Two Centers of Innovation Work More Closely



Fortnightly Magazine - November 11 2019

PUF's Steve Mitnick: Both of you run engines of innovation in the global energy sector. EPRI and GTI announced recently a memorandum of understanding to collaborate more closely on key power industry issues. What drove you to collaborate more closely?

Mike Howard: It's the recognition that working together EPRI and GTI can accelerate the deployment of technologies in low-carbon fuel production, delivery, and to ensure that these technologies are available at scale for deeper economy-wide decarbonization, especially beyond 2030. 

Because our organizations play key roles in addressing the challenges in the energy sector, we can best achieve this goal by leveraging our respective areas of expertise. It goes back probably three years ago when we started thinking about the whole idea of a more integrated energy network or IEN. Foundational to the IEN is a recognition that the industry is in a transformation driven by technology and changing customer needs and expectations.

Embedded in that is a desire for cleaner energy and an acknowledgment that we are digitizing the electric system. It's becoming clearer that more outside-the-box thinking is needed when we consider how we can use all forms of energy more efficiently and more effectively. So that's number one.

Second is the reality that you can't separate gas from electricity, or electricity from gas because they are so tightly connected. We must look at gas, as well as other systems, such as water, communications, transportation, and energy, as being integral to the energy system. 

Mike Howard: Technical staff on both sides have worked together on various projects for years.

Rather than looking at these as separate industries, an integrated approach will enable more efficiency, cleaner energy, control, reliability, resilience, and security in the electric power system. By engaging in discussions with more non-linear thinking we can come up with some better technical options.

David Carroll: I agree with Mike. Both organizations are working hard to develop the technologies and the pathways for safe, reliable, affordable energy, but the difference here is we are also working collectively to reduce the impact on the environment with low-carbon fuels and power. Energy companies are looking to develop sustainable pathways and clean energy options for their customers.

Also, the reality is that GTI and EPRI have been working together a long time. For the electricity generation part of this mix, the group of companies that are EPRI members are the largest collective customer for the natural gas industry.

We already have had an important connection, but when you start looking at these extended areas of convergence - things like customer choice where the end-user is making decisions about energy and fuel usage, gas for power generation, water requirements for gas and power production, energy needs to move and treat water, and so on - there's so much overlap and it is all overlaid by this evolution of data analytics and advanced technologies that are enabling the more efficient and more real-time coupling of these two types of energy.

David Carroll: GTI has a lot of work underway on methane, which is the principle component of natural gas. The industry is focused – from upstream all the way through end use – on addressing methane emissions.

Mike Howard: David makes a good point that I want to emphasize. We didn't just wake up the other day deciding to cooperate and collaborate. Technical staff on both sides have worked together on various projects for years.

This MOU bolsters efforts by both organizations along with worldwide research on low-carbon resources. It facilitates our engagement globally, including labs and universities. We see it leading to test facilities, protocols, and demonstration projects. A key focus will be to advance analytics and technologies for hydrogen and related low-carbon resources, such as biofuel, synthetic methane, liquid ammonia production, delivery and use in the power sector and in transportation, industry, and buildings.

PUF: Give me an idea about how you work together.

David Carroll: Our relationship goes back a long way. Both organizations do program management and then perform research and technology development.

A real point of convergence between our two organizations is our increasingly overlapping customer base where you have, in the market, any number of examples - but take Southern Company, which is a very large electric distributor and natural gas distributor.

With a centralized technology function like Southern Company has, both GTI and EPRI - by our nature of strong customer relationships focused on market demands - end up crossing paths a lot. Over the years we've cooperated on individual technology projects. We've been joint owners of a technology startup in the fuel cell field in addition to cooperating on research projects and exchanging information in a variety of different forums.

PUF: What's the business model of innovation at EPRI and GTI?

Mike Howard: At EPRI, several things serve as our foundation - that start with our global collaborative model. We can forge a common understanding of the challenges and opportunities that face global energy producers and users. Our technology scouting and assessments are stronger and travel farther in the energy sector because of our close engagement with members and stakeholders.

That same collaboration enables us to leverage the money invested in research, demonstration projects, and other actions at more than ten to one. So, a dollar invested by one company can get more than ten dollars of R&D leverage - and the strategic and operating insights that go with it.

And the need has become more urgent. We did a study to look at how innovation has changed over time. I asked, how do you gauge the pace of innovation? We looked at both U.S. and international patents going back to the 1900s. Looked at peer-reviewed journals and so on. Looked at how long it took to get a product from conception to market maturity.

The conclusion is what I call twenty-five - eight. Consider the innovations over the past twenty-five years, including cell phones, I-pads, and all the innovative things we use every day. Over the next twenty-five years innovation is going to accelerate. It's going to happen not over twenty-five years, but rather over eight years. That's what I call innovation acceleration.

David Carroll: Speaking for GTI, we are absolutely driven by a focus on our customers in our sector. At its core, the focus of R&D is driven by the market, and in fulfilling our customers' requirements. We don't wake up every morning saying, we do this kind of research or we make this kind of product. Who do we sell it to today?

No. We wake up every morning and say, here's our set of customers, be it Southern Company, or Sempra, or Shell. What can we do to help them be more successful? That intense focus creates collaboration opportunities and shared problem solving.

Again, both utility sectors, by definition, cooperate on issues critical to the energy industry, like responding to emergencies and looking at broad safety issues and so forth, so the essence of collaboration is something that's built into the DNA of both the gas and electric industries.

Back to this intense customer focus, every energy company today is thinking about the role it's going to play in this future energy mix, which still requires safety, reliability, and affordability, but with an added dimension of reducing the impact on environment, emissions, and more. We're all in this together, and both organizations work very closely with our clients and partners to make that happen.

In our collaborative research programs, GTI applies the concept of open innovation and drives to higher value and better results by including many individuals from diverse background across many organizations. This includes both customers as well as partners like academic and other research institutions.

Mike Howard: Recently, we hosted our R&D sectors' advisory meetings, where we're tracking our progress in current research, and we're also looking ahead. Like GTI's approach, these meetings offer members globally the forum, where companies have the expectation of figuring out how we can collectively solve technical issues.

Collectively, our organizations are doing this for both electricity and natural gas. It's that ability to come together to focus on questions to be resolved or solved that makes both of us instrumental in developing innovative solutions to today's, and more important, tomorrow's challenges.

David Carroll: And from a global energy perspective, we have moved beyond the energy challenge of scarcity and now face the challenge to continue to grow our economy and standard of living using affordable, low-carbon energy systems.

At GTI, we see this more as an opportunity than as a challenge, and we see our ability to innovate and to partner with other innovators as core to our potential to help our customers successfully navigate this next transition - both here in the U.S. and around the world.

By integrating strategic insights, room to create and take risks, and visibility into our long-term business planning across the organization at all levels, we are trying to unleash the full potential of our team. We are also expanding our innovation focus to an enterprise-wide effort to develop disruptive advances in services, products, processes, or technology.

PUF: Tell us some of the exciting things that you all are working on in each of your shops separately, possibly even together, that the industry should hear about.

Mike Howard: There is no single path for addressing the challenges faced by the energy sector and its diverse customers and stakeholders. Deep decarbonization presents some of our most interesting challenges and opportunities.

It's going to take GTI and EPRI working together to come up with a variety of technical solutions to figure out how to apply technologies, such as the use of hydrogen and carbon capture utilization and storage, that will enable this. GTI is doing impressive work in these areas, and we could find synergies there with EPRI's R&D portfolio.

The MOU focuses us on expanding the research that is underway. It includes advancing the analytics and technologies for hydrogen and related low carbon resources such as biofuel, synthetic methane, liquid ammonia production, delivery and use in the power sector and in transportation, industry, and buildings. It also encompasses advanced nuclear, renewables, and carbon capture utilization and storage, which can be significant for enabling generation for producing hydrogen and other low-carbon fuels.

David Carroll: We're driven to serve our customers. We try to develop the technical pathways that give companies options to meet their goals, pathways to allow policymakers to achieve their objectives, and ultimately provide consumers with clean and reliable energy.

At GTI, we work across the value chain. When I say value chain, I mean upstream with the production of gas from shale to interstate pipeline transmission to distribution in cities and then finally to end use.

Let's focus first on natural gas. I'll give you just a couple of examples. We're leading some major industry consortia with support from the Department of Energy to enhance the science and efficiency of hydraulic fracturing for natural gas function.

Why that's important is, if you can get, let's say, double the gas from a given well at a lower cost, you can produce the same amount of gas with half the wells, with half the cost, and half the environmental impact. Hydraulic fracturing for shale production is still relatively new in the last decade or so on a large-scale basis, so there's still an opportunity to put a lot more science into the art of hydraulic fracturing. That's one example.

Mike Howard: This is a good example of how technology can enable more efficient gas operations while at the same time reduce methane emissions. Today most hydrogen is produced from natural gas by a carbon-intensive process called steam methane reformation. 

There are two main methods for low-carbon hydrogen production: pairing natural gas-based production with carbon capture utilization and storage, and electrolysis, the disassociation of water into hydrogen and oxygen by application of electric current from low-carbon sources.

The question is how to make those processes economic on a large-scale basis. Nuclear power plants have historically operated as baseload units. With increasing grid variability, some nuclear operators are faced with flexible plant operations. They are interested in studying the feasibility of using electricity generated during periods of low demand to produce hydrogen.

EPRI is pursuing several projects related to hydrogen storage and distributed generation, with researchers assessing the prospects of polymer electrolyte membrane fuel cells and fuel cell electric vehicles. EPRI is exploring how hydrogen production and co-production could increase the operational flexibility of new and existing power plants.

David Carroll: GTI has a lot of work underway on methane, which is the principle component of natural gas. The industry is focused - from upstream all the way through end use - on addressing methane emissions. There are a host of technologies to measure, monitor, and then also mitigate methane emissions - ranging from green completion of wells, to the capture of methane releases at well sites, to leak detection tools and monitoring systems, to the reduction of venting that takes place at metering stations, to making combustion equipment more efficient.

Getting to where EPRI and GTI are exploring close collaboration, let's talk about hydrogen. GTI is taking natural gas a step further and has a number of projects focused on generating clean hydrogen using hydrocarbon fuels that incorporate carbon capture and/or carbon sequestration in a cost-effective manner.

GTI and EPRI are exploring possible options for working together to introduce hydrogen as a low-carbon energy source into the global energy mix - from a power production standpoint, to its potential for energy storage, as well as an end use combustion source of heat and, frankly, as a feedstock in the chemical industry.

A partnership between us would form a powerhouse of expertise to address a molecule and an energy source that could be pervasive across our economy, and useful in a number of sectors of both energy and the broader economy. Who better to work together than EPRI and GTI with their long histories of serving this business?

We've worked together in the past. Let's call it opportunistic. With this MOU, it implies that our working together is intentional to meet our customers' demands. Customers are facing challenges of safety, reliability, affordability, and now are also looking for clean and sustainable energy solutions.

There's a compelling need for the relative skills of our organizations to work together. An MOU like this implies focus. It implies commitment. It may even imply investments in the future but, at the least, a shared set of goals and vision.

There's more work to be done on defining what it will exactly look like, as customers will shape the market opportunity. But this collaboration clearly expresses an intent to invest in a considerable effort getting aligned and focused on addressing the challenges and issues of the broad global energy industry.

Mike Howard: The hydrogen market is a good example because there are various ways to get hydrogen and take advantage of its environmental benefits. Whether you burn it or oxidize it through a fuel cell the only emission is water. 

You could use electrolysis to get the hydrogen from the oxygen, and then that gas can potentially be delivered through the gas pipeline system. You could use renewable energy, or you could use nuclear power as the raw material.

You end up with a zero-carbon output that could then be used in a variety of industries, including steel and transportation or as an energy storage mechanism. A driving force in the renewed interest in hydrogen is its scalability for bulk storage. 

Current battery technologies don't lend themselves to bulk storage as do pumped hydroelectric storage or compressed air energy storage, but both of these are capital-intensive. On a smaller scale, hydrogen storage could smooth the variability of wind and solar generation, using the excess electricity to generate hydrogen. The same way we refine millions of gallons of gasoline a day, we could potentially produce millions of kilograms of hydrogen from renewable generation.

PUF: If I look five years out, what do you think this increased cooperation might look like?

David Carroll: It will be increased cooperation, but we're not at a point to say exactly what it might look like. I have some ideas, but we have to take some steps to make sure that what we do together is better than doing it separately, that the result will add up to something much more than the sum of the parts.

What I do know is this - whatever we do together will offer enhanced value to the key energy players that we both work with. Both GTI and EPRI have extensive experience in the convergence of different energy forms coming together on a smaller-scale community-based system and integrating renewables, advanced technology, existing energy sources, biomass, and hydrogen.

What the energy companies are looking for is our help to define and articulate that pathway so that they can meet the reliability, cost, and safety needs that their customers demand at the same time they are reducing the impact on the environment.

If we're successful, we'll be doing a lot of joint projects. There might even be some type of additional framework that focuses on a particular mission. Our success in creating value for the market will help to define that. We're going to start small, but we're definitely thinking big here.

Mike Howard: A fundamental key to our collaborative is to create a risk-informed understanding of options and technologies for economy-wide deep decarbonization through engineering and technology demonstration.

The objective is to create a future with more energy and much less carbon.