The following is a contributed article by Tim Lukes, co-CEO and founder of Unison Energy.
The consensus among scientists is that global society needs to reach net-zero carbon emissions by 2050 in order to stay below the critical 1.5°C global warming threshold. But there is little consensus on exactly how to meet that target, especially for commercial and industrial facilities that must balance cost and energy resiliency with sustainability goals.
A recent McKinsey report suggests that to help society reach this goal, facilities must quickly electrify, implying they would leverage renewables from the grid while relying on clean fuels for high-heat processes. However, there are some complications with this approach.
While renewables are on a strong growth trajectory, they are not likely to supply a majority of power across the U.S. in the near future. Currently, solar and wind account for only 8.4% of U.S. electricity production. Significant growth remains before they will eliminate the 23.5% of U.S. electricity that comes from coal and the 38.4% from natural gas.
Second, as renewables produce a larger percentage of grid power, the grid must also incorporate significant excess storage capacity or conventional generation to counterbalance solar and wind intermittency — but the associated high price tag of under-utilized assets is a strong deterrent. The same is true for individual facilities, although few sites have the necessary funds or space for sufficient solar generation and storage.
A third challenge is that about 30% of facility carbon emissions come from thermal loads, like gas boilers. In fact, 22% of all U.S. emissions come from industrial sources, largely in the form of process heat. Electrifying these thermal loads is not cost-effective for most businesses, nor commercially available for high-heat industrial processes. This is a serious consideration and one not easily solved by calling for electrification retrofits.
Despite these challenges, facilities across a range of sectors — including high-heat industrial sectors — do have a realistic path to eliminating 100% of their carbon emissions.
1. Invest in efficiency
The first and simplest way to reduce your carbon load by about 15-20% is to upgrade your facility's infrastructure. According to the EPA, more than half of large boilers in the U.S. are more than 40 years old and may not meet new emission standards. LED retrofits and intelligent building management system tools tend to have quick payback periods and reduce energy consumption at the source.
2. Use renewables where you can
Solar technology has become an affordable option, and facilities that can incorporate solar panels onto rooftops, parking lots, or unused land may cut their CO2 emissions by 10-20%. However, because solar panels have a substantial physical footprint and require unobstructed access to sunlight, the limitation is usually on space more than anything else.
3. Be as efficient with carbon as possible
A microgrid that incorporates a combined heat and power system can achieve 60-80% system efficiency, compared with about 38% grid efficiency. These cogeneration systems use waste heat to replace most or all of the site's boiler production, potentially reducing a facility's carbon footprint by 25-60%, depending on the site's thermal loads and the grid's generation mix in the state. At the same time, microgrids provide critical energy resiliency.
4. Decarbonize the fuel supply
As the McKinsey report notes, the future depends on clean fuels that can mix with or replace today's fuel. Low-carbon fuels can be used to provide even greater efficiency increases for cogeneration systems. Biogas, the carbon-neutral methane created from organic matter, is already available in some markets, where it offers carbon savings as high as 23%. Green hydrogen fuel production is also gaining momentum, and the Hydrogen Council suggests hydrogen could support 18% of energy demand worldwide while cutting about 20% of carbon emissions.
5. Use reforestation to eliminate remaining emissions
While the previous four steps can result in dramatic emission reductions, there are still some emissions that are difficult to eliminate entirely. After starting with on-site measures that minimize actual emissions, facilities can invest in reforestation efforts that actively remove greenhouse gases from the atmosphere, offsetting any of their remaining emissions to effectively achieve 100% carbon neutral.
Finding a realistic strategy
To achieve carbon neutrality, it is critical that we take concrete steps forward as soon as possible. To do so, facilities need realistic options that provide operational resilience.
With these five steps, facilities don't have to wait for a 100% renewable grid — they can quickly cut a majority of actual on-site emissions, including their thermal loads, and actually save money in the process, especially when they leverage third-party financing. With the resulting cost savings, they can invest in reforestation and reach carbon neutral in a way that supports their business priorities.