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Renewable Energy

The Modern Moonshot: Spirit of Apollo

Image provided by NASA, Unsplash.

Chances are you have heard about the infamous “moonshot” of the 1960s. On May 25,1961, in a speech to Congress, President John F. Kennedy called for Americans to reach the moon before the end of the decade; and in 1969, although after Kennedy’s assassination, the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) succeeded in making his dream a reality with Apollo 11. Despite being part of a staunch space race with the Soviet Union, that moment did a lot for American pride, technology and the future of space exploration, so much so that later presidents have harkened back to the idea of the moonshot. Under the Obama administration, the Vice President launched a Cancer Moonshot to improve care and find a cure, and the Department of Energy (DOE) launched a Sunshot Initiative to reduce the cost of solar power. Now, the DOE is again evoking the spirit of Apollo with the Energy Earthshots Initiative

The exterior of the Department of Energy. Image provided by Sara Cottle, Unsplash. 

The Energy Earthshots are intended to achieve major breakthroughs in progress and large cost reductions for clean energy technologies during the 2020s–and such monumental steps forward will be essential to achieving a net-zero national system by 2050. As Secretary of Energy Jennifer M. Granholm said in the press release, “the Energy Earthshots are an all-hands-on-deck call for innovation, collaboration and acceleration of our clean energy economy by tackling the toughest remaining barriers to quickly deploy emerging clean energy technologies at scale.” 

For all mankind. Image provided by NASA, Unsplash. 

The first announced is the Hydrogen Shot, which sets a goal to cut the cost of clean hydrogen by 80 percent from its current $5 per kilogram to $1 by the end of the decade. The cost reductions will be complemented by an increase in demand, which the DOE will meet with cleaner sources of production including renewable energy, nuclear and water power, and natural gas or biomass combined with carbon capture technology. As Secretary Granholm explains, “clean hydrogen is a game-changer. It will help decarbonize high-polluting heavy-duty and industrial sectors while delivering good-paying clean energy jobs and realizing a net-zero economy by 2050.” The DOE’s Hydrogen Program also issued a Request for Information on “viable hydrogen demonstration and deployment projects. . . and their associated locations,” with a submission deadline of July 7. Some of the more topics mentioned in the request include emissions reduction potential and opportunities for environmental justice and diversity, equity, and inclusion. 

Hydrogen is a great place to start this program. As the initiative’s goals already indicate, clean hydrogen production is currently held back by cost, which explains the smaller scale we often see today. It is also not as clean as we’d like as a large percentage of production in the U.S. causes reactions between natural gas and steam, which in turn emits carbon dioxide. There is a lot of potential for improvement, but the potential benefits are equally enormous. With possible end uses including the transportation, chemicals manufacturing, and steelmaking industries, a number of companies concluded in a comprehensive 2020 Road Map to a US Hydrogen Economy that “by 2030, the hydrogen economy in the U.S. could generate an estimated $140 billion per year in revenue and support 700,000 total jobs across the hydrogen value chain. By 2050, it could drive growth by generating about $750 billion per year in revenue and a cumulative 3.4 million jobs.” This was complemented on the public and international side by the International Energy Agency’s roadmap to Net Zero by 2050, which says that hydrogen electrolyzers are one of three technologies that will make “vital contributions” to “reductions in  CO2 emissions between 2030 and 2050 in our pathway.”

Although the other Earthshots haven’t been announced, Secretary Granholm discussed the future at President Biden’s Leaders Summit on Climate in April: “next, we’ll start lowering the cost of clean, renewable hydrogen by 80 percent before 2030, making it competitive with natural gas. We’re going to slash battery cell prices in half—again!—and reduce the need for critical materials, making EVs affordable, and maybe even cheaper than gasoline vehicles. And we’re going to dramatically reduce the costs of industrial and atmospheric carbon capture while ramping up incentives for large-scale efforts, here and across the world. This is our generation’s Moonshot!”