Most of the emissions budget has already been blown. Scientists have calculated how much greenhouse gas the earth’s atmosphere can handle before global temperatures increase by more than the international target of 1.5°C, and they’ve found that historical emissions—gases that are already out there—account for most of the allotted amount. (We’ve already flown past 1.0°C.) In order to keep the increase below 1.5°C, the concentration of atmospheric carbon dioxide (CO2) will have to stop increasing, or even begin to decrease, within the next 30 years.
The number 1.5°C was identified as a manageable upper limit by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), the United Nations body that compiles, reviews, and reports on climate science. The IPCC warns that a 1.5°C increase would mean a complete melt of Arctic summer sea ice once per century, while with just half a degree more, 2.0°C, it would be once per decade. This melting then permits increased solar heating of the polar oceans (because dark seawater doesn’t reflect as much sunlight as bright-white ice does) and thawing of permafrost that releases stored greenhouse gases, further increasing warming. A 1.5°C increase will cause rising sea levels that could affect much of the world’s population living within 100 kilometers of a coastline. This level of warming would also bring wildlife habitat destruction, reduced food productivity, and increased wildfires associated with strengthened droughts or floods, all of which can drive regional civil unrest and migration.
Fossil energy and renewables can be made symbiotic and interdependent.
Greenhouse gases are so named because their presence in the atmosphere contributes to warming of the planet. The primary players are CO2 and methane, but nitrous oxide and several others also participate. The burning of fossil fuels—in vehicles, factories, power plants—is responsible for most of the CO2 humans emit today. Green energy, that is, energy production processes that are divorced from CO2 release, is on the rise, but it’s not ready to replace fossil fuels. So what if, instead of the pushmi-pullyu of fossil vs. green, they could be made to work together in ways that would benefit both, mutually driving us toward carbon neutrality?
“We need to have carbon capture at gigaton-per-year scale,” explains Laboratory geoscientist George Guthrie. “People can become paralyzed by the size of that undertaking, but as a national lab, we can provide that leadership. It really is a matter of national security because it’s a big vulnerability, an imminent threat, and we have to take it seriously.”
Guthrie is spearheading a new Department of Energy initiative that will bring carbon neutrality to the intermountain west region, which encompasses New Mexico, Arizona, Utah, Colorado, Wyoming, and Montana. The “Intermountain West Energy Sustainability and Transitions” initiative, or “I-WEST” to play off highway nomenclature, is a large multi-institution project with two goals: to develop a roadmap to transition the region to a carbon-neutral and economically sustainable system, and to build coalitions of regional stakeholders who will deploy and implement the plan over the next 15 years.
The intermountain west region is an ideal place for such an opportunity because of its large natural gas resources as well as its extensive renewable energy potential—solar in the south, wind in the north, and geothermal throughout. Fossil energy and renewables are traditionally treated as separate economies, but the goal of I-WEST is to foster a symbiosis between them and make them interdependent. For example, CO2 captured from fossil-fuel-burning power plants can be used to grow algae that will produce biofuels.
Once carbon is captured, it must be used immediately or stored indefinitely.
A hallmark of the initiative is its place-based approach. The team knew that local buy-in and input would be essential for the plan to align with the needs of the region, so they began with strong and ongoing outreach to understand various communities’ concerns and priorities, such as climate change, water availability, job stability, air quality, or food security. The scientists saw that communities tend to be polarized, containing staunch fossil-fuel believers as well as staunch renewable believers. But the solution, according to Guthrie, is to show people the connections between the two so they can see that they aren’t actually in competition with one another.
Guthrie likens I-WEST to the Manhattan Project: They didn’t know everything about how to do what needed to be done, but the urgency and money were there, and they got it done in just three years. The way to bring cost down and speed up tech development is to just start doing it—the demand will grow as the experience grows. Fortunately, scientists at Los Alamos have been working on virtually all key technical aspects for years, so the momentum is in full swing.
There are four energy supply-and-use economies whose connections I-WEST will foster: CO2 capture and use, hydrogen (H2) production and use, bioenergy production and use, and electricity production and use. CO2 capture is exactly what it sounds like—pulling CO2 away from other gases—which can either be done at the source, such as a power plant, or else by direct air capture (DAC). Laboratory scientists have been inventing a variety of new DAC methods that are more efficient, economic, and scalable than what’s currently available.
The Lab also has decades of expertise in hydrogen-fuel-cell development [see “Ground Delivery Goes Green” on page 3]. Fuel-cell vehicles are emissions-free and could be the next generation of sustainable-energy vehicles. “Green” H2 is that which has been extracted from water without the production of CO2 as a byproduct. However, most H2 is what’s known as “blue hydrogen,” meaning it has been extracted from methane in a process that produces CO2 (connecting the CO2 and H2 energy silos), and the CO2 has been subsequently captured. (If the CO2 is emitted instead of captured, the H2 is termed “gray.”) In addition to developing actual fuel cells, Lab scientists are developing new methods of producing both blue and green H2, methods that are highly efficient and include near total CO2 capture. Whether it’s green or blue, the important thing is that fuel-cell vehicles’ fuel is CO2-neutral.
So carbon gets captured; then what? It either has to be used immediately or stored indefinitely. Los Alamos has capabilities in these arenas as well, one of which brings in the bioenergy silo. Plants and algae offer great promise for bioenergy, from ethanol to biodiesel and biogasoline. Happily, CO2 is a main ingredient for photosynthesis, the process by which plants and algae grow. So the CO2 from both fossil-energy production and blue H2 can be fed to these organisms in exchange for their energy-dense hydrocarbons.
The sale of electricity to the West Coast is a critical revenue stream for the intermountain west region, but the West Coast will soon require that all its electricity be carbon-neutral. By connecting the other energy economies to the electricity economy, I-WEST will help regional production become carbon-neutral. The electricity supply-and-use capabilities that the Lab is developing include grid design, grid reliability, and energy storage.
Finally, Los Alamos has a plethora of other relevant capabilities stemming from its considerable expertise in subsurface sciences, such as geologic fracture networks, wellbore integrity, and pipeline optimization. For example, supercritical CO2 might be used in fracking to improve efficiency and reduce pollution. Similarly, it could be used in geothermal energy harvesting, or it could be sequestered permanently underground.
Some of the needed technologies for I-WEST’s 15-year roadmap are closer to rolling out than others. The plan is to deploy them as they become ready, integrating with or replacing various pieces along the way. As the technology matures, the symbiotic clean-energy economy will grow.
“Exploiting the symbiosis between carbon dioxide, hydrogen, bioenergy, and electricity will accelerate our transition to clean energy,” says Guthrie. “I-WEST will illuminate the technology pathway to reach carbon neutrality. I think of it as re-carbonization.”
The present moment is an opportunity to staunch the flow of greenhouse gases into the atmosphere while empowering all of the players in the energy game. The I-WEST initiative is about communicating the urgency of this opportunity to key stakeholders—government, industry, and local communities. By building inertia over the next year or so, it will become increasingly evident that the time for these stakeholders to act is now, and I-WEST will be there to show them the way.
For more information on I-WEST, visit iwest.org.