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The Insider

As renewable energy continues to gain ground on fossil fuels, stakeholders on all sides are looking for the next technological leap that will further advance low- or zero-carbon energy, either through an entirely new power source or by making existing low-carbon approaches more feasible.

Inside EPA’s Environment Next features exclusive coverage of efforts by industry, policymakers and scientists to develop and drive broad adoption of technologies that could dramatically cut emissions from the power sector, from advanced batteries that make renewables more reliable to next-generation fusion energy.

Environment Next is a free service to our subscribers featuring wide-ranging looks at coming developments for environmental protection and policy -- including interviews, in-depth reporting, and profiles of key figures, companies and other groups that are reshaping regulation and private governance on air, water, waste and climate change. The features offer a new way of reporting about the shift from command-and-control regulation to innovative, market-based measures and other efforts, including voluntary programs and government action outside EPA’s purview.

This week, we reported on plans to drive more adoption of energy storage technology like advanced batteries to bolster renewable power sources like wind and solar:

Utility Officials Tout Energy Storage’s Role For Bolstering Clean Power
Top utility industry officials are touting the critical role for energy storage technologies as a “hub” to bolster clean power programs designed to meet aggressive climate change goals, saying technological and policy innovations will be key to fully realizing the value of storage.

During an Aug. 25 breakout session of the Energy Storage Association’s virtual annual conference, “Storage as the Hub for Utilities,” Arshad Mansoor -- president of the electricity research non-profit Electric Power Research Institute (EPRI) -- said “energy storage is a hub for utilities.” Storage can augment wind, solar, hydro, nuclear and other resources because it can act as a generation, transmission, or distribution asset, he added. The urgency to bring in more flexible resources, such as storage and demand-response technologies, “couldn’t have been greater at any time in the history of the U.S. grid,” Mansoor said.

Analyses that EPRI and the Department of Energy have conducted show that for sufficient grid flexibility the United States will need 30-40 gigawatts (GW) of flexible energy resources by 2030, or 10 times the current roughly 3 GW, and energy storage will be a big part of the 30-40 GW, Mansoor said. “Utilities will be in the center” of that growth, “the enabler,” and energy storage will be the hub of utilities as they adopt more and more renewable resources.

Giving an example of how vital storage is becoming for utilities, Carla Peterman, Southern California Edison’s (SCE) vice president of strategy and regulatory affairs, described several efforts of the company, which is one of the largest U.S. electric utilities. SCE is a subsidiary of Edison International, whose senior vice president of strategy and corporate development, Drew Murphy, in an exclusive interview with Environment Next described how California climate change policies, market pressures, and broader societal expectations, are driving the company to embrace sustainability as a guiding framework.

Meanwhile, an industry group recently released a new guide for recycling the lithium-ion batteries often used in such storage projects, which they say could help allay concerns about renewables’ waste implications:

ESA Floats Guide For Battery Recycling Plans In Energy Storage Projects
The U.S. Energy Storage Association (ESA) is floating guidelines to encourage energy storage system (ESS) owners and other power supply chain participants to adopt robust plans for recycling lithium ion batteries used for storage when they become end-of-life (EOL) waste.

The guide crafted by ESA, representing the energy storage industry, could influence future energy storage projects at a time when climate change concerns are driving a rapid growth in the deployment of ESS to decarbonize the electricity and automotive sectors.

The new Guidelines for End-of-Life and Recycling of Lithium Ion Battery Energy Storage Systems were developed by the ESA Corporate Responsibility Initiative, launched last year by 36 industry leaders who pledged to responsibly manufacture and operate storage projects. ESA released the guide on Aug. 27 during its virtual online conference.

And the National Academy of Sciences is convening a new panel to study the prospects for fusion power:

NAS Panelists Eye Major Role For Utilities To Advance Fusion Energy
Department of Energy (DOE) officials, scientists, and utility industry representatives on a National Academy of Sciences (NAS) panel say private power companies will have a major role in efforts to make carbon-free nuclear fusion energy inexpensive and widespread.

The role of the private sector is so critical that in forming the “Committee on the Key Goals and Innovations Needed for a U.S. Fusion Pilot Plant,” NAS took the unusual step of including three experts from the electric utility sector on its panel, broadening the usual NAS committee membership that typically is composed solely of scientific experts.

The FPP committee, which held its first virtual meeting Aug. 26, follows a recommendation made in a 2018 NAS report, “Final Report of the Committee on a Strategic Plan for U.S. Burning Plasma Research,” that calls for launching a national program of research and technology “leading to the construction of a compact pilot plant.” Sustained fusion energy production relies on burning plasmas, just as the sun, a ball of burning plasma, involves fusion reactions.

In May, NAS issued a related report -- "Plasma Science: Enabling Technology, Sustainability, Security, and Exploration" -- that said plasma science offers "unparalleled opportunities to address outstanding and critical societal problems. . . . Not the least of these contributions is making a major impact on society’s ability to address climate change and energy sustainability through the development of fusion generated, carbon free electricity."

Technological developments in the power sector will also be shaped by policies on energy infrastructure, especially the Trump administration’s recent revisions to implementation of the National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA) -- which the Environmental Law Institute recently called the “most consequential” policy change of the term:

ELI Says NEPA Rule ‘Most Consequential’ Trump Environmental Policy
The Trump administration’s rule overhauling implementation of the National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA) is “possibly the most consequential environmental regulatory action across the federal government,” says the non-partisan think tank Environmental Law Institute (ELI).

In a review of the future regulatory implications of the Trump administration’s various rollback of Obama EPA rules and other energy and environmental policies, ELI says the NEPA overhaul -- if it survives pending legal challenges -- will have far-reaching impacts at the White House Council on Environmental Quality and across many federal agencies.

The 14-chapter ELI report, Environment 2021: What Comes Next? describes the Trump deregulatory moves pertaining to cost-benefit analysis in reviewing and approving final rules, the use of science in EPA’s regulatory process, “enforcement discretion and forbearance,” curtailing federal and state authority, and other areas. Each chapter summarizes the issues and offers an outlook on 2021, including brief observations on likely outcomes if Trump wins a second term or if the Democrats retake the White House in the November election.

In a foreword to the report, ELI President Scott Fulton writes: “Whether the Trump deregulatory agenda is ultimately successful will turn on factors beyond the purview of this report, including whether the various initiatives survive judicial review -- far from certain, given the rigorous and fixed nature of the federal laws to which these deregulatory efforts correspond.”