Fuel for Thought - Powering Net-Zero Communities

By Julie Keenahan, BEn Associate
Jun 12, 2020 11:00 AM ET
Summary: 

As part of Bechtel’s commitment to contribute 100 ideas to support the United Nations 2030 Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs), we highlight how new fuel technologies are improving as global commitments to net zero targets increase.

Goal 7: Ensure access to affordable, reliable, sustainable, and modern energy for all.

7.a: By 2030, enhance international cooperation to facilitate access to clean energy research and technology, including renewable energy, energy efficiency and advanced and cleaner fossil-fuel technology, and promote investment in energy infrastructure and clean energy technology.

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As we enter a new decade, sustainability remains top of mind for Bechtel and many of our customers. Research from the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change has concluded that to avoid the worst impacts of climate change, global emissions must decline significantly by 2030 and reach net zero by 2050. Industry, technology, and policy all have a role to play in the transition to more sustainable systems.

Leadership around the World

Cities, countries, and companies across the globe are rising to the decarbonization challenge. Many markets are aiming to displace coal-fired heat and power with solar, wind, and transition fuels like natural gas. Governments are releasing plans to hit net zero – the U.K., New Zealand, and California, among others. BP aims to bring operational emissions to net zero by 2050 and to reduce the carbon intensity of the products it sells by 50 percent. Meanwhile, Microsoft is moving beyond renewable electricity targets to set a new bar, aiming for net negative emissions by 2030.

Bechtel is on a journey with our customers to help achieve these aggressive goals. We have set our own targets to support the UN Sustainable Development Goals, and innovation has already led us down a path toward decarbonizing power generation. In 2013, Bechtel worked with Google, NRG, and BrightSource to build the world’s largest solar thermal facility of its time. When they are finished, Manitoba Hydro’s Keeyask hydro generation project will harness the Nelson river to power 400,000 homes, and Vogtle Units 3 and 4 will supply 2,200 megawatts of carbon-free power in Georgia.

But electricity is only one source of energy used to power transportation, buildings, and industry. Emissions across these sectors are ultimately derived from the fuels that power them. And when fuels are composed of hydrocarbons, unabated emissions from their combustion can impact global climate. We share our customers’ mission to continue to innovate and improve efficiency across the fuel value chain, while also looking for ways to move beyond.

Molecules vs. Electrons

Electricity is a real-time source of energy. On a power grid, supply must equal demand. Electrons must be delivered the instant they are required.

Fuels, on the other hand, are composed of molecules. Molecules are physical commodities that are easily shipped, traded, and stored long-term, and provide the energy density required to power a cargo ship or jet. Electrons can be stored in batteries or using other technologies, but the scale at which energy is used and traded across a global economy requires more flexibility than power can provide today. The next step in decarbonizing energy will be to capture the value of fuels while limiting harmful emissions.

Solutions

Bechtel is working on three challenges to support customers’ fuel transitions:

  1. Use electrons (where possible)
  2. Increase efficiency
  3. Use a cleaner fuel

Bechtel has committed to help General Motors build vehicle electrification infrastructure across the United States, which will enable more electron-powered transportation. When it comes to efficiency, new combined-cycle plants like the Stonewall Energy Center in Virginia, which uses the most efficient technology available, maximize energy output per molecule input. And where electrification and efficiency meet their limits, we can look to new kinds of fuels.

Molecules for the Future

The technology and economics of zero-carbon fuels are still evolving. Biofuels, carbon capture, renewable natural gas, and hydrogen all present opportunities. But with 2050 approaching, utilities are beginning to set plans. For example, SoCalGas has laid out a vision to incorporate a combination of biogas and hydrogen to decarbonize their operations, targeting 20 percent renewable natural gas by 2030. Across the pond, Gas Networks Ireland’s Vision 2050 describes a combination of renewable natural gas, hydrogen, and carbon-capture technology to achieve a net zero gas network by 2050. National Grid also cites hydrogen and biogases as fuels of the future. Both fuels are beginning to enter the market.

Renewable Natural Gas

Biogas, or renewable natural gas, makes use of methane from landfills, agriculture, and other sources that would have gone to waste. A Lawrence Livermore National Lab (LLNL) study recommends that to reach its net zero target by 2045, California will need to invest in negative emissions technologies, including converting landfill waste and other biomass to fuels. Bechtel is proud to support LLNL’s mission. In an effort to bring cleaner fuels to global communities, Bechtel partnered with Engineers without Borders to build a biogas-powered plant in India. There will continue to be opportunities around the world to leverage these resources – blending into existing gas pipelines, self-powering wastewater treatment plants, and supporting energy-independent campuses and communities.

The Potential of Hydrogen

With careful planning, hydrogen can be blended into natural gas systems for combustion to produce heat or even electricity. It is a highly flexible, clean fuel that will require supportive policies and infrastructure to achieve economies of scale.

Hydrogen can be stored in tanks, transferred via pipelines, used in combustion to generate industrial-scale heat or used in fuel cells to power light and heavyweight vehicles. Toyota has commercialized hydrogen-powered vehicles, and hydrogen will even be used to power the Olympic flame in Tokyo.

Hydrogen is also exportable. Siemens is developing a gigawatt-sized hydrogen generation project that uses wind and solar energy to produce and export hydrogen to Asian markets. Bechtel has supported many clients across the liquified natural gas (LNG) value chain, honing skills which translate readily to other fuels, like hydrogen. We are excited to see our customer, Woodside Energy, leverage its LNG expertise; Woodside is studying the potential for green hydrogen to be converted to liquid ammonia and exported to Japan to decarbonize coal-fired power plants. Expect to see more hydrogen projects in the future.

Looking Forward

New fuel technologies are improving as global commitments to net zero targets increase. The next step will be for utilities, companies, and communities to adopt the fuels needed to meet their net zero commitments. These transitions will require engineering and mobilization support on a grand scale. In a world where policy, business, and individual actions support science-based targets for decarbonization, new alternatives will leave a lasting impact on our planet. As a part of this ecosystem, Bechtel is prepared to help our clients navigate their way to net zero.

If you have any questions regarding how we’re preparing our clients, feel free contact to one of our subject matter experts below.

OG&C – Mat Ovenden

Sustainability – Tam Nguyen

Bechtel Enterprise – Julie Keenahan