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Changing the Energy Grid

DOE’s Advanced Research Projects Agency-Energy has earmarked $43 million to aid carbon capture and storage (CCS) technology development.

Through the U.S. Department of Energy, the Advanced Research Projects Agency-Energy has slated $43 million toward the FLExible Carbon Capture and Storage (FLECCS) program to develop carbon capture technologies that would be adaptable to variable renewable energy changes in the power grid. The program will be done in two phases, one to expire within 15 months of the start date and the following to extend over three years. 

Phase 1 is focused on designing and optimizing carbon capture and storage (CSS) processes that enable the flexibility required for power generators on a high VRE grid. It offers $7 million in federal funding to 25 applicants. The application period ends Dec. 23, 2019. 

From this batch of grantees, the Advanced Research Projects Agency-Energy will select the projects to excel to the next steps. Phase 2 will work to modify components, prototypes, and other technologies to reduce the cost/risk of the CCS systems being developed in Phase 1. This stage will occur over three years with a total budget of about $36 million. 


Carbon-capture and storage with FLECCS

Geological sequestration is the storing of carbon inside of underground rock formations. In a CCS system, carbon dioxide is captured and compressed into a fluid that is then transported via pipeline to an injector and shot into specially-designed wells within these formations. When injected deep enough, rock mixed with pressure from underground traps carbon in a layer away from surface water. 

The growing penetration of variable renewables in the energy grid is and will continue to change how conventional power plants operate, according to one program director at the Advanced Research Projects Agency-Energy. This concept is what sparked the FLECCS program.

For about 15 years, scientists and analysts have pondered the impact of renewables on power plant capacity within the grid by various prices and share inputs. Future power plants will need to be flexible and operate at reduced capacity factors. Designing power plants is a cyclical task, as the design determines various sub-costs and also has its own marginal cost. The latter amount determines the plant’s dispatch schedule that dictates the capacity and the energy-based revenue of the plant, which then drives future design and deployment decisions (Litzelman, 2019). 

The FLECCS program seeks design concepts for flexible CCS that will produce results in the form of (hopefully) reduced indifference price (or the carbon price that is needed to break even when implementing these systems rather than paying an operational fee). The program leaders also want to find optimal CCS designs for different pricing/share inputs as reflected in policies that affect the market. 

FLECCS funding opportunity announcement 

The funding opportunity with the Advanced Research Projects Agency-Energy is a project-based evaluation of “what if.” In certain regions, there will be assumptions about how prices will vary as the Advanced Research Projects Agency-Energy searches for results that could lead to a better understanding of ways the industry can adapt to CCS and respond to resource exchanges in the electricity grid. Phase 1 will challenge how one process would lower costs and how varying components affect how CCS power plants are built and dispatched. 

In order to be considered, applicants must convince program directors that their proposed effort represents an “innovative and potentially transformational solution to the technical challenges,” according to the application. Applicants must detail capital costs, operations/maintenance costs, as well as other information, in addition to a concept paper to be reviewed by the Advanced Research Projects Agency-Energy. 

FLECCS was designed to address the tension that is only expected to become more severe as systems decarbonize. According to the program’s home agency (the Advanced Research Projects Agency-Energy), CCS power plants are a low-carbon resource that can reduce the cost of transitioning into a net-zero carbon system. CCS-equipped power plants can be cost-effective against increasing renewable energy penetration in the grid. These instances, such as solar power, make CCS design hard to predict and more complex. FLECCS program leaders also developed the program to respond to market signals that have led to reduced capacity factors, increased operations and maintenance costs, and other issues.

The projects will be evaluated based on cost and performance in a net-zero carbon system. The organization hopes to provide flexible and economical direction for a low-carbon electrical system in the future. (Researchers behind the project were encouraged after finding that a low, $75/megawatts per hour, levelized cost of electricity is viable for a net-zero carbon electricity system.)

The goal of FLECCS is not to find answers relating to coproduction (carbon trading) or other utilizations for these facilities, nor does it hope to make use of other gases in any other form. FLECCS’ ultimate goal is to optimize CCS power plants for future grid priorities. 


A changing landscape

FLECCS Program Director Dr. Scott Litzelman recognizes the changing landscape of the energy grid. He, in introducing the program, questioned if there was a connection between power plants that are equipped with carbon capture and sequestration systems and the alternative energy inputs that are changing the energy grid. 

“Developments like VREs, energy storage, demand-side management, etc. are changing that paradigm. The output of renewables isn’t just variable: it’s uncertain,” Litzelman said in an announcement for the FLECCS program. 

He went on to explain that flexible CCS could be a successful piece in lowering the cost of decarbonization alongside “diverse and complementary technologies.” But with changing technologies and innovations in the sector, the grid is aging with power plant closures and a shifting energy market (Campbell, 2019). 

Increase in renewables

The U.S. grid is a hub for all electricity-generating power plants that deploy energy to residential, commercial, and industrial customers. The “Smart Grid” is the power network that is replacing “analog networks” at an inconsistent pace in the United States (Campbell, 2019). Energy infrastructure and programs are heavily influenced by methods of previous generations —  ones that were not witnesses to high shares of variable renewable energy. When, rather, policymakers should turn to an influencer that is making electricity is cheap/expensive in new patterns. The higher shares of this input are changing costs by location, and, perhaps more importantly, how we are able to predict these costs. Variable renewable energy is changing the power system and therefore should be considered more in federal decisions.

Fossil energy still accounts for 63 percent of the United States’ power generation — with renewables making up about 17 percent of the total electricity — demand on the grid is decreasing. The downturn is also shrinking any new capacity that would be needed for the eventual total decarbonization. The use of alternative fuels, such as solar and wind power, reduces the need for power from the grid. The Energy Information Administration estimates that renewables will jump to 24 percent of the total grid-based power generation by 2030, and then again to 31 percent in 2050. The Energy Information Administration also predicts that the next 30 years will be dominated by solar and natural-gas fueled electricity generation. 

Studies have found that variable renewable energy is displacing coal and natural gas generation. Some reductions could be as low as 50 percent, and that annual energy prices will continue to decline with these energy sources.

Some have predicted that the Smart Grid is the “key” to incorporating an influx of renewable electricity into the system, as it allows power intensity to be sent where it is most needed. This is an expensive way to modernize the grid, upwards of $200 billion at full deployment. The Department of Energy has not been mandated to fund any activities relating to grid modernization following decarbonization. 

Proposed legislation on decarbonization in 2019

Efforts to reduce greenhouse gas emissions without condemning the fossil energy industry has been a primary focus of the United States for several years. One avenue, as we have learned, is halted due to the need for more information and assurance that the fossil energy will still have a place on the grid without compromising too much of its bottom line. This article featured the newest of grants proposed from the federal government to initiate research and development to introduce retrofitting and novel systems that have input carbon and output electricity. But several more float in the United States House and Senate as Congress seeks the best method for lowering GHG.

For example, the House Science, Space and Technology Committee recently voted in favor of the Fossil Energy Research and Development Act, which would also amend the Energy Policy Act of 2005 in order to allow large-scale sequestration research to be conducted through the Regional Carbon Sequestration Partnerships.

Also, the Senate and the House have both filed versions of an amendment to the Clean Air Act called the USE IT Act (S.B. 383 and H.R. 1166), which directs the Environmental Protection Agency to research carbon-capture; the Department of Energy to comprise a report of risks and benefits of projects to increase carbon storage in deep saline formations and offer policy recommendations; and the Council on Environmental Quality to prepare a report on permits and review procedures for CCS projects and publish guidance on pipelines and storage projects. Both bills are in the early stages of the legislative process. 

Amending the Energy Policy Act of 2005, S.B. 1201, the EFFECT ACT, would direct the Department of Energy to conduct research on large-volume storage of carbon dioxide and carry out demonstration projects for large-scale storage. A report would also need to be submitted to Congress on the findings on such research and demonstrations. The bill has been put on the Senate’s legislative calendar. 

The last bill to discuss in 2019 is the CO2 Regulatory Certainty Act, which has been referred to the Committee on Finance within the Senate. This rule would amend the Internal Revenue Code to revise the requirements for secure geological storage of carbon for tax credits for permanent sequestration and enhanced oil recovery. This would also require the Department of the Treasury to establish procedures as these requirements, which cover compliance with other statutes and other rules around carbon released into the atmosphere.  


U.S. Department of Energy (2019). “Department of Energy Announces $43 Million to Develop Carbon Capture and Storage Technology”

Joachim Seel, Andrew Mills, Ryan Wiser (2018). “Impacts of High Variable Renewable Energy Futures on Wholesale Electricity Prices, and on Electric-Sector Decision Making” Electricity Markets Policy Group

Richard Campbell (2019). “An Electric Grid Based on 100% Renewable

Energy?” Congressional Research Service

Angela Jones (2019). “Carbon Sequestration Legislation in the 116th Congress” Congressional Research Service 

ARPA-E Press & Public Affairs (2019). “You’d Better FLECCS Yourself Before You Wreck Yourself.” Advanced Research Projects Agency-Energy 

Scott Litzelman, Max Tuttman et al (2019). “Flexible carbon capture and storage for future renewable-heavy grids”  Advanced Research Projects Agency-Energy 

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