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The Decarbonization Imperative

The Decarbonization Imperative, by Michael Lenox and Rebecca Duff


The Big Picture Solution


To decarbonize the global economy and achieve net-zero emissions by 2050, we need to:

  • Reconfigure the energy sector to 100% utilize renewable energy sources, such as solar and wind power (solar appears to be the leading and most promising disrupter right now)

  • Convert all vehicles to be fully electric (including all types of transportation, using either batteries or fuel cells)

  • Electrify all commercial and residential buildings (remove all dependencies on natural gas and oil for cooking and heating)

  • Electrify industrial processes for creating steel, cement, and petrochemicals

  • Develop agricultural processes that yield net-zero emissions, by either (1) shifting away from corporate farms and toward small regenerative farms, or (2) utilizing technologies and chemicals to supplement soils, fertilizers, and livestock intestinal health


The heart of the solution involves developing reliable clean energy technologies, such as solar and wind, so that we can electrify the other sectors of the economy. This also involves developing energy storage solutions and modernizing the power grid infrastructure. For specific sectors and industries that are not able to decarbonize, carbon capture and utilization offers an alternative to achieving net-zero goals.


Overview


In order to avoid the worst effects of climate change, experts claim that we need to effectively “decarbonize” our economy by 2050. The evidence is clear that the global temperature is rising, and it is also clear that the rising temperature correlates well with rising amounts of CO2 in the atmosphere. Although it’s not clear whether or not the rising temperature is due entirely to mankind or at least partially due to a natural cycle of the earth, it is clear that CO2 from fossil fuels is a contributing factor to our environmental changes.


According to the Paris Accord, our goal is to limit global warming to 2.0 degrees Celsius, preferably 1.5 degrees Celsius, compared to pre-industrial levels (1850-1900). To do so will require massive innovation and market adoption. Business markets will only adopt net-zero carbon solutions when it is financially beneficial. Therefore, to adopt clean energy technologies, we need a combination of sector-specific innovations, governmental incentives, legislation and policies, and consumer awareness.


Annual global greenhouse gas emissions by sector:

Percentage of Global Emissions

Sector

25%

Energy, electricity, and heat production

24%

Agriculture, forestry, and land use

21%

Industrials

14%

Transportation

10%

Other energy

6%

Buildings


Energy Sector (25%)


The largest contributor to greenhouse gas emissions is the energy sector, which burns fossil fuels to generate electricity and heat.


A majority of all electricity is produced by burning either coal or natural gas in power plant. A significantly less portion of electricity is produced by “clean” options, such as hydroelectric, nuclear, and renewable sources.


Although nuclear and hydroelectric plants are cheap and clean, they both have their problems. Nuclear plants have gained an unfavorable reputation, because of nuclear disasters and the challenge of safely disposing spent fuel rods. Similarly, hydroelectric plants pose significant environment challenges on our water ecosystem.


Therefore, renewable energy technologies, such as solar and wind, are the most attractive for meeting our 2050 goal.


According to the authors, solar energy will be the primary disrupter. The levelized cost of energy (LCOE) is already near that of fossil fuels, and we can expect the LCOE to continue dropping as solar technologies become more efficient and less expensive.


Today, most solar cells use crystalline silicon (c-Si) in one of two configurations: mono-c-Si and multi-c-Si. However, there are many other types of solar cells currently being researched that offer higher efficiencies and additional tunability.


Renewable solar and wind technologies are becoming more and more disruptive, and they have the potential to fully power our electrical grid. However, our electrical grid cannot be 100% renewable until we figure out how to deal with the intermittency of solar and wind power.


To solve intermittency problems, we need to invest in energy storage technologies, which can store energy during high production periods, and during periods of low wind/sun, they can release this stored energy onto the grid. A few energy storage technologies under consideration include: Li-ion batteries, pumped hydro, and hydrogen storage.


Agriculture Sector (24%)


For the land use sector, agriculture represents the largest portion of greenhouse gas emissions. These emissions include not only CO2, but also methane (CH4) and nitrous oxide (N2O).


Factors that contribute to agricultural emissions include manure management, feed production, and enteric fermentation (burping and farting). Methane production during enteric fermentation is closely linked with food quality and composition. Therefore, improving the quality of cattle feed can go a long way to reducing greenhouse gas emissions.


With regards to manure management, small farms that regularly spread out manure and use it to fertilize the soil do not produce significant greenhouse gases. Nearly all of the greenhouse gases emitted from manure originate from large, long-term, bulk storage. These bulk storage facilities are typically located off-site.


The evidence indicates that regenerative agriculture and small farms, which produce higher quality feeds and distribute manure to fertilize the soil, are the best options for reducing emissions in the agriculture sector. Furthermore, moving away from corporate farms has the benefits of increased food quality, improved soil quality, less disease, and less chemicals. Personally, I think that many, small regenerative farms are the best solution.


However, many companies are also exploring technologies and additives to regenerate soil quality and improve livestock gut health. Other potential solutions include gene editing crops, using data and satellites to manage soil, water, and fertilizers at large farms, and capturing emissions to produce electricity and generate heat.


The land use sector is also be responsible for creating a carbon sink through the growth of new trees.


Industrials Sector (21%)


Industrials refers to the broad category of industries that mine, refine, and manufacture the materials that we commonly use in our global economy. Primarily, this includes steel, cement, and petrochemicals.


For steel production, it is possible to electrify the process using energy from renewable energy sources.


For cement, only a small portion of the process is electrified. Most of the greenhouse gases produced during cement manufacturing are due to the thermal process, which heats the kiln and raw materials. Even if the thermal process is electrified, the chemical reaction that creates Portland cement releases CO2, and this problem is not easily addressed.


Some companies are trying to modify the contents of Portland cement in order to reduce the CO2 produced during the chemical reaction. However, this raises concerns about the cement’s integrity. Since cement is used for nearly all building and infrastructure projects, it is subject to intense safety requirements.


For the cement industry, carbon capture technologies seem to be the most promising solution.


Petrochemicals are used to produce plastics, rubber, detergents, clothes, and much more. This process, like steel, needs to be electrified, and the electricity needs to be produced by renewable energy sources, such as solar and wind.


Transportation Sector (14%)


The transportation sector includes cars, buses, trains, airplanes, boats, and all other types of transportation vehicles. To decarbonize the transportation sector, vehicles need to shift from fossil fuels to electrification, which can be accomplished through batteries or fuel cells.


The viability of electrification is strongest in small personal vehicles, which is where Tesla has established their market. However, the weight of Li-ion batteries, which are used in Tesla’s vehicles, is too heavy for larger vehicles and airplanes. Therefore, it does not appear that Li-ion batteries are a suitable solution for the aircraft industry, and other options must be explored, such as hydrogen power, fuel cells, or sustainable aviation fuels (SAFs).


Regardless of the specific electrification solution, a robust fueling infrastructure will need to be created, and the fueling stations will need to be supplied with electricity from renewable energy plants. Therefore, it is critical for more solar and wind facilities to come online.


Buildings Sector (6%)


The majority of greenhouse gas emissions in the buildings sector are from heating and cooking using natural gas. To decarbonize buildings, houses need to shift to becoming fully electric, and the electricity needs to be fueled by renewable energy sources, such as solar and wind.


The technologies needed to 100% electrify commercial and residential buildings already exists, and many new homes are fully electric. This trend needs to continue, and making people aware of the benefits of all-electric buildings will be crucial.


A Note on China


The astute reader will notice that China is the world’s leading producer for all of the largest industries relevant to meeting the net-zero emissions goal.


  • A majority of the world’s steel is produced in China.

  • China is the leading producer of solar modules.

  • The Tesla Gigafactory 3, located in Shanghai China, produces thousands of Teslas per week.

  • More than 70% of cobalt, an important metal in Li-ion batteries, is supplied from Democratic Republic of Congo and Zambia (not China, but interesting nonetheless)

  • Most of the US’s cement is produced domestically, with some being imported from Canada and Mexico, because the import costs are so high. However, a majority of the world’s cement is produced by China.

  • China is the world’s largest producer of petrochemicals.


What does this imply? If China is not already the leading world power, then it soon will be. China controls a majority of the world’s resources, and their global influence is exponentially climbing.


Whoever controls the world’s energy is the global superpower. Without energy, we would not have clean water, warmth, shelter, food, transportation, or military strength.


Right now, our world is primarily powered by fossil fuels, and the countries that control this resource have the greatest power. This is also the reason that so many wars are fought over fossil fuels. Energy controls our ability to manufacture goods, and our access to life necessities, such as food, water, and shelter.


As our global economy transitions to renewable energy sources, and as China controls the means to produce the materials for these energy sources, China will likely emerge as the power that controls global access to energy. Suppose that we successfully transition to a fully renewable energy sector powered primarily by solar power, and assume that China continues to control a majority of the materials and manufacturing required for solar modules. If true, this will place China in a very advantageous global position.

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