Tamir Kalifa/The New York Times

An Exxon complex in Baytown, Texas, in an effort to reduce greenhouse gas emissions, is beginning to modify its practices by electrifying their operation with energy from renewable sources.

January 26, 2022

Global Energy Leaders Discuss Transition Toward Renewable Power

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Throughout November and December 2021, the SC Johnson College of Business Center and the Cornell Energy Club hosted the 2021 Cornell Energy Connection –– a gathering of world energy industry leaders, which discussed the impending transition of power sources away from fossil fuels and toward renewables.

The three-part series featured panelists who discussed energy transition, decarbonization and electrification to mitigate climate change. The speakers approached energy transformations through the lenses of technology, social and economic impact and political intervention. 

The first event of the series,“How Natural Gas Could Fit a Clean Energy Future,” took place on Nov. 12. Business executives in the energy sector Areli Covarrubias, Lance Crist ’87 and Ricardo Hernandez explored the implications of an increasing global demand for electricity. They discussed the serious challenges it creates as a direct threat to energy security, defined as accessibility to affordable, secure and continuous energy sources. 

Covarrubias, the commercial director for natural gas at Sempra Infrastructure, said that communities should not rely solely on the finite resource of natural gas. However, Covarrubias said that natural gas is a cleaner energy source than oil or coal, and it can aid in the global transition towards a renewable future, especially in developing countries.

To decrease poverty and increase the global standard of living while displacing the use of fossil fuels, Covarrubias said that natural gas should replace oil and gas in developing nations before they can transition to renewables. 

“In developing countries, there is high expectation for energy demand and growth through coal,” said Crist, the global head of equity for infrastructure at the International Finance Corporation.

However, the world’s growing energy demand may exacerbate the rate of climate change. Crist stated that employing carbon capturing and eliminating methane are necessary steps toward ensuring that natural gas is an efficient source of energy.

The United States, along with several other nations, is crafting policies to embark on a renewable energy path, not only through natural gas, but also hydrogen. Hydrogen produces more energy and less carbon emissions than natural gas. However, like natural gas, it is not a fuel. Further, it requires a separate fuel source for generation.

In “Green Hydrogen as a Low-Carbon Step Toward Net-Zero,” hosted on Nov. 19, the conversation centered around the recently passed U.S. Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act that will fund $1 billion for clean electrolysis systems’ development and commercialization.

According to Katrina Fritz, the executive director at Stationary Fuel Cell Collaborative, the act will focus on several areas in which fuels like hydrogen are already utilized on a small scale. For example, in ferry transportation, initiatives are encouraging longer trips and greater hydrogen implementation for larger ships.

John Stevens, the senior managing consultant at Energy and Environmental Economics Inc., said that hydrogen is meant to eliminate carbon emissions from certain sectors, including transportation, in which fuel is functionally necessary. Solar and wind power aren’t necessarily viable energy sources for such sectors. 

Another initiative centers on efforts to make electricity the main source of power in everyday life activities — such as driving in electric vehicles and living in smart homes — eliminating the need for fossil fuel sources altogether. 

But, as demand for electricity rises, the real challenge shifts towards the capacity of a power grid to withstand the further electrification in urban and rural areas, an instrumental part of replacing fossil fuel technologies with electric equivalents. 

In the final event of the series, called “The Future of the Grid and Path to Decarbonization,” hosted on Dec. 3, 2021, energy storage and supply executives Alicia Barton, Kate McGinnis and Jeff Weiss said that legislation is key to developing a power grid that will support a solely electrified society. However, the exact implementation remains very complex as fossil fuels cannot be displaced so quickly.

“If we decide that we need to continue relying on fossil fuels we [also need to] consider environmental justice in the communities affected,” said Alicia Barton, chief executive officer of FirstLight Power.

Barton explained that the transition to renewable energy will not be a straightforward one, and economies will likely continue to rely on fossil fuels and non-renewable sources. However, Barton said the inclusion of communities affected by fossil fuel use should remain a top priority. 

According to Barton, a focus on economic and governmental policy is necessary as several regulatory actions – for example, the lack of public funding for renewable energy sources – should evolve to include more climate conscious regulations. 

“[This all comes] as a great challenge,” said Kate McGinnis, managing director of global strategy and partnership at Fluence. “But [surely] as an opportunity.”