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Talking with Sid Fowler – Law in Sustainability and More on Storage

January 23, 2023 sid and sarah featured blog energy storage cleantech summit

As part of the IE Cleantech Corner Initiative, the UNC student group that helps develop content and speakers for the Cleantech Summit, I’ve been working on articulating the content that will be covered in a mini three-panel track called “Hydrogen and other Long-term Storage Options.” In addition to interviewing Bill Capp and Jay Dauenhauer, I recently had the pleasure of speaking with our final speaker for this panel, Sid Fowler.

Fowler is an Energy Attorney at Pillsbury Winthrop Shaw Pittman LLP, where he advises on issues surrounding clean technologies. He graduated from NC State in 2011 with a BA in Philosophy and in 2014 from UNC School of Law. Before Pillsbury Law, he had a variety of experiences including serving in the U.S. Army, working at Progress Energy (a utility that is now part of Duke Energy), being an attorney at the Nuclear Regulatory Commission, Energy Regulatory Associate, and several other roles.

In this interview, Fowler draws from his law background to talk about the various ways it plays into sustainability and discusses the main components of the track: the main forms of energy storage today and emerging alternatives.

How does law play into sustainability?

Fowler told me that there are three main areas in his practice where law impacts climate change and sustainability: regulatory policies, litigation, and financial or contract policies. Regulations either incentivize or restrict people from doing something. For instance, the Inflation Reduction Act (IRA) has many tax cuts for clean energy in it, which incentivize people to build facilities that operate on clean energy. There’s also restrictive policies that limit emissions or pollution. The second category of law in sustainability that Fowler discussed was litigation: “People can use something like NEPA, that’s the National Environmental Policy Act, to try and bring lawsuits to shut down pipeline projects or to shut down fossil facilities.” He also mentioned that recently the subject of many environmental lawsuits has been greenwashing. A company may say their bottles are recyclable even though the label isn’t, and the way they get punished for this is through lawsuits. Lastly, there’s the financial side of environmental law that deals with agreements between financiers and companies, or green finance. A buzzword lately has been ESG, which means considering Environmental, Social, and Governance factors in investment. Fowler gives an example: “A large hedge fund might say, okay, we’re only going to invest in people who have strong sustainability policies.” After this decision is made, there may be contractual agreements that call for companies that receive investment to provide and track their sustainability metrics.

An additional area where law is directly involved in sustainability is in the FERC (Federal Energy Regulatory Commission) energy markets. Lawyers have to make extensive contracts on how these markets work, including formulas to calculate how much money people owe others for using their electric lines, extra energy, etc. Fowler describes how complex this legal work can get: “Say, you need to upgrade your power lines to put an extra 100 megawatts on it because you’re building a generating plant. But the way you have to do it, it actually makes 120 megawatts of extra capacity and somebody wants to use that extra 20 megawatts. There’s a whole formula for how much they have to pay for using it to reimburse you for the amount of money you spent.” The legal work done with energy markets will become increasingly important to Cleantech as more renewables are introduced to the markets, as adding renewables is expected to create the need for significant expansion of transmission infrastructure.

Energy Storage – The Two Major Contenders Today

There’s no doubt that the energy transition will create a heavy demand for energy storage. Fowler explained that since we will start relying more on intermittent sources like wind and solar which only work at certain times of the day, storage will become vital to store that inconsistent energy. The two dominant forms right now are pumped hydroelectric storage and lithium-ion batteries, which each have their fair share of pros and cons, but many are looking at hydrogen as a major form of long-term storage.

Advantages of hydrogen include the fact that hydrogen has the highest energy density by weight of any common fuel. Fowler explained that it’s a lot easier to store molecules than electrons: “​​You know, solar power has been stored in the form of molecules for hundreds of millions of years in coal.” Hydrogen is also transportable because we could potentially repurpose the existing gas grid, slowly mixing it into natural gas over the next several decades. Hydrogen gas blends would still burn cleaner than pure gas. Lastly, hydrogen can be used for situations that electricity doesn’t work as well for, such as heat for steelmaking, crop drying, or chemical manufacturing.

On the other hand, some challenges with hydrogen include efficiency loss when converting materials into hydrogen. For instance, a certain amount of power is lost when using an electrolyzer to convert water into hydrogen. Another disadvantage is that while putting hydrogen into the gas infrastructure sounds nice, there might be issues with hydrogen atoms leaking out since they are very small, smaller than natural gas molecules. Many of the disadvantages of hydrogen have to do with implementing it into the existing infrastructure. Fowler mentioned grid operators and companies in Italy, Spain, and Canada that are already blending hydrogen and natural gas (these include Italian grid operator Snam, Spanish natural gas distributor Nortegas, and Canadian company ATCO).

Another disadvantage of hydrogen from a legal perspective is that there’s not a substantial regulatory framework for it yet. Fowler explains a scenario: “If I wanted to build a pipeline to go across the country and ship hydrogen in it, it’s a little unclear on what agency would regulate that and what permitting process I would use. I’d probably have to do state-by-state permitting, as there wouldn’t be a clear federal permitting process, which could make it really complicated.” There are plenty of other legal questions like whether or not one would need to let others use their pipeline. The issue with all of this uncertainty is that investing in these kinds of projects is harder to do with too many unknowns. When I asked what should be done to address this issue, Fowler speculated that FERC would become the regulatory authority of hydrogen as some argue the pipelines being used for hydrogen are already under FERC’s jurisdiction. Alternatively, Congress might need to step in and amend the Natural Gas Act to extend its jurisdiction to hydrogen or create a new regulatory framework for hydrogen.

The second major player in energy storage today is lithium-ion batteries. Most advantages of batteries come from their ability to store energy for short amounts of time. They can be useful in reducing emissions during peak energy demand because people could use stored energy during these times. Lithium-ion batteries also have high energy density as compared to batteries made of any other material. They also don’t require any active maintenance once installed to continue operating.

Some disadvantages of lithium-ion batteries include the fact that most of the critical minerals needed for manufacture are mined mostly in other countries. However, tax incentives like those in the IRA incentivize people to buy electric vehicles (EVs), which will hopefully push EV manufacturers to produce lithium-ion batteries domestically. The main disadvantage of batteries is that they’re not ideal for long-term storage because of the difficulty of storing electrons. Fowler describes this issue: “If you want to be able to store your solar power from the daytime to use it at night, batteries are a pretty good option. If you want to store your power from the summer and use it in the winter, it becomes a lot harder doing that with batteries.” Another considerable issue is the waste that comes from mining and manufacturing batteries. We need to figure out how to properly manage it without polluting ecosystems.

Storage Alternatives

As pumped hydro and lithium-ion batteries certainly have their downsides, what are the alternatives? One important one that Fowler mentions is molten salt storage, which involves heating up an underground pool of molten salt that heat energy can be drawn from. TerraPower is a nuclear power company developing this technology right now. There are also several forms of mechanical energy storage out there, one of which involves creating a well with a pendulum over it, cranking it up when the company has extra power, and letting it slowly drop and turn a turbine when power is needed. Another company Fowler mentioned builds towers and moves composite blocks to the top of them and then lowers them to harness power. There’s also a nuclear plant near Seneca, SC that leaves water in a reservoir high up on a mountain at night when it has extra power and then lets it run down the mountain and spin a turbine during the day time to generate power. Molten salt storage and mechanical storage seem to be two promising alternatives to conventional forms.

About the Author

This article was written by Sarah Masters, a sophomore at UNC-Chapel Hill majoring in Environmental Science and minoring in Public Policy. She is currently an IE Cleantech Corner Initiative intern involved with the planning of the 2023 program. Connect with her on LinkedIn.