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Low Carbon Fuels in Net-Zero Energy Systems

The U.S. and international research community consistently find that energy efficiency, clean electricity and electrification are essential and urgent “pillars” of reducing greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions. However, additional mitigation strategies are required to bridge the gap to net-zero GHG emissions by mid-century. In March 2022, EER published Carbon Management in Net-Zero Energy Systems, an assessment of carbon management's role in energy and industry to facilitate the U.S. achieving net-zero.

Our new white paper Low Carbon Fuels in Net-Zero Energy Systems builds on that work to answer key questions related to the role of low carbon fuels: after aggressive pursuit of efficiency, clean electricity, and electrification, what quantity of low carbon fuels may still be required? What sectors are most suitable for low carbon fuels? When are products such as hydrogen and biomass used directly, and when are they feedstocks to other fuels? How sensitive are outcomes to alternative assumptions?

Key findings from our analysis include:

  • Low carbon fuels play an important role of filling residual fuel needs after aggressive efficiency and electrification, but are consumed in moderation due to their cost premium. Consumption in 2050 is less than 15% of current U.S. fossil fuel consumption.

  • They are most likely to be critical in sectors where electrification is challenging due to thermal needs, energy density, capital costs, logistics, and/or delivery costs. Key end-uses where low carbon fuels are critical include aviation, freight trucks and bulk chemicals.

  • Hydrogen is involved in about 70 percent of low carbon fuels by 2050, either through direct hydrogen use (industry, freight) or as a feedstock to synthetic fuel or ammonia production. Electrolysis is the predominant hydrogen production pathway in the long-term, as it is complementary to other features of a deeply decarbonized energy system, namely widespread and low-cost renewables.

  • The U.S. Department of Energy’s (DOE's) Hydrogen Shot to achieve $1/kg for clean hydrogen by 2030, if achieved, would double hydrogen production in the long-term, boosting uptake of synthetic electric fuels and reducing demand for both biofuels and geologic sequestration of captured CO2.

  • Significant resources are required to support low carbon fuel production. By 2050 under the Core Net Zero scenario, the U.S. consumes more than 500 million tons of biomass (roughly half of maximum potential), 2,400 TWh of clean electricity for hydrogen electrolysis (equivalent to 60% of current electricity consumption), 170 million tons of captured CO2 (3% of current anthropogenic emissions), and 1.5 TBtu of natural gas (5% of current consumption).

The paper, "Low Carbon Fuels in Net-Zero Energy Systems", provides a description of the analytical framework and detailed findings, and is available for download below.

Download the White Paper.

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