By Jay Landers

On his first day in office, President Joe Biden set a goal for the United States to reach the target of net-zero greenhouse gas emissions economywide by 2050 in a bid to limit global warming to 1.5 C above preindustrial levels. Three months later, in April 2021, Biden announced an interim target to reduce GHG emissions by 50% to 52% from 2005 levels by 2030. In early November 2022, the Biden administration released a report identifying five initial priorities — several of which relate to civil engineering — to help achieve the 2030 and 2050 targets and launched an initiative to promote policies intended to reduce emissions.

Accelerated innovation strategy

A Nov. 4 White House report, U.S. Innovation to Meet 2050 Climate Goals: Assessing Initial R&D Opportunities, was jointly prepared by the White House Climate Policy Office, Office of Science and Technology Policy, and Office of Management and Budget.

“This document summarizes the national approach for the United States to identify, prioritize, and accelerate innovation in game-changing net-zero technologies to tackle the climate crisis, support national security, advance American leadership in the future global economy, and promote equity and justice,” according to the report.

With multiple federal agencies positioned to contribute to the development and implementation of net-zero approaches, the U.S. government “can increase the impact of existing investments, fill innovation gaps, and enable a competitive net-zero innovation ecosystem that delivers a sustainable, equitable, cost-effective, and secure energy system,” according to the report.

“This is a first step towards a coordinated and accelerated national net-zero innovation strategy,” the report states.

R&D opportunities

The United States needs “to maintain a robust early-stage development pipeline of emerging technologies which will make it substantially easier or cheaper to reach net-zero,” according to the report. To this end, the report describes 37 net-zero research and development opportunities identified by an interagency working group assembled by the White House.

The opportunities include innovations within six areas — transportation technology, electricity generation, industrial processes, buildings and infrastructure, agriculture and methane reduction, and carbon removal — as well as several “cross-cutting” innovations that affect multiple sectors of the economy.

Five priorities

Of the opportunities identified by the working group, the following five were prioritized by the White House, according to a Nov. 4 fact sheet from the Biden administration:

  • Efficient building heating and cooling.
  • Net-zero aviation.
  • Net-zero power grid and electrification.
  • Industrial products and fuels for a net-zero, circular economy.
  • Fusion energy at scale.

These five priority innovations are to be the subject of the Net-Zero Game Changers Initiative, a program also announced by the White House on Nov. 4. The priorities to be pursued as part of the initiative “include opportunities for near-term wins, investments in underserved communities through the Justice40 initiative, and long-term transformation of the energy system,” according to the fact sheet. (The Biden administration’s Justice40 initiative aims to deliver at least 40% of the overall benefits from certain federal spending to disadvantaged communities.)

Innovations in the field of efficient building heating and cooling are necessary because “most existing heating and cooling equipment” in the United States “is still inefficient and uses climate-warming refrigerants, which hurts consumers and contributes to climate change,” according to the fact sheet. “Innovative technologies such as highly efficient heat pumps and advanced refrigerants could address many issues simultaneously.”

Aviation represents “one of the most difficult sectors for emissions reductions today,” according to the fact sheet. To achieve the goal of net-zero aviation, significant improvements will be needed in the fields of “carbon-neutral fuels, advanced biofuels, and electrification (including battery electric and fuel cell electric concepts),” the fact sheet says.

Advancements in the realm of a net-zero power grid and electrification are needed to ensure that the U.S. power grid can keep pace with new demands while also achieving goals pertaining to decarbonization. “To ensure the availability of clean, affordable, and reliable electricity while rapidly electrifying new parts of the economy to reduce our dependence on fossil fuels, we need to fundamentally transform the planning and operations of distribution and transmission grids by 2050,” according to the fact sheet.

As for the category of industrial products and fuels for a net-zero, circular economy, this area “focuses on new ways to make materials and fuels that reduce GHGs, increase efficiency, and cut waste,” the fact sheet notes. “It includes solutions for reducing GHGs and increasing efficiency of industrial process heating, material production (such as metals, cement, plastic, and chemicals), and water treatment processes. It also includes pathways for producing net-zero electrofuels — synthetic fuels made from clean electricity — which could be used as energy-dense transportation fuels.”

Finally, fusion energy at scale “has the potential to transform the energy system,” the fact sheet notes. “Fusion could potentially meet a large fraction of electricity demand and help eliminate GHG emissions from energy-intensive industrial processes, synthetic fuel production, and desalination.”

Funding possibilities

Neither the White House fact sheet nor the interagency report discusses possible funding levels for the five initial priorities to be promoted as part of the Net-Zero Game Changers Initiative. However, the report notes that potential funding sources include the Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act that was passed in November 2021, the Creating Helpful Incentives to Produce Semiconductors and Science Act that was enacted in August 2022, and the Inflation Reduction Act. Signed into law by Biden in August 2022, the latter included record sums for programs related to clean energy and climate change.

Also on Nov. 4, the Biden administration highlighted the $1.55 billion in federal spending appropriated to the Office of Science within the Department of Energy for fiscal year 2022. The funding, portions of which will help pay for research in certain net-zero applications, was provided by the Inflation Reduction Act.

Of the $1.55 billion, $294.5 million will go toward “basic energy sciences projects,” according to a Nov. 4 article on the Office of Science website. Another $280 million will be spent on “fusion energy sciences construction and major items of equipment projects,” while $133.2 million will pay for infrastructure projects within U.S. national laboratories.

“This historic investment will accelerate the development of climate solutions and will pave the way for a zero-carbon, clean energy future,” according to article. “At the same time, this funding will ensure America remains at the global forefront of innovation.”

Operational efficiency

The Biden administration’s emphasis on efficient building heating and cooling systems is well placed, says Erin McConahey, P.E., LEED BD+C, a principal at the global sustainable development consultancy Arup. “Buildings worldwide account for approximately 39% of global emissions, of which about 10% to 11% is associated with materials that are used in construction,” McConahey says. The remaining emissions represent “operational carbon” that is generated by the fossil-fuel-based energy sources used to heat, cool, and otherwise operate buildings, she says.

To begin to rein in operational carbon sources associated with heating, ventilating, and air conditioning systems, the “first thing to do is to focus on operational efficiency,” McConahey says. “No. 1, we're wanting people to convert to heat pumps for their heating sources.” Heat pumps, whether used to heat living spaces or water, are more efficient compared with conventional systems. “At the same time, we're trying to make sure that those heat pumps have refrigerants that do not have high global warming potential.”

Other key steps to improving the operational efficiency of buildings entail greater electrification along with a shift toward the use of more renewable energy sources to generate electricity that has fewer emissions, McConahey says. “For most regular commercial and residential buildings, there’s a lot of hope for the combination of efficiency and electrification, and then relying on the grid to get clean as a key path that, when combined with the use of electric vehicles, starts to make the majority of a city net-zero carbon in its operations.”

Outlook for civil engineering

The Net-Zero Game Changers Initiative is “consistent with” ASCE Policy Statement 488 on GHGs, notes Michael Bloom, P.E., ENV SP, M.ASCE, the sustainability practice manager for the water resource engineering firm 5engineering and a member of ASCE’s Committee on Sustainability.

Adopted by the Society’s Board of Direction in July, PS 488 indicates ASCE “supports public and private sector strategies and efforts to achieve significant reductions in greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions through the planning, design, construction, renewal, renovation, operation, maintenance, and decommissioning of existing and future infrastructure systems,” according to the policy statement.

For his part, Bloom was “particularly encouraged” that the administration’s initiative included several elements that “directly related to the work of civil engineers,” he says. “Advancing the availability and use of low-carbon-emission heavy-duty equipment used in infrastructure construction, low-carbon concrete, low-carbon steel, low-carbon infrastructure construction, and low-carbon water treatment will be very helpful. These game changers will directly assist ASCE members and the civil engineering profession to design and deliver infrastructure with reduced carbon emissions.”

Developing low-carbon versions of “tried and true” building materials such as concrete and steel almost certainly will prove difficult, but that provides “all the more reason to do the research and development to come up with different ways” to remove carbon from the products, says Terry Neimeyer, P.E., BCEE, ENV SP, Dist.M.ASCE, a senior adviser for the engineering, planning, and construction firm KCIand the chair of ASCE’s Committee on Sustainability.

To the extent that further R&D in the realm of net-zero practices and products leads to more projects aimed at reducing GHGs, civil engineers stand to benefit, at least indirectly, Neimeyer says. In many cases, the “ancillary infrastructure associated with” such projects “would definitely be a benefit to the civil engineering community because we're the ones that can design that infrastructure,” he says.