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Fossil-Fuel Capacity and the Journey to Net-Zero

The recent Supreme Court decision in West Virginia v. EPA curtailed the agency’s capacity to impose nationwide controls on carbon dioxide (CO2) emissions in the absence of special congressional authorization, complicating the Biden administration’s efforts to decarbonize the economy.

Fossil-Fuel Capacity and the Journey to Net-Zero.
Image Credit: 3rdtimeluckystudio

Is it still conceivable to reach a net-zero CO2 power sector by 2035 and a net-zero economy by 2050 without a comprehensive tool?

Researchers from Carnegie Mellon University (CMU) and the University of Wyoming reveal that existing fossil-fuel capacity can play a crucial part in reaching net-zero with both current and modified “Section 45Q” tax incentives for carbon capture and storage (CCS). The study was published in the Environmental Science and Technology journal.

The team reached this verdict after conducting an extensive policy analysis of energy generating alternatives that included nuclear, renewables with various energy storage choices, and carbon-emitting generation with CCS with capture rates of 90% and a newly-targeted 99%.

Their chosen generation plan criteria were based on three aims: grid dependability, cost minimization, and the potential to accomplish net-zero goals in a grid with high amounts of renewable energy. While renewable energy is currently the most cost-effective alternative for carbon-free generating, the cost of maintaining reliability with only renewables skyrockets beyond a certain market share.

Jeffrey Anderson, a recent Ph.D. graduate from CMU’s Department of Engineering and Public Policy (EPP) and research fellow at the University of Wyoming, led the study.

The study was co-authored by David Rode, an adjunct researcher at the Carnegie Mellon Electricity Industry Center, Professor Haibo Zhai of the University of Wyoming College of Engineering and Applied Science, and Professor Paul Fischbeck of EPP and Social & Decision Sciences at CMU.

They determined that two generation strategies were the most effective in satisfying the three objectives. First, existing coal-fired facilities equipped with CCS can co-fire bioenergy sources such as plant matter. This is known as bioenergy carbon capture and storage. The second approach is to pair existing natural gas combined cycle facilities with CCS with negative emissions technology such as direct air capture and storage.

The team’s research also revealed that by increasing the CCS capture rate from 90% to 99%, often known as “deep” CCS, more current fossil-fuel capacity may be used to achieve net-zero generation.

A coal-fired plant with CCS that does not use bioenergy produces electricity at almost the same cost as one that does. This means that coal-fired plants in areas with high priced bioenergy can still be a cost-effective, net-zero alternative to renewables with energy storage. This is a very exciting finding for deep CCS, an area in which the US Department of Energy is currently ramping up research and development efforts.

Haibo Zhai, Professor, College of Engineering and Applied Science, University of Wyoming

According to the team, these methods outperform alternative generating options, and they advise capacity-expansion modelers, planners, and legislators to examine such combinations of carbon-constrained fossil-fuel and negative emissions technologies, as well as changes to current national incentives.

Modifications to these incentives should include increases in both credit level and duration to hasten deployment for immediate storage. Furthermore, these incentives need to be differentiated to target different fuel types and accommodate emerging technologies.

Paul Fischbeck, Professor, Department of Engineering and Public Policy, Carnegie Mellon University

Fischbeck concludes, “By leveraging historically bipartisan support for 45Q tax incentives, the Biden administration can enrich the ‘green commons’ outlined in the Bipartisan Infrastructure and Job Act to continue the drive to a net-zero power sector without a legislative mandate.”

Journal Reference:

Anderson, J. J., et al. (2022) Fossil-Fuel Options for Power Sector Net-Zero Emissions with Sequestration Tax Credits. Environmental Science & Technology.


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