October 20, 2021

While most climate experts recognize that mitigating climate change requires deep decarbonization – the use of alternative energy to reduce carbon dioxide emissions to near zero – rapidly shifting an entire power grid to renewable energy sources is a formidable task.

Dr. Noah Kittner

Dr. Noah Kittner

Experts may focus on a single technology or sector when creating strategies for decarbonization, but this approach leads to solutions that are narrow, disjointed and may miss the wider synergistic benefits that can be achieved with cross-sector models, according to Noah Kittner, PhD, assistant professor of environmental sciences and engineering at the UNC Gillings School of Global Public Health.

Kittner has led a team of energy experts in a new commentary in Joule calling for an expansion of modeling strategies beyond sector-specific models — strategies that could provide complementary solutions for energy needs across electricity, transportation, agriculture, health and manufacturing sectors. The commentary aims to help climate strategists clearly define the roles that different energy technologies and collaboration among industry sectors could play in achieving decarbonization goals, as well as help them assess whether a study is likely to have missed opportunities for cross-sector energy solutions that could impact the relevance of conclusions.

“We need to think holistically to develop strong energy and climate solutions – this may include creative innovations at the intersection of transportation, agriculture, electricity and material choices,” Kittner explained. “Batteries are not the only way to store energy, and they alone may only provide several hours of storage to complement solar and wind. Storage technologies might be the glue needed to develop solar and wind electricity further, but limiting ourselves to batteries is only one piece of the puzzle.”

Kittner suggests that one example of a cross-sector approach might be to use excess renewable energy to produce fertilizer for agriculture or hydrogen for transportation.

“Innovating around green hydrogen has potential benefits for industrial chemicals, agricultural fertilizers and zero-carbon electricity,” he continued. “And turning electric vehicles into energy producers or storage units could help power cities during extreme weather disasters.”

The commentary introduces a range of cross-sector industrial applications and use-cases to achieve deep decarbonization – such as hydrogen, wind and solar – that demonstrate how they can be used across multiple sectors of a larger energy system. Cross-sector strategies often address the storage of energy for use in the long term, as well as the transition to clean, healthy and more sustainable energy systems. These considerations can help climate strategists and policymakers frame systems of energy in the context of the fastest and least-costly pathways to reach net-zero carbon emissions.

This, in turn, creates a clearer picture of the technologies that are best suited to rapidly achieve the goals of deep decarbonization in a way that optimizes performance across the energy grid while keeping costs low.

As the global climate community gathers in Glasgow, Scotland for COP 26, the 2021 United Nations’ climate change conference, in the next few weeks, Kittner says that cross-sector collaboration, coordination and solutions will be necessary for rapid decarbonization. The commentary calls for researchers to work together to solve these interdisciplinary challenges.

“Batteries alone may not meet the seasonal storage demands of an electric grid running mostly on solar and wind power,” he said. “Alternatively, the United States may want to rethink strategic petroleum reserves and find ways to decarbonize chemical storage using extra electricity produced from renewable sources. This call for research and action will help connect local and global climate solutions through quantitative modeling results and analysis to make carbon emission reductions not only positive for the environment but the economy and public health, as well.”

Contact the UNC Gillings School of Global Public Health communications team at sphcomm@unc.edu.

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