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Decarbonizing electric power

Basics #

Question What can be done to reduce greenhouse gas emissions attributable to the electric power sector?

Contest main page Submit proposals at

Deadline June 15, 2013, at 11:59 Eastern Standard Time

Rules All entrants must agree to the 2012-13 contest rules.

Prizes The contest winners will be invited to present their work at the Crowds and Climate Conference at MIT November 6-7, 2013, and at the event, a $10,000 Grand Prize will be awarded to one of the contest winners

Related contestsScaling renewables in major emerging economiesFossil fuel sector

Guidelines from the contest Advisor(s) and Fellow(s) #


The International Energy Agency recently modeled three scenarios for the year 2035 in their 2012 World Energy Outlook : a "New Policies" scenario, that takes into account existing policy commitments and assumes that those recently announced are implemented; a "Current Policies" scenario assumes no implementation of policies beyond those adopted by mid-2012; and a "450" scenario that assumes policy action consistent with limiting the long-term global temperature increase to two degrees. All three scenarios found that global demand for electricity is set to continue to grow faster than demand for any other final form of energy over the projection period.

Electricity Demand by Scenario (TWh) from IEA World Energy Outlook 2012

New Policies Scenario Current Policies Scenario 450 Scenario
2010 2035 2035 2035
Total World 18,443 31,859 34,889 27,944

The modeling results also show that although the share of low-carbon technologies increases significantly, fossil fuels continue to dominate the generation fuel mix.

Electricity Generation by Source and Scenario (TWh) from IEA World Energy Outlook 2012

New Policies Scenario Current Policies Scenario 450 Scenario
2010 2035 2035 2035
Fossil Fuels ^ 7,490 20,929 26,829 10,487
Nuclear 2,013 4,366 3,908 5,968
Hydro 2,144 5,677 5,350 6,263
Other Renewables 173 5,665 4,277 6,263
Total World 11,819 36,637 40,364 31,748

^Includes coal, gas and oil-fired generation

The projected steady growth in electricity demand, coupled with the expected dominance in fossil fuel based generation offers various challenges and opportunities for reducing greenhouse gas emissions from a sector that already claims the highest share of total emissions.

Key Issues #

The following are some example areas that might be useful for consideration. However, contestants should not feel constrained to these areas, and can consider additional areas beyond this list:

Fuel choices: Natural gas offers a cleaner fuel choice than coal, with uncertainty about its long term role. Wind and solar are already cheaper than fossil fuels in some regions and are gradually making significant inroads into the generation mix worldwide, but face challenges due to their inherent variability. Nuclear offers a clean generation source, but can be hampered by various issues, including its heavy reliance on water. Given the trade-offs between different fuel choices, solution spaces may encompass different optimal clean fuel ratios to meet certain climate goals.

Power generation methods: Although power generation around the world is predominantly centralized, distributed generation using clean technologies can be deployed to move towards a low-carbon, high-reliability power system. These technologies include fuel cells, combined heat and power (CHP) and grid energy storage. Opportunities exist to make large thermoelectric plants more efficient as well (e.g. ultra-super critical generation).

Transmission and distribution: The U.S. electric grid is aging and is in desperate need of upgrades. In many other regions around the world, the electric grids are inadequate to meet growing demand. Current grids are not designed to carry renewables, and permit only a one-way power flow. Expanding balancing areas can help integrate variable generation resources. Smart grids, which marry information technology with electrical infrastructure can permit two-way flows that allow for greater penetration of renewable generation and decreased losses in the delivery of power. Microgrids have the potential to offer various economic and environmental benefits as well.

Additionally, potential solutions that can span the above areas include novel approaches to policy choices and regulatory practices (e.g. creation of markets that can encourage clean energy; policies that give prominence to dispatch of clean sources of power), social incentives, or technical advancements.

Contest Focus #

The scope of the proposed solution sets can be global or more narrowly focused on specific countries. It has to be noted that the landscape of the electric power sector differs significantly by region. If your proposal is specific to a particular region of the world, please indicate this in the geographic focus section of the proposal.

The contest boundary ranges from the point of generation of power to the point of delivery (essentially "plant to plug"). It does not include upstream effects such as extraction of fuels, or end use issues such as consumer behavior or new technologies (e.g. electric vehicles). Other competitions focus more specifically on these issues, and you are encouraged to explore and submit ideas to those through the main contest page.

Judges and Prizes #

The judges for this contest are:

Richard Schmalansee

Don Lessard

John Kassakian

In addition to any contest-specific prizes or events planned by the Advisor and Fellow, all teams that prepare winning proposals will be invited to present their work at in person or virtually at an event at MIT to be held in mid-2013, where all the winners from 2012-13 Climate CoLab contests will be featured. The Climate CoLab staff plan to invite a range of policymakers, business executives and investors and NGO officials to this MIT event.

Useful References #

If you'd like to suggest a new reference, please send a message to Noel Bakhtian <nmb at alumni dot stanford dot edu> or Ajith Rao <ajithsmail at gmail dot com>