Decarbonizing the Energy Sector with Fossil Fuel Technology

Billions of dollars have poured into clean energy technology, and the industry has seen fantastic results. Technologies already developed by the fossil fuel industry have the potential to solve some of renewable energy’s remaining big problems.

This insight was a finalist in our fall blog competition.

Fossil fuel companies are generally maligned by those who work in the renewable energy industry—and arguably for good reason. As a result, communication between the two groups is limited and contentious. But the potential of their integrated, combined effort to combat climate change is greatly underappreciated.

By co-opting select mature fossil fuel technologies for renewable energy purposes, the renewables industry can overcome some of their remaining big challenges with already proven technologies. Fossil fuel companies also stand to gain through a smoother decarbonization of their business models while generating new income from their existing technologies. While this unlikely partnership has more room to grow, there are already some clean energy applications of fossil fuel technology to be excited about:

Floating Platforms for Deep Sea Offshore Wind

Offshore wind has enormous generating potential due to faster and more consistent winds over the ocean compared to over land. Current offshore wind installments, though, are limited to relatively shallow waters. Shallow offshore wind construction can disrupt coastal ecosystems during construction and leaves deep sea wind resources unutilized.

Oil companies, though, have been drilling in the deep sea for decades, developing extensive expertise in stable floating platforms. Their platform technology could be used to make deep sea offshore wind a commercial reality. There is promising progress on this front, with Equinor (formerly Statoil) building new wind farms with their Hywind floating platform.

Directional Drilling for Cheaper Geothermal Energy

Geothermal plants typically inject water deep underground, where high temperatures turn the water into steam, which then feeds into a turbine. Geothermal is a small fraction of today’s generation mix, and the industry is struggling to mitigate up-front investment risk due to each plant’s high capital cost.

Fossil fuel companies have long refined their drilling technology, with the relatively recent breakthrough of directional drilling. A company could reduce its investment risk by building one plant with horizontal directional drilling to access all the geothermal resources within its drilling radius rather than several costly plants with vertically-drilled wells. Baker Hughes, an oil and gas service company, has accordingly introduced a directional drill that can withstand the extremely high temperatures required for geothermal well drilling.

Compressors and Turbines for Compressed Air Energy Storage (CAES)

CAES systems pump air into underground caverns at high pressure to store energy for later use. While an early-stage technology, CAES can mitigate the intermittency of many renewable energy sources, like solar and wind.

Hydrostor is a startup that integrates both the compressor (to pump the air) and generator turbine (to generate electricity) machinery developed by the oil and gas industries to make CAES an economic reality. The fossil fuel industry has even left behind depleted oil and gas wells for companies like Hydrostor to store the compressed air!

Supportive policy can encourage even more of these collaborations. Fossil fuel companies have largely admitted that the future of energy is low-carbon and are looking to appropriately transition their business models. Therefore, we need policy that more strongly supports renewable energy (subsidy extensions, feed-in tariffs, tax credits) or reduces support for fossil fuels (subsidy removals, carbon taxes, drilling bans on public lands). These policies will further financially incentivize fossil fuel companies to apply their existing technology in climate-friendly ways through licensing or developing their own new products.

To conclude, finding additional ways to bring the fossil fuel industry along in the energy transition will make decarbonizing the energy sector less expensive and drawn out. The fossil fuel industry can be a powerful ally to the clean energy movement if both sides are willing to work together to align their long-term interests.

Cabir Kansupada

Cabir Kansupada is a recent graduate who studied materials science and engineering at the School of Engineering and Applied Science, as well as finance at The Wharton School.