The energy expansion requires innovation and deployment of new technologies to provide dispatchable electricity supporting other clean energy technologies. Carbon capture and storage, hydrogen, small modular reactor nuclear technology, and fusion energy show promise while natural gas generation continues its essential role.
Calpine’s Los Medanos Energy Center. Carbon dioxide is transferred from this plant to Blue Planet System’s Global Innovation Center, where it is turned into mineralized carbon dioxide, effectively recycling greenhouse gases into material that can be used to build city infrastructure. Credit: Calpine Corp.
The energy landscape is constantly evolving. Over the past two decades, the United States power generation system has experienced a massive transformation away from oil and coal through the proliferation of natural gas and renewables. Despite the rapid advancement and deployment of these cleaner energy solutions, policymakers are looking ahead to next-generation solutions that will need to keep pace with growing energy demand, while continuing to reduce emissions. Several technologies are beginning to emerge as key solutions in powering the energy grid in the decades ahead, including carbon capture and storage (CCS), hydrogen, small modular reactor (SMR) nuclear technology, and fusion energy.
These innovative technologies all share a critical attribute – they provide dispatchable power that can complement the increased integration of intermittent renewables like wind and solar. As renewable resources become more integral to our power grid, there is a growing need for reliable generation that can meet demand immediately when wind and solar are not available. Currently, this role is primarily filled by natural gas power plants. However, there is a concerted effort in the long term to either curtail the emissions associated with natural gas through CCS or find additional dispatchable sources that can match the flexibility natural gas offers.
Read on for the status of next-generation resources that could play an essential role in providing reliable, cost-effective, and clean power.
Carbon Capture and Storage (CCS)
CCS could be a significant tool for reducing carbon emissions from industrial facilities and power plants. It involves capturing carbon dioxide (CO2) emissions, and then permanently storing them in deep underground geologic formations. This typically involves installations at industrial facilities like power plants, cement factories, or chemical plants.
The Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) proposed new standards this summer for power plants under the Clean Air Act and specified CCS as a key solution to meet the proposed air regulations. The EPA rules would set carbon pollution standards for new and existing power plants, requiring fossil-fueled power plants to directly reduce their emissions. New standards would sharply limit the construction of new natural gas plants and deploy strict emissions guidelines for existing power plants, requiring as much as a third of the U.S. fossil-fueled power plant fleet to retire or deploy CCS technologies within the next decade, despite emerging energy shortages in many regions.
While CCS is a promising solution to reduce power plant emissions in the long-term, it is not currently commercially viable. CCS technologies will have to be deployed and commercialized on an extremely fast timeline in order to be widely available in the time frame the EPA proposed.
Because of the short timeline to deploy these relatively untested technologies, many experts have warned that the rule could accelerate the retirement of essential dispatchable resources and make it harder for grid operators to integrate renewable resources.
Carbon Capture Storage in Action
Calpine, one of the nation’s largest electricity producers, is leading the way in adding CCS to gas plants. The company recently unveiled a groundbreaking CCS pilot project at its Pittsburgh Los Medanos Energy Center. This project tests innovative technology and cost-effectively captures as much as 95% of the carbon emitted at the 678-megawatt plant. It would capture about 10 tons of carbon dioxide per day for approximately 13 to 18 months under the 1-megawatt test.
Los Medanos Energy Center. Credit: Calpine
Under the CCS process, carbon dioxide-rich gas moves into an absorption tower where a liquid solvent will bind with it, allowing the gas to be cleaned and released and the carbon piped out for safe storage a half-mile underground.
Hydrogen is a versatile solution because it can be produced through several pathways and used across multiple sectors, including the power system. Electrolytic hydrogen is produced using electricity to split water, resulting in a clean and storable fuel. Hydrogen could someday serve as a long-duration storage solution for renewables, replace gasoline and diesel as a transportation and heating fuel, or help decarbonize industrial processes that are difficult or impossible to electrify.
The EPA proposed power plant rules included hydrogen co-firing as a solution to keep gas plants online. Co-firing has been the subject of some pilot programs but has not yet shown that it can meaningfully replace natural gas. Gas-to-hydrogen blending and switching pose considerable technical and economic challenges, since hydrogen has substantially less energy by volume than gas and its smaller molecules create technical and mechanical obstacles.
Despite its immense potential, the primary barrier to hydrogen reaching a meaningful scale and contributing to decarbonization policies is cost. “Green” hydrogen produced from renewable energy sources is not yet available at commercial scale in the U.S. New production facilities, distribution infrastructure, and hydrogen-using equipment will need to be deployed to achieve economies of scale and reduce costs. Federal policymakers are attempting to spur this development through the deployment of tax credits through the Inflation Reduction Act (45V tax credit) and other initiatives like the DOE Regional Hydrogen Hub Program, but it could be years before the infrastructure for clean hydrogen is advanced enough to provide significant quantities to the market reliably.
Small Modular Reactor (SMR)
Small Modular Reactor (SMR) nuclear technology offers a compact and versatile approach to nuclear power generation. Like conventional nuclear reactors, small modular reactors harness fission to generate electrical power and produce no emissions. SMRs are small, standardized, and often self-contained reactors made in a factory setting. This process could help someday drastically reduce the costs of nuclear and improve safety by offering miniaturized self-contained reactors.
These reactors have the potential to play a crucial role in a low-carbon energy mix, especially by delivering dispatchable zero emission power. However, the journey to commercializing SMRs has been marked by regulatory and developmental challenges. Despite extensive federal support, SMRs have yet to be deployed and questions remain about costs and the availability of fuel. SMRs may become a significant part of our energy future, but their widespread adoption is likely to take time.
Fusion energy replicates the process that powers stars—the fusion of hydrogen atoms into helium. In a fusion process, two lighter atomic nuclei combine to form a heavier nucleus, while releasing energy. Fusion reactors could produce virtually limitless clean energy, without leaving radioactive waste.
But commercial fusion power production is an extremely complex scientific goal that has evaded scientists for decades. Significant obstacles remain in materials science, engineering, and our understanding of how to contain and harness a fusion reaction.
A fusion reactor that successfully produces more power than it requires to start the reaction is considered a holy grail of energy research, but experts agree we are still many decades away from a commercially viable fusion reactor design.
Implication for Proposed Regulations and Decarbonization Goals
While the timing of commercial viability for these technologies is still uncertain, they could all someday play significant roles in a reliable, low-emission electric grid. EPSA members have led the way in deploying some of the nation’s most innovative clean energy solutions – including the largest battery storage facilities installed in the U.S. today – and competitive power markets have a track record of fostering innovation.
Electrification will require an energy expansion, not just a transition. That means developing and preserving a wide range of energy technologies that offer a broad range of attributes to keep energy reliable, efficient, and cost-effective. Emerging technologies offer extraordinary potential, but a shift that is too fast or poorly managed could risk the reliability of the electric grid – something we cannot afford.
It is vital that policymakers approach this shift in a way that is pragmatic and realistic about both the potential of future technologies and the technological realities of today.