Today, the Obama Administration announced its Clean Power Plan seeking a reduction by 32% of greenhouse gas emissions from 2005 levels. There are many intricacies to this plan: focusing on building blocks that can be deployed to achieve state-specific reduction targets and an incentive program to prevent a short term run to natural gas over renewables. Perhaps most interesting, and largely ignored as a secondary issue, is how the Obama Administration’s broader efforts over the last 6.5 years have laid the technological and infrastructural groundwork for these policies to succeed in the long term. This has included building a project finance community that understands renewable energy financing, a grid that can respond to both changing demand and changing supply, and fundamental technological innovation that can push clean electrical generation down the cost/performance curve. The latter two of these are reliant on new generations of materials innovation that can only be enabled by following new research paths. Citrine is using its proprietary materials data mining platform and working with partners in government, academia, and industry to help solve these problems.
The Challenge of Renewables
The most obvious path to a reduction in carbon emissions is a strong shift toward renewable energy. Solar, wind, tidal power and others produce no carbon emissions, but present real challenges to the wide adoption that would help achieve the President’s emissions reduction goals.
There are many things that can happen culturally that might reduce Americans’ hunger for energy, but one thing is sure: we expect electricity to be there when we plug into an outlet. Unfortunately, most renewable energy sources are intermittent, so the only way they could cover a large percentage of our power needs would be to store energy for when it is needed. Grid storage, sadly, is not yet broadly deployable. As of 2013, all deployed storage has less than 0.00062% of our electrical grid’s capacity[2,3]. Being able to store and deploy intermittent energy sources require a major change in storage technologies: a combination of batteries, kinetic storage (flywheels, etc.), and pumped hydro. The two of these three that can be deployed without a conveniently placed mountain are batteries and kinetic storage, and both need major materials breakthroughs before they can be deployed at scale.
Even if the storage problem were solved, renewable power has just now broken cost parity with fossil energy, so without incentives, some power producers could select to install more fossil capacity. By further reducing the cost of renewable capacity, that decision goes away. To reduce the cost will require new breakthroughs in material and device technology as well as the creation of systems that are cheaper to install, maintain, and operate that current technologies. While this is most certainly an interdisciplinary opportunity, materials innovation plays a big role: cheaper and stronger magnets for wind turbines, lighter turbine blade materials, more efficient solar panels, coatings to prevent weathering, etc. These each would have a profound stimulus effect on the deployment of renewable capacity.
Fossil Isn’t Dead Yet
Though some outlets have been saying that these new policies mean the end for coal generation, and they may indeed lead to such an outcome over the course of decades, the coal industry isn’t going anywhere quite yet. Coal is on the decline, but it is still about 37% of our total power production[3,5]. When it comes down to it, burning ancient organic matter to power a turbine is a very efficient way to generate electricity. Fortunately, there is a materials opportunity in traditional fossil power. Coal, when burned at high temperature and pressure, can have substantially lower emissions than standard boiler designs, but alloys that can withstand the pressure and heat need to de developed, tested, and manufactured. Similarly, natural gas turbines could operate with lower emissions with materials optimized for extreme conditions. This is an area of active research for the Dept of Energy's Office of Fossil Energy (http://energy.gov/fe/office-fossil-energy).
Exciting Future Ahead
There is an exciting future ahead for power generation. President Obama’s announcement today opens the door to a future when we, as humans, are producing electricity in a way that does not unduly damage our planet. But it is also an ambitious goal that needs innovation at all levels to be reached. The materials community stands ready. Already, new innovation is taking place, led by in the government by ARPA-E (http://arpa-e.energy.gov)and the Materials Genome Initiative (http://www.mgi.gov). We at Citrine are proud to be at the forefront of solving just such challenges with great partners across the spectrum.