Molecules & electrons: the power couple key to decarbonizing our planet

September 11, 2023
Reading time: 5 min
Today, electricity provides around 20% of global energy use. The other 80% comes from “molecules”, e.g. in the form of gas, coal, mineral oil or biomass.
While electrification is on the rise, not every industry can be “plugged in”. Many of our most important sectors– like aviation, shipping, steel, and fertilizer – are hard to abate sectors and currently rely on molecules.
Therefore, if we want to reach net zero, we need to address emissions using both electrons and molecules.

What are Electrons?

Electrons are the driver behind all power applications such as light bulbs, hair dryers or electric cars that can be plugged-in and connected to the power grid.
Currently, fossil fuels still play a large part in generating electricity. 60% of electricity in the US is generated from fossil fuels, while in the EU around 40% of electricity is produced from fossil fuels - gas and coal. Renewable energy accounts for almost 40% and the remaining 20% coming from low-carbon nuclear plants.

What are green electrons?

While there are no inherent differences between electrons from fossil or renewable power generation, green electrons is a colloquial term for electricity from solar, wind, hydropower, and geothermal.
For example, if you have an electric car but charge it with electrons created by fossil fuels, this is not carbon neutral, but if you are charging your car with green electrons, you are achieving zero emissions.
As promising as green electrons are, they only take us half the way. Europe will require considerably more energy sources originating from molecules to overcome the various obstacles of green electrons.

What are green molecules?

To start at the beginning, the building blocks for everything around you are made up of atoms. A molecule is many atoms bound together, like ‘water’, for example, is made up of one oxygen atom and two hydrogen atoms.
A molecule is considered 'green' when it has been created using renewable or green energy sources and CO2 from Direct Air Capture, biogenic CO2, or industrial CO2 that is kept in a closed loop, i.e. used as a vector/ carrier for the transport of green hydrogen. Here, CO2 serves as a glass bottle that carries green hydrogen around the globe but is never emitted.
Every CO2 molecule that is used eliminates one methane (CH4) molecule being produced. We can cultivate a circular economy that revolves around CO2, particularly by capturing and holding the CO2 utilized in moving green hydrogen. In this way, we avoid all GHG emissions.

How can Green Electrons and Green Molecules be used together?

1. Long distance energy transportation

One of the challenges with electricity is long-distance transport, which is expensive and associated with considerable losses. If you try to mitigate this by installing renewables close to home you miss out on the best energy sources — places with cheap and abundant sun and wind.
In order to generate a massive amount of inexpensive energy you need to put the panels where it’s sunny and put wind farms where it is windy.
The question is, once you have this massive amount of energy, how do you transport it?
By using green molecules like ammonia, methanol or electric Natural Gas, which you can transport easily in pipelines and vessels and store in tanks.
The green molecules can thereafter be used to reduce carbon emissions in industries that cannot be electrified or alternatively, be reconverted into electricity.

2. Solving intermittency and storage

One of the key challenges of renewable power sources is their intermittency, i.e. they generate lots of green electrons when there is lots of wind and sun but may not be able to cover demand on a dark winter day. As of today the long-duration storage of electrons is not available at scale or not economically attractive, so we can't save them for a rainy day.
This is where molecules can step in as they are easy to store and can be turned into electrons on demand. One of the advantages of e-NG is that the same storage facilities that are used for fossil gas today can be used and that the plants to turn it into electricity on demand already exist.
Currently, Europe switches to power generated from fossil molecules when the output of renewables is insufficient. However, if we want to move forward with reducing GHG emissions, we need a green molecule supply to handle the highs and lows of power demand.

Moving forward

Molecules and electrons can come together to create a powerful hybrid energy web, making our energy supply greener, smoother and cheaper.
Green electrons produced from local renewables are needed to make our power grids more sustainable and power the increasing share of applications that are electrified. Green molecules will be required to meet our demand for energy imports, address emissions from sectors that cannot be switched to electrons and deal with the intermittency of a power grid that is increasingly subject to the volatility of sun and wind.