Fossil Fuels are Dead, Long Live Fossil Fuels

January 7, 2020


With new carbon capture and sequestration technologies, can fossil fuels be part of the zero-carbon solution? (photo:  Energy Institute at HAAS)

The start of a new year – and decade – is a good time to revisit how new technologies are impacting the electricity sector. In the electricity generation space, the hottest technologies seem to be wind turbines and solar panels. Visions of producing 100% renewable electricity are dancing through lots of heads, including Bernie Sanders’ and the proponents of the Green New Deal.

I’ve also come across a couple of new technologies that seem poised to pump life into older fossil-fuel-based technologies. For example, colleagues of mine in the chemistry department at UC Berkeley have founded a company, Mosaic Materials, based on a chemical that works as a low-cost CO2  sponge and can be used to support carbon capture and sequestration from fossil-fuel-based power plant emissions.

What are the prospects for technologies that seek to decarbonize fossil-fuel electricity generation? Can they make economic sense, and, if so, are they getting any support in policy circles? In short, the answers seem to be that there are good prospects, but limited policy support.

Deep Decarbonization Appears Cheaper with at Least Some Fossil Fuel Use

Electricity generation is projected to play a central role in global decarbonization efforts. On the one hand, electricity generation is supposed to scale up rapidly, as we use electricity to replace fossil fuels in everything from powering vehicles to heating buildings and cooking food. At the same time, decarbonization necessitates a radical transformation in the way we produce electricity, since worldwide, over 60% of electricity is currently produced using fossil fuel technologies.

A number of researchers have sought to model decarbonized electricity systems. For example, several MIT researchers published a paper that modeled low- and zero-carbon systems for a northern electricity system, loosely based on New England’s electricity grid, and a southern electricity system, loosely based on Texas’ electricity grid.

In a nutshell, studies like this one make a range of different assumptions about the costs and efficiency of different low- or zero-carbon technologies and they simulate future electricity demand. They then try to find the least cost way of using the technologies to meet that demand under the different assumptions about, say, the cost and efficiency of solar electricity and the costs and efficiency of storage.

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