Along with other government agencies and businesses across the United States, Los Alamos National Laboratory is working hard to shrink its carbon footprint. A 2021 executive order threw down a heavy gauntlet by requiring every federal agency to achieve net-zero carbon emissions by 2050.
Many private sector companies are on the same path: More than 5,000 businesses — 400 major corporations among them, including General Motors — have pledged to reach net zero. As a large federal facility, Los Alamos is committed to the same sustainable future.
It’s a heavy lift for everyone, but at Los Alamos we’re taking concrete steps to make it happen on this nearly 16,000-person, 40-square mile laboratory. Our strategies include switching to carbon-neutral electricity, storing renewable power, making all buildings independent of carbon-emitting energy sources and implementing carbon capture. Transportation is a big piece of the puzzle. Nationally, transportation accounts for 27% of all greenhouse gas emissions, more than any other sector. At the lab, we plan to switch to carbon-neutral transportation by 2050 for our fleet and we’re working to reduce carbon pollution from employees commuting to work.
To begin zeroing out carbon from transportation, for starters, we’ve installed 18 solar-powered electric-vehicle charging stations around the laboratory for government and personal vehicles. More stations will follow. Each battery-charging station annually can provide up to 35,000 miles of emissions-free driving, together offsetting about 225,000 pounds of carbon dioxide. Carbon-free solar energy makes these stations independent of the electric grid. That’s important. LANL won’t achieve carbon neutrality until the grid does, because we can’t generate enough onsite carbon-neutral power to meet all our needs.
The EV chargers support our plan to convert the lab’s fleet of passenger vehicles and light trucks to electric over the next five years, with the heavier vehicles to follow. But our transportation future doesn’t rely solely on battery EVs. We’re also pursuing hydrogen-fuel-cell vehicles, which run on electricity from hydrogen and emit only clean water. Transitioning fleets to fuel cells is an important step in decarbonizing the transportation sector.
Hydrogen power comes naturally to us. For 45 years, the lab has been a leader in developing the technology that underlies most of the fuel cells in use today. So we thought we should walk the walk by integrating fuel cells into our operations. Along with hydrogen production and utilization and other clean energy technologies, fuel cells are key to the I-WEST initiative, which Los Alamos is leading to help the Intermountain West navigate the energy transition to achieve carbon neutrality.
To that end, we’re planning to use our gas-fired power and steam plant as a technology testbed. The proposed new Energy Transition Center of Excellence will integrate and demonstrate clean energy technologies at near-utility scale. The center will provide fueling for vehicles and launch a pilot program of fuel-cell buses, with plans to transition the local bus fleet to zero-emissions by 2030. We’ve ordered the federal government’s first hydrogen-fuel-cell bus, which we hope will begin for LANL routes in 2024.
EVs and fuel cell vehicles are a big step toward sustainable transportation, but our carbon footprint includes the emissions from thousands of cars — and buses too — bringing workers to the lab daily. That’s something all businesses should consider. COVID-19 made a big dent in that number, and as Los Alamos adapts to the pandemic, many workers continue to partially telework, but single-occupancy-vehicle commutes are rising again.
Two thirds of our workforce lives off “the hill.” To address this commuting challenge, we will begin a pilot to test an off-site parking lot in Pojoaque and shuttle folks to and from the lab. Even a diesel bus reduces carbon emissions compared to the cars that would otherwise make the trip. If we can move the bus fleet to fuel-cell power, the savings grow dramatically.
Our plans don’t stop there — we recently hired a transportation director. Among a bunch of other things, he is busy launching a vanpool program and will help our employees find carpool partners to share the ride to work. We are also aiming to improve transit around the campus, eventually to zero-emissions buses, electric bikes and improved pedestrian access.
Taken together, these strategies will jump-start our drive to carbon-neutral transportation at the laboratory, but not in isolation. Planning for a carbon-neutral lab requires a systems approach, connecting pieces of the operation that haven’t traditionally been considered together. As the lab continues to grow, add jobs and pursue its innovative mission research, we will fold sustainable transportation into interconnected strategies across every facet of our operations. The road ahead may have some bumps and unexpected turns, but we believe our roadmap will help us reach the zero-carbon future while delivering the science our nation depends on.
Monica Witt is Deputy Facility Operations Director for the Utilities and Infrastructure Division and leads the sustainability program at Los Alamos National Laboratory.
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