Mitsubishi-Hitachi Americas CEO on moving the next gigawatt of clean power

Lawmakers, regulators, power generators, entrepreneurs, developers and environmentalists have long debated the future of energy policy in America. But one thing is clear: The availability of affordable, reliable and environmentally responsible electricity is vital.

One gigawatt is a lot of power. It’s roughly the amount of generation capacity needed to power a million electric vehicles. As we think about the future, we must look beyond the horizon and think in terms of where we will get the many gigawatts of energy that will be required for the future.

Failing to do so not only has economic implications and environmental ramifications, it could negatively shape the quality of life for generations to come. This is especially true as more and more parts of our daily lives become electrified. We need a realistic and forward-thinking path to the next gigawatt.

Market forces and governmental policies in recent years have driven important innovations and major cost reductions for wind and solar projects in the U.S. At the same time, the emergence of increasingly affordable natural gas that has much lower carbon emissions than other fossil fuels has moved generators away from oil and coal in the power sector. And the results from this combined deployment of natural gas and renewable power are encouraging.

During the past decade, we have seen a 15 percent reduction in carbon dioxide emissions from the U.S. power sector, and at the same time we’ve seen a reduction in electricity costs in most parts of the nation.

So what’s next? The combination of natural gas and renewables will continue to reduce U.S. power sector emissions in the coming decade, but to continue on this path of abundant, affordable and reliable electricity with reduced emissions we need to start solving the problem of dispatchable clean power. We need to start thinking about an electrical distribution system that can move power in both space and time.

This means energy storage and more regional coordination to move power from when and where the wind is blowing and the sun is shining to when and where energy consumption is occurring. We also need to think about a carbon storage system that can collect carbon emissions at the power plant and transport them to sequestration sites.

Some people would argue for one of these solutions and not the other. The problem with that thinking is that both technologies are in their developmental stages, and it’s not clear exactly what solutions will emerge as technologists and energy entrepreneurs search for the next gigawatt. As we face the challenges and costs of power storage and carbon storage, we should look to recent history for guidance.

Ten years ago, some technologists and entrepreneurs looked backward at the installed base of renewables and saw high costs and unreliable equipment. But those looking forward saw that technology and manufacturing advances would bring falling costs and improved reliability. People focused on the next gigawatt in 2007 made the right choices.

Today, people looking at carbon capture and power storage history see high costs and unreliable projects that missed budgets and schedules. But those looking at the future see technology and manufacturing advances that will bring falling costs and improved project execution.

At Mitsubishi Hitachi Power Systems we are already a recognized leader when it comes to the modern gas turbine power plants that helped make the last decade of power sector progress possible. We made investments a decade ago due to our belief in the future of natural gas and renewables. Today these highly reliable turbines are setting new standards for efficiency, with dramatically lower emissions than the coal-fired power plants they often replace, and they’re driving down the cost of electricity in the U.S.

As we focus on the next gigawatt in 2017, we’re continuing to deploy natural gas and renewables, but we’re also emerging as a leader in clean coal and energy storage technology. Just outside of Houston is the Petra Nova project, which is capturing 90 percent of the carbon dioxide from a large coal-fired power plant, piping it 40 miles to a nearby oil field, where the carbon dioxide is pumped underground to enhance oil production.

And in Japan, we have two facilities under development that will help redefine coal as an energy resource by gasifying coal and then using our gas turbine technology to convert it to electric power. In fact, these two power plants will power the Tokyo Olympics in 2020.

Moving forward we must ask a fundamental question: is it better to pay to store electricity, pay to store carbon or do both? The answer must take into account that power storage and carbon storage can both be cost effective and viable solutions that can play an important part in decarbonizing the power grids of the U.S. and the world.

Deployment of dispatchable clean power will require supportive policy, just as deployment of renewables did during the past decade. Storing carbon will always be more expensive than releasing it into the atmosphere for free, and power storage technologies like batteries need support while the industry scales. We should use state mandates and federal subsidies to encourage these technologies as we search for the next gigawatt.

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