Decarbonization refers to the reduction or elimination of carbon dioxide emissions produced by fossil-fuel sources like coal, oil, and natural gas. The greenhouse gases produced by these heavily polluting energy sources trap heat and cause the Earth’s average temperatures to rise, leading to climate change. Decarbonization is vital for combating the accelerated rise in global temperatures brought about by industrialization and human activity.
Decarbonization is often thought of in terms of reducing carbon intensity or decreasing carbon dioxide output per unit of electricity generated. The main objective of decarbonization is to reach net-zero emissions, in which the amount of manmade greenhouse gases released into the atmosphere is balanced with an equivalent amount being taken out.
Why Is Decarbonization Important?
Climate change’s adverse effects on our world have been studied extensively, and the findings are clear: Without significant decarbonization, we could see a global temperature increase of more than 2° Celsius by the end of the century. This would have far-reaching negative consequences for all living species on Earth. To prevent these changes, humans need to reach net-zero emissions by 2050, but government commitments worldwide fall far short of what is required to achieve this goal.
The Effects of Not Decarbonizing
Climate change will have far-reaching, harmful effects on humans and other living species if we do not expand and improve our decarbonization strategies. Here are a few examples of the potential consequences of not decarbonizing.
Rising Sea Levels
Melting polar ice caps and glaciers, coupled with the thermal expansion of the seas, could lead to a significant rise in sea levels that would threaten coastal cities, island nations, and delta regions.
Loss of Biodiversity
A temperature change of 2° Celsius, or 3.6° Fahrenheit, amounts to life and death for many species. Not only would these species face extinction, but their loss would have a knock-on effect of endangering the health of all species in an ecosystem, including humans.
Increased carbon dioxide means higher carbonic acid levels in oceans, which harms all marine life, especially coral reefs. Without these natural barriers absorbing ocean wave energy and reducing shoreline erosion, coastal regions would see more devastating storms, surges, and flooding.
Changes in the atmosphere may lead to a higher frequency of extreme weather events, including hurricanes, droughts, heatwaves, and flooding. These events not only mean lives lost — they also create long-term damage to economies and infrastructure for years afterward.
Food Security and Water Scarcity
Increasing droughts and flooding could diminish agricultural yields and impact global food supply chains. Because of altered precipitation patterns, terrestrial water storage — including soil moisture, snow, and ice — has already dropped at a rate of 1 centimeter per year in the last 20 years, depleting our access to usable freshwater.
Energy Decarbonization Around the World
In response to these dangers, world leaders from 194 countries and the European Union agreed to a historic treaty called The Paris Agreement in 2015, pledging their commitment to limiting global warming to well below 2°C. More than 70 countries, including China, the United States, and the European Union, have set net-zero targets by 2050, covering about 76% of global emissions. In the private sector, the Science-Based Targets Initiative — an international partnership between the United Nations Global Compact, the World Wildlife Fund, and others — is working with thousands of major businesses and institutions to implement decarbonization solutions and reduce emissions.
Advancements in energy efficiency reduce overall energy consumption, which not only decreases emissions but also helps with the decarbonization of energy at the grid level. Less energy consumption overall means power plants do not need to resort to fossil fuels to meet the demand for energy. Here are a few examples of innovations in energy efficiency that support decarbonization efforts.
- LED Lighting: LEDs consume significantly less energy than traditional incandescent and fluorescent bulbs, leading to decreased electricity use.
- High-Efficiency Appliances: Modern appliances, like Energy Star-rated refrigerators, washers, and dryers, use less energy for the same functionality.
- Heating & Cooling: Improved insulation materials and techniques, such as double-paned windows, conserve energy by reducing the need for heating and cooling.
- Energy Management: Smart thermostats optimize heating and cooling in homes, while building management systems optimize energy use in commercial buildings by automating and integrating energy-consuming processes.
- Energy-Efficient Transport: Fuel-efficient and hybrid vehicles reduce fuel consumption and associated emissions.
- Advanced Power Strips: They prevent electronics from using power when not in operation, eliminating “phantom” energy loads.
- Water-Saving Technologies: Efficient fixtures and appliances reduce the energy required to pump, treat, and heat water.
Industrial carbon emissions accounted for up to 30% of U.S. greenhouse gas emissions in 2021, and the industry sector needs to implement specialized decarbonization technology for mitigating their high emissions. Some industry-specific strategies for energy efficiency are:
- High-Efficiency Motors: Modern industrial motors are designed to consume less energy for the same output compared to older models.
- Variable Speed Drives (VSDs): These allow motors to run only at the speeds needed for specific tasks, minimizing energy waste.
- Heat Recovery Systems: These capture and reuse waste heat from industrial processes, reducing the need for additional heating.
- Precision Monitoring Tools: Instruments like flow meters and temperature sensors help maintain optimal operating conditions, saving energy.
- Cogeneration, or Combined Heat and Power: This process simultaneously produces electricity and useful heat from the same energy source, optimizing energy use.
- Waste Minimization: Reducing waste in manufacturing processes often leads to reduced energy consumption, as less energy is wasted producing unusable products.
- Eco-Friendly Cooling Systems: Using natural cooling or high-efficiency chillers reduces the energy consumed for temperature control in manufacturing environments.
The last few decades have seen remarkable advancements in renewable energy. Unlike fossil fuels, which form over millions of years from the remains of dead plants and animals then release carbon compounds when burned, energy from renewable sources like the sun, wind, and water is replenished at a higher rate than it is consumed.
Solar energy, once expensive and inefficient, is now cheaper than coal or gas energy. Improvements in turbine design have helped optimize wind and hydroelectric power, converting kinetic energy to electricity with more efficiency. These sources are pivotal for a carbon-neutral future. The International Energy Agency projects that the world’s total renewable electricity capacity will rise to 4500 gigawatts through 2024, equal to the total power output of China and the United States combined.
Electrification and Battery Technology
Electrification, the process of replacing direct fossil fuel usage with electricity, is a crucial component of decarbonization because it facilitates the transition from high-emission energy sources to cleaner, renewable alternatives. Battery technology is at the heart of this transition. Effective battery technology ensures that the benefits of electrification are fully realized, even in the face of fluctuating renewable energy outputs.
Man-made carbon emissions can decrease significantly if major sectors like transportation, heating, and industry can shift from gasoline, diesel, or coal to electricity — especially if that power is generated using sustainable means like wind, solar, or hydro. However, energy sources like solar and wind are inherently intermittent sources of energy; they don’t generate power all the time.
This is where long-duration energy storage systems come into play. Advanced battery systems can store energy when renewable generation exceeds demand then release it during periods of low generation or peak demand. Such capabilities not only allow for a higher integration of renewables into the grid but also enhance grid stability, thereby preventing blackouts and maintaining consistent power supply.
Battery Technology for Decarbonization
One factor that’s critical to the success of these decarbonization strategies: better battery technology. Because decarbonizing is a long-term effort, the battery systems underpinning clean energy efforts must also stand up to long-term usage with consistently high performance. Here are a few criteria for battery technology powering decarbonization.
- High Energy Density: Batteries with high energy density can store more energy in a smaller space, making them suitable for residential applications and powering electric vehicles, which require substantial power without adding significant weight or bulk.
- Long Lifespans: Long-lasting batteries mean less energy and emissions needed to produce replacements.
- Withstands Numerous Deep Charge/Discharge Cycles: Batteries that can maintain stable performance over repeated charge and discharge cycles without significant capacity loss ensure consistent energy storage over time, maximizing decarbonization through renewable energy capture.
- Chemical Stability: Stable batteries are less prone to malfunctions or catastrophic failures like explosions or fires, ensuring safe integration of energy storage systems into homes, businesses, and vehicles.
- Low Cost: Batteries produced with materials that are abundant in nature and readily accessible can enable countries all around the world to reap the benefits of battery storage. Developing countries are often the most reliant on carbon-intensive fuels such as diesel and kerosene, and stand to benefit most from access to batteries, if cost barriers are not present.
- Environmentally Friendly: Batteries designed with minimal environmental impact, both in terms of their materials and manufacturing processes, promote supply chain decarbonization by reducing the heavy emissions associated with battery production and disposal.
Lithium-ion (Li-ion) batteries are the prevalent energy storage technology on the market, but they do not meet all these requirements. Li-ion battery production is in fact a heavily polluting process that undermines decarbonization. Mining the scarce minerals for Li-ion batteries consumes vast amounts of energy, most of which comes from fossil fuels. The Li-ion battery supply chain is also concentrated in a few countries, requiring high transportation costs and carbon emissions for most countries to gain access to the batteries.
Alsym’s alternative energy storage technology is non-toxic, high-performing, and low-cost. Our new technology offers the potential for improved renewable energy storage, long-duration usage at power plants, and lower carbon emissions during battery production — all features that bolster global efforts for decarbonization.
How to Advance Battery Technology for Decarbonization
Governments and private sectors worldwide can spur energy decarbonization by incentivizing the development of better battery technology through subsidies, tax credits, and funding opportunities. The U.S. Department of Energy’s Long-Duration Storage Shot initiative is a step in the right direction, funding various long-duration energy storage projects, including researching new materials and chemistries plus developing new manufacturing processes.
Additionally, the Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act of 2021 (IIJA) and Inflation Reduction Act of 2022 include provisions for the expansion of domestic battery production and the development of grid-scale technologies. But the efficacy of these government initiatives will depend on where the funds are going within the battery industry.
In the private sector, venture capital firms and growth equity funds have significantly increased investment in the development of new battery technologies, a reflection of growing societal interest in decarbonization trends.
The Future of Decarbonization
The race to reach net-zero carbon emissions is paramount in the fight against climate change. The dire consequences of failing to decarbonize, such as rising sea levels, biodiversity loss, and threats to food security, underscore the importance of better decarbonization technology. Worldwide commitments like the Paris Agreement and private-sector initiatives demonstrate a shared commitment to decarbonizing our energy grid. However, for these efforts to be truly effective, advancements in energy efficiency, renewable energy, electrification, and particularly battery technology are essential. While lithium-ion batteries have their place, Alsym’s alternative solution presents more sustainable and efficient prospects. Learn more about how Alsym’s revolutionary technology will be pivotal in steering our world toward a sustainable, carbon-neutral future.