly industrialized. Industrial progress brought increased access to goods, abundant food, improved health, ample energy supplies and a greater potential for a higher quality of life. Despite these advancements, adverse effects followed. For years, society ignored these new dangers. It wasn’t until the late nineteenth century that concerns over child labor, hazardous working conditions and other drawbacks of industrialization were addressed. The issue of industrial emissions also intensified with the growth of industry and transportation, becoming increasingly dangerous due to their link with climate change.
Late in the twentieth century, emissions came into focus as a negative side effect of industrial advancement. Improvements were made; however, despite rapidly improving emissions controls and regulation over the past several decades, historic and projected emissions remain at an unacceptable level according to climate experts. This is largely due to carbon dioxide (CO2) emissions, which comprise roughly three-fourths of total emissions in the Unites States alone, according to the Unites States Environmental Protection Agency (USEPA) .
The first countries to industrialize are no longer in the early stages of development, but some very large developing countries are actively industrializing. These societies seek the same industrialization benefits the West did, but these improvements also lead to the negative side effects of emissions. Countries like China and India, which comprise roughly one-third of all global CO2 emissions, are already making great strides to reduce emissions, but their energy demand and emission impacts are so vast that additional investment in non-carbon generation is necessary, should the global community be able to adequately address the climate issue. Success on a global scale requires an even higher investment in non-carbon generation to replace our current methods and provide adequate capacity for escalating future electric demand. If done incorrectly, this transition to a non-carbon energy future can set aside industrial progress little by little until industry and communities feel the impact of unreliable and high-cost energy and – by extension –— goods, food, healthcare and more. It is imperative that this transition is robust but at the same time does not sacrifice prior gains in the process.
A Green Revolution
At the turn of the twenty-first century, in response to growing emissions, governments and consumers alike began demanding action: manufacturing and electric generation processes need to be increasingly green, and products should be developed responsibly. Consumers and investors are pursuing climate-friendly products and services. Products that consume energy, such as vehicles, are rapidly innovating to create zero-emission offerings. Top companies such as Apple, Amazon, JetBlue and Starbucks have all pledged to be “carbon neutral,” “carbon negative,” “net-zero,” or “resource positive” by a specific date. In fact, 58 percent of Fortune 500 companies plan to achieve net-zero emissions by 2050.
In response to ever-evolving demand, manufacturers are pursuing ways to limit the carbon emissions assigned to their products, known as “embodied carbon.” This can be achieved by optimizing manufacturing and supply chain carbon attributes and by increasing product lifespans. The goal is to reduce the total attributable lifetime carbon footprint to the end product. Every carbon impact in the product development lifecycle contributes. The carbon associated with mining the raw materials, heating a plant, delivering and developing the machinery to manufacture the product, and transportation to and from suppliers, manufacturers, distributors and retailers is all considered part of the product’s carbon footprint. Chief among these carbon contributors is the carbon emission profile, attributable to the electricity used to develop or transport that product and its components.
Carbon emissions associated with electricity and raw material extraction provide some of the earliest impacts to a product’s embodied carbon story. Electricity generation contributes a carbon attribution to nearly every product’s components at the earliest phases. As components join together, their carbon attributes combine to define the end product’s carbon attribution. It is for this reason that electric generation is a primary focus for global greenhouse gas reduction in manufacturing.
Unfortunately, it appears that the generative attribute of the electricity used to manufacture a product has become too much of the focus. Electricity-based carbon emission attributes are rightly considered, but the goal of limiting and eliminating emissions has been conflated by some with the aspirational and idealistic value to transition 100 percent to “renewable generation” with no compromise. In a sense, the goal of limiting carbon emissions has been usurped by the mission to replace all generation sources with renewable sources alone, despite alternative methods and with disregard for possible unintended consequences. The danger with this approach is that we may not be able to keep up with increased electric demand or maintain consistent levels of service, forfeiting hard-won benefits of our industrial progress in pursuit of this evermore pervasive and perhaps misguided value.
Non-carbon? I Thought Renewables Were the Answer
Some global leaders in manufacturing and electric generation have already or plan to achieve their “net zero carbon” status in the short term. Unfortunately, this small group of early adopters and those lucky enough to be located near adequate renewable generation consumed all the “low-hanging fruit,” leaving the rest of the world’s manufacturers and electric generation companies at a loss. As demand skyrockets for “responsibly” produced goods and regulation drives more manufacturers and electric generators to address their carbon story, the majority of global producers must determine how to make the non-carbon transition.
Generation leaders must select what methods of generation to deploy, where to deploy them, how to store and transmit that electricity, and how to provide that electric energy in a safe, reliable and low-cost manner. Manufacturing leaders must balance access to customers and suppliers while also considering where adequate quality electricity is available. Unfortunately, manufacturers’ siting considerations may diverge from the generators’ considerations, resulting in a potential misalignment of resources, promoting inefficiencies in the deployment and consumption of non-carbon resources.
Recognizing these inefficiencies, we must admit that renewable generation may not always be the best answer. Despite all the benefits, renewable options also present deficiencies, such as varied efficiency and intermittency. When it comes to reducing carbon emissions, we must continue improving renewable generation and storage technology. However, we should also embrace alternative non-carbon generation sources while accepting the need for fossil fuel-based generators with emission controls in the moderate- to long-term future. A moderated approach to the electric generation transition that focuses more on net carbon contribution than the source of generation will support society’s goal to move forward without leaving our advancements behind.
Renewable Generation: Ups and Downs
Renewable generation sources such as wind, solar, hydroelectric, tidal, geothermal and sometimes bioenergy are defined by their source’s ability to replenish at a higher rate than its consumption with no waste byproduct. This is attractive beyond the emission story, making renewable generation an ideal generation source in terms of environmental impact. Unfortunately, renewable sources present several downsides. While renewable generation may not create a direct waste product or draw down on a diminishing energy resource, most require large developments that negatively impact the ecosystem in which they are located. These sources are also generally less efficient in their output and less reliable (i.e., intermittency) than traditional generation, requiring additional support services such as utility- scale battery storage. Finally, a renewable source’s success varies based on geography. For example, solar may be very efficient in California but half as efficient in a northern location where the solar irradiance factor is much lower, thus producing less output or requiring more panels and acreage to achieve the same yield.
Transition: Diverse Generation Sources
The transition to a non-carbon energy future is both a demand for the transition of existing generation assets to non-carbon systems as well as a demand for the development of new non-carbon generation assets as electric demand grows. Electric generators and utilities executing this transition evaluate which solutions provide the best balance of gross generation, reliability, stability, resource consumption, system cost impacts to customers and environmental impact.
The decarbonization movement has resulted in the decommissioning of carbon-emitting generation facilities in favor of “clean” carbon-free generation sources. From 2015 to 2020, 11 GW of coal-fired electric generation was retired annually in the U.S. alone. In 2022, of the 14.9 GW of planned U.S. retirements, coal-fired power plants made up 85 percent (12.6 GW), according to the International Energy Agency (IEA). These retiring facilities provided consistent electric output, emissions and waste. Electric generators in the non-carbon transition need to retain the consistent electrical output to maintain an adequate minimum electrical capacity on the system, which is available to users 24/7, otherwise known as “baseload.” Baseload is extremely important to industry participants and to communities that are negatively impacted by outages or electricity constraints. Inconsistent or inadequate electricity levels may diminish industry attraction, increase costs, decrease output and impact health, safety, quality of life and security. Renewable generation with battery storage solutions may eventually provide economical baseload generation at scale, but for now, most renewable sources do not provide consistent enough output to replace the amount of retiring baseload generation.
The drive to transition our current generation system is compounded by increasing consumer demand for products that require electrification and industrial processes that require more electricity. Despite a slight decrease during 2020, electricity demand increased a combined nine percent in 2021 and 2022, and this trend is expected to continue. McKinsey & Company recently estimated that global electric demand will triple by 2050, thus requiring electric generation companies to replace the entire existing generation system and increase capacity threefold in thirty years. The increased demand along with the requirement to transition generation sources is creating an undue burden on our electric grid and utility providers. This unintended consequence necessitates the acceptance of a moderated transition timeline and the deployment of additional baseload generation facilities, all while improving and deploying additional renewable generation and storage facilities. It is also reasonable to expect the retention of fossil fuels and other transition generation sources over the coming decades as a bridge solution.
Alternative Baseload and Transition Electric Generation Sources
Natural gas was the obvious choice for baseload generation fuel for this transition in the U.S. during the early 2010s. Unfortunately, activism and regulation over the past decade have driven costs upward to the extent that most utilities cannot afford the transition to natural gas generation. Natural gas generation may still have a role to play, particularly in real estate constrained areas, since it offers an energy dense (80x more output per acre than solar) baseload generation source that can regulate emissions.
Other generation sources, such as nuclear and pumped storage hydropower, may provide an alternative to renewable generation. Small modular nuclear reactors (SMR) will not likely be deployed at scale until the 2030s, but they have garnered significant attention due to their advancements in safety, lack of carbon emissions and ability to consistently deliver high output on a small footprint. Industry leaders such as Dow, in collaboration with X-energy, are already developing a 200 MW SMR to support the decarbonization of its Gulf Coast operations. Pumped storage hydropower facilities, specifically closed-loop systems, are also a strong option for renewable baseload generation. Despite the selection, a successful non-carbon energy transition necessitates the maintenance of an adequate reliable baseload which will more than likely require a mix of renewable and non-renewable generation sources.
If the world must en masse restructure the generation system while increasing capacity, we must consider a reasonable transition timeline, accept a diverse generation portfolio, and set our focus on carbon evaluation standards (i.e., widely adopt metrics such as Carbon Intensity Score, CO2 emissions/MWh generated, etc.) rather than generation attributes. If current trends hold, society will forfeit the hard-won industrial advancements gained over the past two centuries.
The West cannot truly impact global warming through emissions reduction without buy-in from the rest of the world. Idealistic rhetoric on climate change has not proven an effective persuasion tactic. It is imperative to demonstrate a successful transition so that other nations are enticed to participate in the decarbonization of our generation systems in a more meaningful way. If the West proves emissions can be eliminated without forgoing hard-won industrialization gains, we will have a non-carbon energy future, but to get there, we must be carbon-obsessed. T&ID