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For energy transition, the key word is sustainability, not politics

For energy transition, the key word is sustainability, not politics
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Two words — sustainable and transition — are frequently used when we talk about energy these days and unfortunately, the definitions are at best inconsistent and at worst, misleading. That makes agreeing on not just what we need to do, but how, especially difficult.  

Nevertheless, doing nothing is not an option. The transition to a sustainable energy system, commonly known as the energy transition, is the most challenging task the energy industry — and society as a whole — has ever faced. Today’s politically charged times make it more so. 

But the transition isn’t impossible. What is the goal? Quite simply it is one, ensuring both the developed world and the growing population in the developing world have access to reliable and affordable energy while two, dramatically reducing carbon emissions. It will require thoughtful implementation and empowering policies. It won’t be easy, but that’s OK. I served as an assistant energy secretary in the Obama administration, where the mantra that “hard things are hard” meant we kept our eye on the ball. That ball is emissions — not selecting fuels and feedstocks to eliminate but eliminating emissions. 

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We must stop with the extreme perspectives, the name-calling and self-serving points of view. Politics have no place in this debate.  

Smart policy, however, will be crucial. We need to start with agreement on a key point, already recognized by many in the energy sphere: All forms of energy must be in the discussion. It’s not about loving or hating a specific fuel, whether that’s hydrocarbons or wind and solar. It’s about reducing and eliminating emissions. Keeping our eye on the ball is the first order of any thoughtful strategy. 

A few suggested pathways are gaining momentum: 

Decarbonizing the hydrogen production process to produce a carbon-free transportation and heating fuel is a requirement. Tailpipe emissions are the number one contributor to carbon emissions; hydrogen is critical to reducing these emissions. Currently hydrogen is produced in an energy-intensive and carbon-emitting process; we can capture those emissions and make it cleaner. As the energy transition matures, we will be able to use carbon-free power to produce “green” hydrogen. Until then, we must deal with the emissions.  

We are adding renewable capacity to the electricity grid at record pace, hastened by both technology advancements and the use of subsidies to support the market in terms of rates, supply structure and tax dollars to investors in wind and solar. The goal is not 100 percent “renewables” — it is 100 percent “carbon-free.” This is not semantics. Reliability, cost and baseload 24/7 power is non-negotiable. Driving electric cars will impact emissions only if the electricity is carbon free.  

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So what will it take? Carbon Capture Utilization and Storage (CCUS) is the answer. 

Neither carbon-free hydrogen nor a carbon-free grid can happen without CCUS, the backbone of the sustainable energy future. CCUS is a suite of technologies used to capture carbon before it reaches the atmosphere and to safely and permanently store or use the carbon to create a value-added project. It has been demonstrated as commercially reliable. Its necessity isn’t just my opinion, but that of the International Energy Agency and the U.S. Energy Information Administration

In addition to its role in expanding hydrogen as an energy source and for the decarbonized electricity grid of the future, CCUS can lower emissions from existing oil and gas operations, petrochemical and electric power industries. It is a pragmatic recognition that hydrocarbons will be part of the global energy mix for years to come.  

Politically, CCUS has gained bipartisan support in the form of federal tax credits under Section 45Q of the tax code, and the marketplace is poised for further commercialization and investment. Acceleration of federal support of technology development and commercialization will allow us to take full advantage of the potential CCUS offers, just like the investment and market structure support we have for renewables today. 

We need to see CCUS for what it offers, and not as competition for renewables or any other “preferred choice” on the environmental agenda. This is not a zero sum game — we need to accelerate work to reduce emissions. We need all options on the table. 

Charles McConnell, a longtime energy executive and former U.S. assistant secretary of Energy, is executive director of Carbon Management and Energy Sustainability at the University of Houston.