How Playing Whack-a-Mole With Dirty Power Can Help the World Reach Net Zero
Understanding the real-time mix of power sources in electricity grids could be a win-win for companies and the planet.
In 2018, the most authoritative group of climate scientists defined our climate mission simply and directly. The world needs to eliminate carbon dioxide pollution by midcentury and halve it, below the 2010 level, by 2030. Countries, cities, businesses and investors heard this and acted.
They largely heard this to mean that companies and governments need net-zero plans. But that’s not what the UN Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change said. The scientists said that Earth needs a net-zero plan.
As I wrote back in June, there’s a difference between a company meeting its own net-zero plan and contributing to efforts to meet the planet’s. For instance, oil and gas companies may sell their polluting assets to meet climate commitments. But it makes no difference to the atmosphere if private equity firms then buy and operate them.
“We’re seeing an increasing trend toward pass-the-buck environmentalism,” says Gavin McCormick, co-founder and executive director of WattTime, a nonprofit offering technology that, among other things, tracks the real-time intensity of electricity emissions by US zip code. The perspective is almost, “‘I can optimize my carbon footprint. That’s going to increase everybody else’s, but I get to claim I’m green,’” he says.
In the electricity sector, the problem is thorny. The climate-friendliness of any power grid changes every hour of the day as a shifting array of sources — solar, wind, gas, nuclear, hydro — meets ever-fluctuating demand. That makes carbon accounting, especially for an individual company, difficult.
For years, companies trying to estimate their use of clean power relied on a simple calculation. They essentially looked at the generation mix in a power grid and its annual emissions, and divided it by their share of the electricity. They bought renewable energy credits to match their CO₂ emissions.
But an average, annual calculation of something as dynamic as power generation dramatically simplifies a complicated picture.
For a few years now, several large companies, including Alphabet Inc.’s Google and Microsoft Corp., have explored “24/7 carbon-free energy” as a way to ensure that every hour, all year long, is tracked and covered by renewable energy generation. Google expects to achieve 24/7 CFE by 2030. The company last year launched the 24/7 Carbon Free Energy Compact, a project managed by the UN group Sustainable Energy for All, to bring together everyone involved in changing power generation and delivery, including energy purchasers and suppliers, governments at every level, grid operators, investors and researchers.
Google also publishes updates to its 24/7 strategy, which includes identifying all the hours in a year each of its facilities still relies on dirty power, and layering in more resources to clean them up. Down the line, growing demand — plus investment, technology development and policy — should gradually replace dirty power generation with new technologies.
Think of it as dirty power whack-a-mole. Corporations, nonprofits, foundations and government agencies are trying to develop and standardize practices that will provide actionable, real-time information on sources and end users of electricity.
As they do that, new questions are arising:
How granular in time and location should the data be?
What is being measured — megawatts of renewable power, avoided power emissions or something else?
And finally, what is the desired goal? To meet a company’s carbon goals or the world’s?
Even with growing consensus around 24/7 monitoring, different parties can nonetheless still have different — sometimes competing, sometimes complementary — answers to the second and third questions. For some, like WattTime, preventing emissions that would contribute to planetary warming is the most productive direction. That’s why it’s been working with Salesforce Inc. and steelmaker Nucor Corp. to align their renewable energy investment with maximum avoided emissions. Consulting with WattTime, Salesforce chose to buy power from a solar farm in Australia because it reduced significantly more emissions than a similar purchase on a cleaner grid, such as California’s.
Until now, power investments have been made largely with a focus on maximizing revenue and reliability. Now they need to help the world reach net zero, too.
Meta Platforms Inc., the power data and analytics company Resurety Inc., and Broad Reach Power, which owns and operates clean energy projects in the US, last week launched an Energy Storage Solutions Consortium. The group wants to set up a freely available and independently approved method to measure the planetary greenhouse gas savings associated with grid-scale energy storage. The goal is to make sure battery-stored renewable power is displacing fossil-generated electricity.
Jesse Jenkins, a Princeton University professor whose Zero Lab conducts sophisticated modeling experiments on 24/7 carbon-free power, last week released a study showing how a market for energy certificates could help clean up a grid. Companies could buy and sell certificates that verify hourly clean-energy purchases. Those with lots of their own renewable energy could generate certificates and sell them to others who want to get in the game but can’t afford to buy their own generators.
Building a market to channel demand for clean power ultimately should drive deployment of more and more resources, much as power-purchase agreements have done in recent years.
Ensuring solar-fed batteries discharge when the grid is dirtiest and hourly renewable certificates, could help move the Earth closer to net zero. But that’s usually not what companies pursuing “net zero” write their press releases about.
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