U.S. Energy Park Potential
Expanding high-voltage transmission, which involves lengthy construction times, authorization by regional power authorities, and complex siting/permitting in the face of land-use restrictions and public opposition is currently one of the most critical challenges to large-scale decarbonization in the United States. Further complicating the situation is the fact that the highest-quality renewable energy resources are often located far from demand centers—adding to cost and requiring transmission to be built in areas that may not benefit economically from the development. An important element in solving this puzzle is the development of energy parks, in which decarbonized fuel production facilities are located near high-quality renewable energy sources and take advantage of existing depreciated infrastructure. By capitalizing on the United States’ vast rail and pipeline infrastructure, energy carriers such as ammonia (NH3) and synthetic hydrocarbons offer an attractive alternative method to move energy over long distances. When done in the form of molecules (gases and liquids), this transport is roughly an order of magnitude cheaper than in the form of electrons (electric power).
This study identifies potentially optimal locations for energy parks in two configurations: brownfield and greenfield. Both are assumed to produce ammonia from hydrogen derived from electrolysis and combined with nitrogen in the Haber-Bosch process, all fueled by decarbonized electricity. Brownfield energy parks are located onsite at current thermal generation facilities (nuclear, coal, and natural gas power plants) and draw renewable energy from the grid using the plants’ existing interconnection as the input to their fuel production. Greenfield energy parks are self-contained facilities located near remote high-quality renewable energy generation which do not require extensive transmission since the power is used near the source to produce fuels. To evaluate location suitability at a fine geographic scale, this study used GIS zonal analysis of site infrastructure use, non-climate environmental impacts, economic opportunities, social friction, and projected levelized cost of fuel (LCOF) based on detailed economic analysis of capital and operating costs. These parameters were weighted and sites of each configuration were scored to determine the most preferred locations.
The analysis identifies areas in the Midwest “rust belt” and East Texas as being the most promising candidates for brownfield energy parks. For greenfield energy parks, West Texas and the Northern Great Plains had strong candidate areas. These locations are shown to be both economically and environmentally sound and able to meet projected domestic demand. Furthermore, the geographic distribution of these clusters illustrates not only the economic attractiveness but also the potential socio-political attractiveness of energy parks:
Economic opportunity. Proximity of energy parks to existing industrial and energy communities translates to opportunities for just transitions and capitalizes on IRA incentives.
Clean energy exports. Many of the highest-scoring sites are located along existing transport infrastructure such as rail lines, pipelines, and the Mississippi River. This provides easy access to not only domestic agricultural markets but also the potential for clean energy export.
Overcoming transmission barriers for renewables. The reduction of transmission required enables the development of prime but otherwise hard-to-access renewable energy locations.
Energy parks offer a novel way of addressing the mismatch between the geographic distribution of renewable resources and electricity demand centers in the US. These facilities will draw on America’s industrial strength to provide cheap clean fuels while re-using existing infrastructure, providing opportunities for local communities, and opening new green energy export pathways.
Breakdown of candidate areas where wind and solar together (co-located) and wind-only configurations perform better by levelized cost of fuel (LCOF).
The full report is available below:
About the Author: Benjamin Preneta recently completed his term as a Summer Research Fellow with Evolved Energy Research where he conducted the analysis for this study. Ben graduated from Columbia University’s Climate School with a masters in Climate and Society in May 2023. While there he also pursued research with the Columbia University Center on Global Energy Policy and the United Nations Office of the Special Advisor on Africa. Previously, Ben served as an Armor Officer in the US Army after his undergraduate studies at Columbia University. Ben is interested in using GIS analysis to find solutions around the land-use and geographic distribution challenges of renewable energy. As a result, the energy parks project was a wonderful opportunity to further hone his technical spatial modeling skills in combination with a deep interest in finding optimal paths forward that build off our current systems. Ben seeks to continue this field of work while adding his knowledge of climate dynamics and African development environments.