Emerging Technologies

Energy Transition Steals the Spotlight at CERAWeek

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Fervor has grown stronger and more palpable around energy transition solutions — evidenced by throngs of delegates and curious onlookers who filled a Houston convention center this week to hear about the latest technologies and trends that will shepherd the industry through the transition. “Innovation Agora” is the conference-within-a-conference known collectively as CERAWeek by S&P Global. It’s a hipper, younger sibling to the more staid and conventional “executive” event held in an adjacent hotel. Agora, launched several years ago, was first seen as a peculiar offshoot of the now 41-year-old main event but has since transformed into a major global conference in its own right — a sign that low-carbon solutions are gaining unstoppable momentum. Step into Agora at midday and the excitement is on full display, with buzzing crowds waiting to hear about the hottest topics in low-carbon energy, from hydrogen to carbon removal to geothermal to e-fuels and more. Most sessions are standing-room only; delegates wonder aloud if the event has already outgrown the sprawling venue.

Interest in the energy transition has been building for years, but it is hard to separate the zeal on display at Agora this year with the passage last August of the landmark Inflation Reduction Act (IRA), legislation that continues to drive discussion and investment planning. “This is the most impactful, large investment ever made in renewable energy in the history of our country — to say it’s a big deal is an understatement,” Meghan Nutting, executive vice president of government and regulatory affairs for solar firm Sunnova, said of the bill, which offers some $370 billion to developers of clean energy projects in the US. While the flood of visitors to Agora were not there solely to grapple with the implications of the IRA, its presence pervaded nearly every conversation.

Legislative Limitations

But this was not only an opportunity for presenters to fawn over the generous incentives and subsidies the IRA has made available to several nascent and developing sectors. As some of the initial euphoria over the IRA’s potential has started to fade, companies are now beginning to focus more on the law’s limitations. Project developers are eagerly awaiting guidance from the US Treasury Department on how it will implement some of the investment and production tax credits in the IRA, as well as additional tax credits for storing CO2 and producing clean hydrogen. Proponents are hopeful that guidance could start rolling out as soon as the end of this month, but some are preparing to be disappointed. Certain local content requirements for wind and solar, for example, could prevent many companies from claiming the full allotment of credits. “We’ll get initial guidance on what we need to do to comply … and then we will probably not love it and push back,” Nutting said.

Larger questions around permitting, social license and infrastructure are also not going away. Permitting in particular is “all folks want to talk about” in Houston and Washington, said Joseph Majkut, director of the Energy Security and Climate Change Program at the Center for Strategic and International Studies. Regulatory issues, social opposition and lack of transmission infrastructure “are all aspects of potential deployment constraints and limitations that we clearly need to address in order to fully realize the potential benefits” of the IRA, said Dan Steinberg, a senior researcher at the National Renewable Energy Laboratory.

Hydrogen Highs

Interest in hydrogen remains as high as ever: “We should call CERAWeek, ‘hydrogen week,'” quipped one moderator. In addition to high-level panels, Agora showcases some of the most innovative tech startups operating today, with a heavy dose of hydrogen. “Green” hydrogen developers like Ohmium and Ambient Fuels pitched their strategies (while another panel discussed the uselessness of the hydrogen “rainbow”). Syzygy Plasmonics showed off its novel way of producing hydrogen and other chemicals from light and other simple materials; Starfire Energy presented its own method of producing ammonia from clean hydrogen and a system for efficiently cracking ammonia back into hydrogen. Still, some warned of overhyping hydrogen as a “silver bullet” for decarbonization. “People are waiting for the magic hydrogen bullet to be ready and they’re not doing other things that they could do to decarbonize,” said LanzaTech CEO Jennifer Holmgren.

Direct air capture (DAC) was another hot topic that found its way into many ancillary discussions. “DAC is a Swiss army knife — it can solve basically anything as a climate solution. It’s not perfect for every one of them, but it fits different spots for us to be net zero,” Robert Zeller, vice president of technology for Oxy Low Carbon Ventures, told Energy Intelligence. Oxy, of course, is building what would be the world’s largest DAC plant and used the CERAWeek spotlight to unveil Siemens Energy as its chosen supplier of crucial compression equipment for its first project.

For all the excitement at Agora, some presenters urged listeners not to let it get in the way of sound business strategies. Barbara Burger, a former Chevron executive and current senior advisor for Lazard, said business models for deploying new technologies have not been emphasized enough. “We’re enamored by technology, which is really important, but converting technology to a … business model where we understand the revenue, we understand the infrastructure required, we understand how we capitalize … has not gotten enough attention,” she said.

Hydrogen, Emerging Technologies, Renewable Electricity , CO2 Emissions, Low-Carbon Policy, Carbon Capture (CCS)
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