Local energy systems rely on both fuels and electricity. Electricity in the US is still mostly generated by burning fuel, primarily coal and natural gas. These fuels have molecules that include carbon. So, burning them generates carbon dioxide, a greenhouse gas. Natural gas is a potent greenhouse gas even before it is burned. So, making sure it doesn’t leak into the atmosphere may be even more important than burning less natural gas.
Used in an energy context the word “reliable” refers to energy flows that are rarely and only briefly interrupted. Resilient energy systems may be reliable or not. The word resilient refers to the ability to restore operation quickly when elements of the system are damaged. Reliability of local energy systems depends on infrastructure flexibility and redundancy. Local energy resilience depends more on whether local infrastructure can still function when access to larger systems is cut off.
Burning and leaking carbon based fuels is causing climate change. We use carbon-containing fuels to heat water and buildings, to generate electricity and power vehicles. In the immediate future, the US economy can’t operate without them. Nevertheless, the current fuel mix will need to change.
Debate is underway. In most states it lacks urgency. Feasible and cost-effective changes have fewer and less passionate advocates because they are not complete or ideal solutions. Meanwhile, more complete and transformative solutions are not immediately actionable on a mass scale, because they require new infrastructure platforms and technologies that are not yet in volume production.
Longer term we can burn fuels like hydrogen that don’t have any carbon in them. We can also generate electricity from solar and wind resources without burning fuels. We can do these things locally. In the future this approach may, in many or most cases, be the technically, economically, and environmentally best way. But getting there means changing what we can now while starting to shift our current energy usage balance toward electricity and hydrogen and starting to move local energy systems toward a technically and economically integrated and resilient balance between locally produced and imported energy.
In other words, move forward with what is immediately doable, lay the groundwork for infrastructure transformation, and start the process of local collaboration and integration.
Moving forward in the near term. Increased natural gas usage, especially in the US power sector, is an on-going and primary reason the US carbon footprint is finally starting to shrink. Fuel efficiency improvements in vehicles, natural gas appliances and electric lighting are also significant factors. Going forward, states can set goals for decarbonization of natural gas usage just as they set standards for electricity supply portfolios. Cities and counties can set “stretch” targets for more efficient use of natural gas for space and water heating, including targets for integrated solar/natural gas water and space heating. They can also set local targets for combined cooling, heating and power (CCHP) and for substitution of natural gas for higher-carbon transportation fuels. As an extension of their code enforcement work, they can set standards and provide guidelines for on-site solar heat production and storage.
Highly efficient combined heat and power (CHP) systems can be integrated with community solar and wind electricity generation projects to power local microgrids. Their cumulative flexibility and reliability can enable earlier retirement of less efficient natural gas fired power plants that now make rapid deployment of solar and wind plants possible. Micro-CHP systems can help decarbonize and boost the resilience of both regional and local electricity supply. Local natural gas service makes such cost- and carbon saving integration possible. At the building level, it also makes possible deployment of ultra-efficient heat pump based gas heating systems in both new construction and building retrofits. Likewise, it enables economical production, use and storage of carbon-free solar heat.
The natural gas enabled options mentioned above, along with cost-effective and locally appropriate electrification, can turbo-charge a state, county or city’s efforts to decarbonize building energy use. Local governments can collaborate with local gas distribution utilities to ensure local capacity to properly install and service new low carbon technologies. Such collaboration will bring together communities interested in the more rapid carbon footprint reductions and progressive gas utilities interested in new revenue models that do not depend exclusively on natural gas volume.
There are also opportunities for local collaboration on the gas supply side. Renewable methane can be produced from local short carbon cycle renewable sources like animal, food, and agricultural waste. Local gas distribution companies can mix it with imported natural gas to create a lower carbon fuel for local space and water heating uses. It can also be used for fleet and long haul transport. Renewable Natural Gas Highways can become Hydrogen Highways, and vice versa.
Laying the longer term groundwork. This requires taking account of game-changing fuels and uses already beginning to penetrate the transportation sector. Battery electric vehicles and fuel cell electric vehicles are poised to transform global personal vehicle transportation sector. These new vehicle types will be fueled locally as well as on our interstate highways. Importantly, electricity and hydrogen are inter-convertible, i.e. through the electrolysis process, hydrogen for fuel cells can be produced from electricity, and through the fuel cell process, electricity can be produced from hydrogen.
This fundamental and technically feasible potential has long been envisioned as the key to a sustainable global energy future. Over decades, many technical and economic feasibility issues have been resolved. One has been the lack of mature and mass produced equipment for converting hydrogen to electricity. Automotive fuel cells are on a production growth curve that lags vehicle power batteries by about five years. Another has been cost of producing hydrogen from zero carbon sources. Hydrogen can be now be produced from solar and wind electricity at costs comparable to or less than the cost of extracting the hydrogen molecule from the methane molecule.
The location and ownership of future local fueling infrastructure and fueling stations has yet to be addressed in most counties and cities. Infrastructure for supplying hydrogen for fuel cell vehicles and electricity infrastructure for charging battery electric vehicles will need to be technically and economically integrated if the necessary market transition is to be as fast as possible. The cities and counties where both types of zero carbon vehicles become popular or prevalent will be the natural laboratories for such critically important integration.
Energy utilities will seek to expand revenues as transport fuel providers, while cities will have authority over licensing and siting of local retail fueling services, creating an obvious opportunity for collaboration and integration. Supply and infrastructure considerations will be important. Local governments will also need to consider the potential synergy between vehicle batteries and fuel cells as resources for integration with building energy systems and for local energy security and resilience.
Integrated resource planning is an important practice in the electricity industry. Historically, resource plans evolved slowly because changes in the building sector are slow to manifest, and so are changes in state-wide electric systems. Buildings and central station power plants have long economic lives, and large power plants and transmission systems take many years to develop, build and place in operation.
Impacts of changes in the transportation sector may manifest more quickly. The product cycle is shorter. New transportation energy sources will need to be planned and integrated locally. Impacts of local solar deployment are already manifesting more quickly as well.
Much attention is being paid in the electricity sector to the need for energy storage to buffer short term variations in wind and solar electricity supply. There is also a need to buffer seasonal variations in both supply and demand. Without recognizing the importance of fuel as long term or seasonal storage resource, this need may be very costly to meet. Some or all the buffering will need to happen locally.
Starting local energy collaboration and integration. It is time to recognize that a successful transition to a future decarbonized and more secure and resilient local infrastructure can’t be done at the state level or in silos at any level. It will depend on the expertise and capacities of both natural gas and electric utilities and their collaboration with counties and cities if it is to proceed as the fastest possible pace.
Natural gas utility collaboration with cities and counties must receive policy attention at least comparable to collaboration involving electric utilities. Current levels of reliability and resilience provided by natural gas utilities must carry forward continuously as hydrogen emerges as an enabler of the energy sector transition of the 21st Century.
IRESN advisor Ron Edelstein’s expert perspective on the Resiliency of the US Natural Gas System suggests the high current industry standards that must continue to be met in the future, plus the magnitude of the transition ahead. To read more, click here.