Innovations that underpin the clean energy transition

31 March 2021

The first issue of Modern Power Systems, published January 1981, included a guest editorial from Floyd L. Culler, then president and CEO of the Electric Power Research Institute. Forty years on, the current EPRI president and CEO, Dr Arshad Mansoor, provides his reflections on progress made by the US electricity sector and prospects for the net-zero transition ahead

Since the printing of the first issue of Modern Power Systems in 1981, we have witnessed 40 years of electricity sector innovation. The result is an energy supply that is cleaner, more reliable, and more affordable. These four decades have also laid the groundwork for the net-zero transition ahead.

During these years, we have relied on collaborative, industry-level research and development to achieve cleaner electricity generation—from advancements in carbon-free nuclear to the development of environmental controls and the growth of affordable natural gas. At the same time, smart meters enabled the shift to a modernised grid, and consumer technology development allowed for more efficient end-use.

Today, as many begin to focus on decarbonisation, the electricity sector is building on decades of progress. Shaping a cleaner energy future requires building on what works and expanding our technology options through continued R&D.

While many stakeholders have declared different goals and charted different trajectories during the clean energy transition, the focus on carbon reduction has been constant. Through extensive R&D, the Electric Power Research Institute has identified affordable and reliable technology pathways across the integrated energy network that could result in little-to-no US energy-related CO2 emissions by 2050.

Accomplishing this will require building on the industry’s success and enabling the deployment of cost-effective, low-carbon technologies during the next decade. Additional renewable capacity will call for accelerating grid modernisation to provide 30 GW of flexibility — through energy storage and variable load — within ten years.

This future energy system will rely on lower-cost, higher-performing batteries to help balance load and resilient transmission infrastructure to reliably connect growing renewables amid more frequent severe weather.

With electric vehicles expected to account for 20% of vehicle miles traveled by 2030, the development of a robust charging infrastructure will be crucial.

The path to decarbonisation also requires maintaining the USA’s largest carbon-free resource — nuclear — and making the most of the utilities’ $6 billion in annual energy efficiency investments. EPRI is helping enable this future by conducting broad-based research that includes advanced nuclear and renewables, as well as opportunities to combine natural gas generation with carbon capture and storage.

Driving deep decarbonisation beyond 2030 requires doubling down on energy R&D — starting now. EPRI and the Gas Technology Institute (GTI) are leading the charge through the Low-Carbon Resources Initiative (LCRI).

While the US electricity sector leads all others in decarbonisation, certain hard-to-electrify sectors with great carbon reduction potential remain. Low-carbon energy carriers (such as hydrogen and ammonia) could improve the efficiency of shipping and industrial processes, including cement, steel, and chemicals manufacturing. Through LCRI, EPRI helps bring together researchers, utilities, and manufacturers to advance the development and deployment of low-carbon energy carriers. Clean energy carriers created from clean electrons could also serve other needs through natural gas blending in existing pipelines.

The Covid-19 pandemic has shown the increasing importance of reliable electricity as business and education shifted virtually overnight from centralised facilities to customers’ homes. Electricity will increasingly power consumers’ lives in a low-carbon future. As more residential and commercial customers shift to EVs and industries harness beneficial electrification, dependence on the grid will grow across customer classes.

The combination of growing electrification and changing weather patterns will heighten the importance of grid resilience. Microgrids will help enhance local resilience, and the continued digital transformation of the energy system will help provide the flexibility and reliability that customers need.

Customers must be a central focus in this energy transition. It is possible to decarbonise without sacrificing equity and environmental justice. As the Biden administration begins shaping a new frontier for energy policy, preserving that equity and ensuring environmental justice among energy consumers must underscore the new policy.

Consider this: low-income households spend between three to ten times more on energy (as a percentage of their income) than does the average customer. Every dollar these customers save on energy can improve their quality of life.

Providing help to the neediest customers can be achieved through prioritisation, programmes, and partnerships. First, prioritise low-income customers and disadvantaged communities at all stages of technology development and deployment. Second, reimagine energy efficiency programmes to better serve low-income customers and broaden customer access through novel approaches, such as expanding broadband internet to underserved areas. And third, forge strategic partnerships among utilities, technology providers, and government to deliver greater cost savings and environmental benefits to underserved communities.

Near-term decisions by industry and government leaders will determine the allocation of decarbonisation costs and benefits in the years ahead. Through a customer-focused clean energy transition, the electricity sector can shape a low-carbon future without sacrificing continuity of service or driving up electricity costs.

Addressing equity and environmental justice closely aligns with the electric sector’s customer focus and EPRI’s mission. Through collaborative R&D and industry-level co-ordination, we can identify and advance solutions that benefit customers and the environment—securely, reliably, and affordably. Together we can drive clean energy solutions that help all communities flourish in the decades ahead.

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