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Carbon Cycle 2.0 Energy and Environmental Analysis Team Evaluates Impacts of Technology R&D

It's a grand challenge: develop clean, sustainable technologies that deliver a low-carbon energy future, and through innovation create jobs, new markets, and exports while increasing America's energy security.

Researchers at Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory (Berkeley Lab) have made it their mission to develop low-carbon and energy-efficient technologies such as advanced materials and information technology for buildings; next-generation biofuels; new battery, fuel cell, and thermoelectric energy-storage technologies; and carbon capture and sequestration technologies. This Lab-wide effort, called Carbon Cycle 2.0, brings together teams of scientists from throughout Berkeley Lab to research and develop sustainable energy solutions at the lab where modern team-based science was first developed and practiced in the 1930s, by founding Director Ernest O. Lawrence.

But what impact will these technologies—still in the laboratory, but not yet in the marketplace—actually have? How much will they reduce the use of energy, water, and materials throughout their life cycles, how much could they mitigate climate change, and what are their health and economic impacts?

Scientists in Berkeley Lab's Environmental Energy Technologies Division (EETD), in cooperation with their Lab colleagues, have formed a team to evaluate these impacts: the Carbon Cycle 2.0 Energy and Environmental Analysis Team (E2AT), led by EETD's Eric Masanet.

"It's a fairly new approach for the Lab," says Masanet, "to use the analytic lenses we've developed here in EETD to analyze the costs, and energy, water, materials, and climate change impacts of technologies that are still in the research and development phases. This effort is scientifically much more challenging than analyses of technologies that are already in the marketplace."

"The ultimate goal of the work," he adds, "is to provide guidance to scientists, funding agencies, and policymakers about which technology options are the most beneficial to pursue—which have the largest potential impact cost-effectively."

Research Portfolios Orient Toward Projects "Most Likely to Have an Impact"

Scientists and funding agencies are looking for analytical tools to help them create a balanced portfolio of research that will lead to new technologies with optimal economic and resource benefits. They need an assessment of technology impacts—not only whether a technology will reduce energy or water use, but whether it will do so cost-effectively, and how the cost-effectiveness varies according to factors such as different climates and geographies, cost of energy, changing energy and resource demands, and mix of fuels that supply energy. Will the technology produce additional jobs and revenue? What kinds of barriers face the entrance of new technologies into the marketplace? They also want to know the magnitude of the environmental benefits—including reductions in energy and resource use, human health impacts, and energy dependencies—and how those benefits might vary according to a technology's characteristics and patterns of adoption and use.

The kind of tools that E2AT is now applying to Berkeley Lab's own research are cross-sectoral (industry, commercial, residential, transportation) computer models with environmental indicators (relating to energy, water, materials, and public health) that evaluate the potential impacts of technologies.

However, these models only provide part of the picture. E2AT is also bringing energy resource modeling, life-cycle assessment, geographic information systems (GIS), and other analytical techniques to bear. Energy resource modeling looks at the inputs and outputs of technology to measure its total impact—how much energy, water, and materials are used to produce a technology—and how these impacts compare to competing technology alternatives.

Using output from these different tools, the Team is developing a set of scenarios—varying such factors as the mix of energy supply (from coal, nuclear, renewables, natural gas, and others); costs; the technology's market penetration; and strong, weak, or no policies to encourage market diffusion. These scenarios help clarify under which conditions a new energy technology is likely to have the largest impact in reducing costs, creating jobs and economic value, and reducing energy use or greenhouse gas emissions.

"An important element of the process," says Masanet, "is the feedback to researchers. We are trying to institutionalize information flows and collaborations between the basic, applied, and analysis research at Berkeley Lab. We plan on using web portals and databases to encourage sharing of data, results, and technical information, and forming inter-divisional working groups to meet regularly, generate new scientific insights and foster ongoing collaboration between researchers who were previously operating mostly in isolation."

Evaluating Four Technologies

With its initial funding, the Team chose to study four technologies in active development at Berkeley Lab: geologic carbon sequestration, next-generation coatings for energy-efficient windows, salt- and drought-tolerant switchgrass for biofuels, and large-scale solar photovoltaic installations.

Case Study: Carbon Sequestration

The pilot project to develop a spatial and temporal life-cycle environmental and cost model for geologic carbon sequestration (GCS) furnishes an illuminating case study on how the Team works. Hanna Smith, Philip Price, and Tom McKone, together with Earth Sciences Division scientists Curt Oldenburg and Jens Birkholzer, are studying the economic and environmental characteristics of large-scale systems to capture carbon at the power plant and inject it into geological reservoirs.

Molecular Foundry

Molecular Foundry

"Throughout the United States," Price explains, "are saline aquifers in large sedimentary basins, depleted oil and gas reservoirs, unmineable coal areas, and other formations which could serve as reservoirs for greenhouse gases produced at power plants." The carbon dioxide (CO2) storage capacity of saline aquifers alone is estimated to be between 1.6 trillion and 20.2 trillion tonnes (metric tons).

The results of the team's work are described in more detail in the companion article, which can be read here.

Dynamic Window Coatings

Researchers in EETD and at the Lab's Molecular Foundry within the Materials Sciences Division are working to develop the next generation of advanced window coatings. By providing the ability to dynamically tune their optical properties, such coatings will allow for optimal utilization of solar resources. While many mature static coating technologies exist, dynamic technologies create the potential for even greater energy savings in the areas of heating, cooling, and lighting energy consumption within buildings.

Under this pilot project, they are investigating two distinct window technologies. The first technology is a new electrochromic coating that provides tunable blocking of near-infrared radiation (NIR). In tunable blocking, the coating can adjust itself to allow or block varying amounts of infrared radiation to pass through the window to the inside. During warm weather, the window can assume its blocking state to reduce solar heat gains, and during cold weather, heat gains through the unblocked window can supplement existing heat loads. Unlike existing electrochromic windows, this technology maintains transparency in the visible spectrum, so that in its blocking state, the windows allow daylight to come through—windows made with current electrochromic technology visibly darken in their blocking state.

The second technology is a micro-scale prismatic coating to redirect sunlight further into building spaces. With its dynamic functionality, such a coating can be tuned to redirect at an angle that both maximizes day-lit floorspace while simultaneously increasing occupant comfort by reducing glare.

The team is quantifying the potential energy savings of these technologies in different regions across the country, considering variations in building stock and climate. Results are helping to define performance targets that would make the coatings successful in the marketplace. They are also performing life-cycle assessment to better understand the environmental implications associated with the material use and manufacturing processes needed for large-scale implementation.


Salt-tolerant Switchgrasss for Biofuels

A third pilot project focuses on next-generation biofuels. Converting agricultural crops to biofuel reduces U.S. dependence on oil imports and creates jobs. However, to be successful in the marketplace, agriculture for biofuels should not compete with food crops on arable land—this would drive up the price of food. Biofuels also need to be produced using as little fossil-energy-based fuel as possible to be nearly carbon-emissions-neutral.


Salt-tolerant switchgrass is an active area of biofuels research.

One approach under study through Berkeley Lab's Joint Bioenergy Institute is to engineer fast-growing crops, such as switchgrass, for marginal, salty agricultural land that is not in use for food crops. After assessing U.S. agricultural lands, an EETD research team, led by Larry Dale and Jim McMahon, determined that a more drought-tolerant switchgrass could have a greater impact, because there are far more dry unproductive lands than salty unproductive lands in the U.S. These land areas are currently unsuitable for food production but could potentially grow energy crops specially engineered for drought tolerance, producing a biofuels feedstock that does not compete with food production. Consequently, early feedback from Berkeley Lab to the genetic engineering team participating in the work resulted in genetic engineering focus moving to drought tolerance.

The E2AT team is working closely with Larry and Jim's team to provide life-cycle analysis for the entire marginal biofuels production cycle, as well as the entire supply chain economics from fields to vehicle tanks. This analysis identifies net societal benefits and costs associated with biofuels derived from drought-tolerant switchgrass. The economic analysis portion will also provide guidance to the genetic research team as to what switchgrass yield targets help ensure economically viable production supply chains.

Large-scale Solar Photovoltaic Deployment

In the fourth pilot project, Team scientists are modeling the impacts of deploying large-scale solar photovoltaic installations. Solar PV produces electricity without direct greenhouse gas emissions, so its large-scale deployment should lead to lower regional emissions.

The manufacture of solar PV also affects materials and water resource use. In this project, the team members are studying the interrelationships of avoided emissions, land use, local and global weather change, and human health impacts from large-scale solar deployment, as well as the life-cycle energy use and costs of manufacturing and operating large solar PV installations.

This study projects avoided emissions in the U.S. power grid caused by the high penetration of PV. The team is calculating the avoided emissions of CO2, sulfur dioxide (SO2), and nitrogen oxides (NOX), assuming different PV deployment scenarios. Because the generation resource mix in different regions of the U.S. varies, the avoided emissions vary significantly. The results will help guide policymakers and solar project developers to make decisions about how to deploy solar PV efficiently and economically.


Future Plans

For evidence that the E2AT's approach is drawing wider interest, the U.S. Department of Energy recently awarded up to $1.9 million to members of the team to develop "total cost of ownership" models for low- and high-temperature stationary fuel cell systems up to 250 kilowatts.

The fuel cell research is an example of how Berkeley Lab and its Carbon Cycle 2.0 program is weaving together its development of cleaner energy technologies with research and development to evaluate the technologies' potential costs, benefits, and impacts on energy, materials, and climate.

"Analyzing the markets, performance, design and manufacturing options, societal benefits, and life-cycle costs of stationary fuel cell technologies will help manufacturers design better technology for specific markets, customers understand the costs and benefits of investing in the technology, and policymakers provide more effective incentives," says Masanet.

E2AT expects to apply its new analytical lenses to additional technologies from both Berkeley Lab and elsewhere."We hope that future collaborations with other Berkeley Lab researchers and other research institutions will improve the flow of information and scientific insights to researchers in technology and environmental assessment R&D," says Masanet."We are also working to improve the research's relevance to key global decision makers, including policy makers, technology investors, and research program managers."

—Allen Chen

Additional information:

  • Eric Masanet
  • (510) 486-6794
  • Erin Claybaugh
  • (510) 495-2189
  • E2AT Communications and Outreach

Read about the carbon sequestration analysis work here.

This research was funded by the Lab-Directed R&D program of Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory.

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