Businesses are investing heavily in new emissions-reduction technologies and quickly incorporating them into their operations to create sustainable changes that ensure a better planet for future generations.
It’s a major operational overhaul, but businesses are both determined and committed. In fact, when the COVID-19 pandemic first hit, there were some concerns that the financial damage inflicted on businesses would cause them to pull back on climate-related initiatives and investments. But that didn’t happen at all—in many cases, businesses expanded their activities.
“It's been especially encouraging to see the continued growth of corporate commitment all through the pandemic,” said Elliot Diringer, a senior adviser in the U.S. State Department’s Office of the Special Presidential Envoy for Climate, during a climate week event hosted by the U.S. Chamber of Commerce. “At a time when it might have been easy to step away, a remarkable number of companies have instead taken on ambitious net-zero targets.”
Achieving those targets, as Diringer noted, requires similarly ambitious near-term investments and actions. At the Chamber’s “Business at the Forefront of Energy Innovation and Sustainability” event, leaders from Duke Energy, Siemens Energy, Bank of America, Shell, Dow Chemical and more discussed some of the actions they are taking to build more sustainable energy solutions, including investing heavily in technologies to produce clean and renewable energy. Here are four climate-related technological innovations being led by business.
Zero-emitting load-following resources (ZELFR)
As electric utilities ramp up efforts to decarbonize the power sector, an important buzzword has emerged—“ZELFRs” (pronounced “zel-fers”). It stands for Zero-Emitting Load-Following Resources, which are critical to ensuring reliable energy while also accelerating emissions reductions as traditional fossil-based facilities are phased out. Companies like Duke Energy are looking to scale and commercialize ZELFRs such as advanced nuclear, carbon capture, and energy storage solutions to meet this challenge.
“ZELFR technologies provide us with the flexibility over time to really respond to the energy needs that are underway in our community, kind of in a moment’s notice,” said Katherine Neebe, vice president of national engagement and strategy and chief sustainability officer for Duke Energy.
There are several different classifications of hydrogen in the world of energy. The most common type currently is gray hydrogen, an emissions-intensive process in which energy is produced industrially from natural gas. Green hydrogen is generated from renewable energy sources that do not produce carbon emissions.
Blue hydrogen also greatly reduces the environmental footprint of hydrogen production by capturing and storing emissions produced with natural gas, making the use of fossil fuels a cleaner and more environmentally friendly process.
“We believe that carbon capture and storage and use is going to be critical to ensure that natural gas is part of [sustainable energy] solutions, either to make blue hydrogen or to enable decarbonization of existing manufacturing facilities that still have a long lifespan,” said Mary Draves, chief sustainability officer and VP of environment, health and safety at the Dow Chemical Company.
Direct air capture
While reducing carbon emissions is an important part of climate action plans for the business world, there is still a large amount of previously produced carbon to contend with. Technologies like direct air capture (DAC) are helping to address this issue by removing carbon directly from the atmosphere via chemical reactions. The chemicals used in direct air capture selectively react with carbon dioxide when air moves over them, allowing the other components of air to pass through.
Direct air capture is one of several emerging technologies Bank of America is investing in as part of its $1 trillion environmental business initiative, for instance. “[We are] devoting a tremendous amount of focus out of our total goal to emerging technologies [such as] direct air capture and other carbon capture technologies,” said Karen Fang, head of global sustainable finance at Bank of America, during the event.
AI and machine learning
Creating a clean or net-zero energy system is critically important, said Sharon Tomkins, vice president of sustainability at Sempra. Part of achieving this goal, which Sempra hopes to reach over the next 30 years, is relying on increasingly ubiquitous technologies that are being used in other sectors, including artificial intelligence and machine learning, to digitize and optimize global energy systems.
“Through digitalization, we aim to improve the operational efficiency, safety, and service to achieve the integration of real-time information and cutting-edge analytics, benefiting networks and operations,” said Tomkins. “We are focused on machine learning, AI smart grids, and satellite methane to create [the] energy system of 2050.”