Here’s how we can build clean power infrastructure at huge scale and breakneck speed

A new report outlines the radical reforms and paradigm shifts that decarbonization will demand.

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The U.S. can cut its carbon emissions to zero by 2050 — but it will have to build far more wind and solar farms, battery storage facilities, transmission lines and still-unproven energy systems than it’s ever built before to get there. And that won’t happen without a drastic transformation in every aspect of how this infrastructure is built today. 

So says a new report from Australian engineering company Worley, based on last year’s groundbreaking modeling of a U.S. net-zero carbon future by a Princeton University–led research team.

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The challenge will include quadrupling the already record-setting pace of wind and solar development set in recent years, doubling or tripling U.S. transmission grid capacity and replacing most fossil-fueled vehicles and building heating with electric-powered systems by mid-century. It could also entail building a fleet of long-duration energy storage systems, advanced nuclear reactors and carbon capture and storage facilities — all of which have yet to be successfully commercialized.

Ambition, targets, agreements and technology development are all necessary, but alone they are not enough to achieve our mid-century targets,” Worley CEO Chris Ashton said in the report’s introduction. This chart highlights the gap that will remain between zero-carbon goals and their realization, even after the government policies to enable it have been implemented.

Image credit: Worley

The simple reason for this gap is that building massive energy projects is a complicated and time-consuming process. Worley cited the example of a roughly 200-megawatt solar farm, considered an exemplar of solar project delivery,” that took three and a half years to complete. The Princeton study, by contrast, indicates the U.S. will need to build 800 MW of new solar power every week for the next 30 years if it’s to achieve its 100 percent renewables pathway to net-zero.

If renewables grow at only the already record-setting pace set in 2020, by contrast, the country will need to rely on nuclear power and carbon capture and storage for natural gas power plants to reach its net-zero goal. But these technologies have yet to be built at a commercially viable scale.

Solar farms are relatively quick to build, compared to the other pieces of the zero-carbon puzzle. Offshore wind is still in its infancy in the U.S., and transmission projects are notoriously difficult to build, often taking up to a decade from inception to completion. But the speed of connecting new projects to the grid can be constrained at multiple stages unrelated to how long it takes to build them.

A recent study from Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory found that the amount of wind, solar and energy storage projects in the interconnection queues of U.S. transmission grid operators and the largest utilities could supply half of the zero-carbon energy needed to hit the Biden administration’s goal of halving electricity sector carbon emissions by 2030, for example. But the time it takes for projects to interconnect to power grids has been growing over the past decade.

Meanwhile, the more novel technologies that would be needed to decarbonize the grid in the absence of 100 percent renewable energy would have to be well into their planning stages by 2030 if they’re to be completed by 2050, the report states.

Image credit: Worley

Given the disconnects between these timelines and the urgency of the climate crisis, the urgent imperative is for governments and industry to shift focus to the practical challenge of delivering a previously unimagined pace and scale of infrastructure development and engineered solutions,” Ashton said.

As the report stresses, unless timelines are dramatically compressed and projects are kicked off sooner, we will fail.”

How to transform clean energy development

As an international engineering services firm with experience in the oil and gas sectors, Worley has some recommendations for revamping business-as-usual processes to get this done. One key innovation would be to move from the bespoke” nature of many large-scale energy projects today to a more standardized process, both in terms of how they’re designed and how they’re financed, the report noted.

Worley cited examples of modular” system designs that can drastically cut down on the time to build projects, from the emergency shipbuilding program the U.S. undertook during World War II, to Worley’s experience with a set of cloned” chemicals plants built in China and South Africa, using the same designs and the same equipment.

We need to bring the global supply chain players, and their logistics partners, into the process early on,” the report states, to avoid supply bottlenecks and shortages like those now facing the solar and battery industries. Governments will need to underwrite developments to give private industries across the supply chain the confidence to invest in supplying this pipeline of future projects, it finds.

Similar practices could help wring inefficiencies out of the project-by-project process of securing financing, according to the report. Today it can take years for a project developer to identify opportunities, conduct feasibility studies, engage multiple stakeholders and secure the engineering and financing needed to pull the trigger on moving ahead — all efforts that must be repeated for the next project.

Combining these efforts for a larger number of similar projects could save a lot of time and effort, the report states. This chart uses the example of five offshore wind projects that use standardized equipment and share resources in a parallel fashion, compared to each being developed and built in sequence — the kind of efficiencies that energy experts say will be needed to meet the Biden administration’s ambitions for offshore wind development and transmission grid build-outs.

Image credit: Worley

Both of these shifts indicate a leading role for governments to organize and backstop private-sector activity, not just within nations but between them. We need to see open-book contracts with transparent, auditable margins,” the report states. We need everyone who’s capable of pushing toward net zero — governments, vendors, contractors and communities — to do so.”

This kind of collaboration may run counter to the competitive nature of private enterprise, the report acknowledges. But in the long run, it could enable much faster growth across the sectors where it’s implemented — and there’s plenty of net-zero transition work to go around.”

Digital technology to track and optimize the process of building and operating these assets will also be critical, the report states. 

So will finding ways to expand how society considers and shares value” — a rubric that includes boosting the economic value of carbon-reduction efforts for investors, as well as for the communities that will face serious disruptions from the changes involved.

This map of the St. Louis, Missouri region indicates just how dramatically the kind of zero-carbon energy build-out being contemplated will affect the community. Based on the Princeton study’s high-electrification pathway, it marks all the locations where wind farms, solar farms and transmission lines will have to be built to meet its zero-carbon goals.

Image credit: Worley

It’s clear governments and companies could face resistance to these projects from local landowners and neighboring communities,” the report notes. But if they can carry out the transition so that people understand and experience the benefits, there is a stronger chance of building and maintaining the support needed.”

(Lead photo by Science in HD / Unsplash)

Jeff St. John is the editor-in-chief of Canary Media. He covers the technology, economic and regulatory issues influencing the global transition to low-carbon energy. He served as managing editor and senior grid edge editor of Greentech Media.