SXSW 2018: Energy and Tech Executives Envision the Carbon-Free Future

How do you get to a net-carbon-free global energy system by 2070?

4 min read
The Hydrogen Fuel Cell Power System in Stuttgart/Sunnyvale
Photo: Daimler AG

Let’s say you live in a developed country and you’re concerned about your carbon footprint. You’re aware that the world generates and uses about 575 exajoules of energy a year, and that there are 7.632 billion people on the planet. Not wanting to be an energy hog, you do a quick calculation to figure out your fair share. You come to a sobering realization: One round-trip flight from San Francisco to Rome and you’re done.

Just that one flight “would blow your energy budget for the year,” says Maarten Wetselaar, Director of Integrated Gas & New Energies at Shell International Exploration and Production. “No more electricity” use. “No more heating in the winter. No more air conditioning in the summer.”

Wetselaar was part of a panel on the future of energy at the 2018 South by Southwest Interactive conference. The group’s far-ranging discussion considered such sweeping industry trends as tech collaborations between large companies and small startups, the rapid spread of distributed and renewable power generation, and surprising new combinations of technologies that are starting to cut greenhouse-gas emissions.

Wetselaar’s declaration about personal energy budgets was meant to give his listeners a vivid idea of the magnitude of the changes in store for not just energy producers but also for consumers. “The energy sector needs to change drastically in the next 30 years,” he says. “And no one knows for sure what it will look like.”

He adds: “It’s not just about cleaner energy. It’s about producing a lot more energy. That’s a big agenda for energy producers, like us, but also for consumers.”

To underscore his point, the Shell executive offers a quick reality check: For every electric vehicle purchased in the United States, 70 gasoline-powered SUVs are sold; the figure for Europe is 35.

“One of the surprising things we've seen in the last few years is energy, info-tech, and mobility companies coming together”

Some large tech companies are getting the message and looking for ways to reduce their footprints, says another panelist, senior technologist John Frey of Hewlett-Packard Enterprise (HPE). A few years ago, the company, which offers servers, networks, and storage, performed an analysis and discovered that “our own operational footprint was only 10 percent of our impact on the globe.” The rest came from the greenhouse-gas emissions of companies in its supply chain and other factors.

After some soul searching, company officials concluded that “If we’re going to power technology using renewable energy, we can’t do it ourselves.” One initiative, launched two years ago, is a four-way collaboration among HPE, the U.S. National Renewable Energy Laboratory, Daimler AG, and Power Innovations International located in American Fork, Utah. The goal is a hydrogen based, carbon-free data center, powered by solar cells and wind turbines.

Data centers consume huge amounts of power and have high reliability requirements, because outages can mean significant financial losses. So, powering them with intermittent sources, such as solar and wind, hasn’t been tried before. According to Frey, an important shift occurred last November, when the collaborative project began powering the NREL data center with Daimler fuel cells originally developed for Mercedes trucks and SUVs. Power Innovations did the systems integration for the project.

At the moment, the fuel cells are using hydrogen reformed from natural gas. But the near-future goal, Frey explains, is to use hydrogen generated from solar and wind. During times of high power output, the system will produce and store excess hydrogen in tanks for use when the photovoltaics or wind turbines cannot meet demand.

The partnership is an example of the kind of alliances that are becoming increasingly common in the energy industry. “One of the surprising things we’ve seen in the last few years is energy, info-tech, and mobility companies coming together,” says Jules Kortenhorst, CEO of the Rocky Mountain Institute, and the panel’s moderator.

Shell’s Wetselaar verified the trend:

“Historically, the approach to innovation was quite closed. Quite well-paid technologists and researchers worked behind closed doors trying to create the intellectual property that we could use. But now it’s much more open. We’re looking to work with others, collaboratively. Even startups.”

Wetselaar reports that Shell is investing in startups mainly through a venture-capital arm the company runs.

He envisions a grid based mainly on renewable power sources. He concedes that the intermittent nature of these sources will be a problem, but believes it will be solved in the foreseeable future. Intermittency, he declares, is “one of the questions that will be solved in the next 10 years.”

Diagram showing a data center, fuel cell power module, hydrogen storage tanks and renewable energies such as wind and solarDaimler transfers its automotive fuel cell technology to stationary power systems in order to provide a sustainable and independent energy supply for a power-hungry data center. Eventually, the hydrogen fuel will be generated by renewable sources.Photo: Daimler AG

He disputed the idea that a resurgence of nuclear power would be needed to enable the world to keep chugging into a future in which India and China continue to electrify, generation continues to surge, and the rate of greenhouse gas emissions goes down rather than up.

“If you invest sufficiently in wind and solar, then all you need is a mid-merit solution,” in between baseload generators and peaking plants, says Wetselaar. Such a solution might be “stored hydrogen, natural gas, or hydropower,” depending on location, he says. He adds that structural changes in electricity grids will also be required in such a system. He acknowledges the failure of such a vision in Germany, which some years ago began attempting to emphasize wind power in the north and solar in the south. The critical third link in the chain was to be “a grid to make it all come together, but which failed due to public resistance,” he concedes.

Wetselaar also believes that a carbon tax is necessary to make progress on cutting emissions. “We’ve argued for a carbon tax in Europe,” he says. “Putting a price on carbon is the best way to let the market decide how best to decarbonize. I think it will continue to be an important tool. But if we wait for the politicians to implement it, we will miss the Paris Accords completely.

“Implementing a carbon price takes political courage,” he continues. “And we don’t see much of that.”

Regardless of the details, Wetselaar says the big picture is clear: “Certainly, we believe that by 2070 the energy system has to be net carbon free.”

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