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The key to tackling climate change: electrify everything

electricity (Shutterstock)

Tackling climate change is a complicated undertaking, to say the least. But here’s a good rule of thumb for how to get started:

Electrify everything.

Replace technologies that still run on combustion, like gasoline vehicles and natural gas heating and cooling, with alternatives that run on electricity, like electric vehicles and heat pumps. Get as much of our energy consumption as possible hooked up to the power grid.

The need for electrification is well understood by climate and energy experts, but I’m not sure it has filtered down to the public yet; the consensus on it is fairly new. For decades, the conventional wisdom has been the other way around: Electricity was dirty and the process of generating it and transmitting it involved substantial losses, so from an energy conservation point of view, the best thing to do was often to burn fossil fuel on site in increasingly energy-efficient devices.

So why did the CW change? There are several factors involved; I’ll run through the three most important.

1) There is a path to zero-carbon electricity

The context for energy has changed over recent decades, with growing concern over global warming. Avoiding dangerous climate change means getting as close to zero carbon emissions as possible, as fast as possible. How can we get to zero?

Ain’t zero pretty?

Think of consumer energy technologies as two basic types: those that run on electricity (anything that plugs in or has a battery) and those that directly combust fuels like oil, gasoline, natural gas, or biomass. A heat pump versus a natural gas furnace; an electric car versus a gas car; a solar+storage system versus a diesel generator.

We know, or at least have a pretty good idea, how to get electricity down to zero carbon. There are options: wind, solar, nuclear, hydro, geothermal, and coal or natural gas with carbon capture and sequestration (CCS). There are plenty of disagreements about exactly what mix of those sources will be needed to get us to a carbon-free grid, and what mix of centralized versus distributed resources, and what mix of supply-side versus demand-side solutions — but there’s broad consensus that pathways to fully clean electricity exist.

The same cannot yet be said of combustion fuels, which are increasingly out of place in the modern world, as this clever Nissan Leaf ad shows:

No matter how efficient a gas car gets, it can’t eliminate carbon emissions. The only currently viable alternative liquid fuels — biofuels —have proven problematic for all sorts of environmental and economic reasons. So-called drop-in biofuels (which work in existing internal combustion engines) would be welcome, and some could arguably lower carbon emissions, but there is as yet no prospect of practical, scalable, carbon-free biofuels (or biomass). There’s no clear road to zero.

(One zero-carbon possibility is "synthetic gas," which uses electricity to split hydrogen from water and then mixes it with carbon dioxide to form substitute hydrocarbon fuels. That’s a long way from commercial, though.)

If we know how to clean up electricity and we don’t yet know how to clean up combustion fuels, it makes sense to begin replacing combustion tech with electrical tech, insofar as it’s possible.

2) Greener electricity lifts all electrical boats

In the developed world, most consumers get their power from the electricity grid (even those who also contribute to the grid with rooftop solar panels). When you are connected to a grid, everything you use that runs on electricity is, in carbon/climate terms, as clean as that grid.

electricity substation
Da grid.

This has some profound implications. It means that, as long as we are reducing carbon on the grid, every single electrical device is getting cleaner throughout its life.

To see how this works, think of two home heating systems, a natural gas furnace and a heat pump that runs on electricity.

The natural gas furnace’s rate of carbon emissions is basically fixed by its design. It will emit the same level of carbon-emissions-per-unit-of-heat throughout its 20-year lifespan.

Over the same 20 years, the power grid from which the heat pump draws its electricity will be getting cleaner — less coal, more renewables. That means the heat pump’s carbon-emissions-per-unit-of-heat will decline throughout its life. Its environmental performance improves as the grid improves.

The same is true for cars. An internal combustion engine (ICE) vehicle will emit roughly the same level of carbon-emissions-per-mile throughout its many decades of life; the only chance for improvement is when it finally wears out and is replaced by a new car. By contrast, as long as the grid keeps getting greener, an EV’s carbon-emissions-per-mile declines throughout its life.

vehicle to grid
Have to admit, it’s getting better, getting better all the time.

Electrical grids are giant levers that can move the environmental needle on hundreds of millions of distributed technologies at once. Every device, appliance, or vehicle that runs on electricity benefits from the grid’s every incremental improvement.

With a tech that runs on liquid fuels, the only opportunity to reduce carbon emissions is at the end of the lifecycle, when it is replaced. With tech that runs on electricity, improvement is continuous — and far, far faster.

3) New uses for electricity enable more renewables on the grid

Wind and solar power are not like conventional power sources. They can’t be turned on and off, or "dispatched," by grid operators. They come and go with the wind and sun; grid operators have to adjust to them, not the other way around.

One problem grid operators face when the grid begins to absorb more wind and solar is that there are times — especially sunny or windy times — when renewables generate more power than the grid can use, and other times when they generate only a fraction of what the grid needs. The variations become more extreme the more wind and solar are added, producing the much-discussed "duck curve" in electricity demand:

california’s duck curve.
The legendary (in, uh, some circles) "duck curve" produced by renewable energy, show here affecting the California grid.

To absorb more variable renewables, the grid needs ways to smooth out those large swings.

There are tons and tons of ways to do that. One is "dispatchable load," i.e., power consumption that can be scheduled, drawing more energy in times of peak production and in some cases releasing clean power back to the grid during the valleys.

Transitioning transportation and heating/cooling over to electricity would create a huge new source of dispatchable load. Surplus renewable electricity can be stored in a fleet of electric vehicle batteries, or as heat in water heaters, or as ice in air conditioners, and used when wind and solar production has slowed.

Adding more dispatchable load means the grid will be able to safely accommodate a much higher level of wind and solar.

In summary, a simple plan for decarbonization

All three of these advantages of electricity suggest the same two-pronged strategy for deep decarbonization:

  1. Clean up electricity.
  2. Electrify everything.


Experts agree on electrification, but add a warning

A 2016 paper in the Electricity Journal refers to what I’ve just described as "environmentally beneficial electrification." It notes that the expert consensus on electrification has grown quite broad. Here are links to a few recent reports and notable experts that stress "fuel-switching" to electricity as crucial for meeting carbon emission goals:

There’s increasing expert consensus: Decarbonization requires electrification.

grab that electricity
We must not be afraid to grasp the cheesiest stock art the internet has to offer.

But there’s a problem. Our energy planning rarely takes the kind of holistic view required to see and measure the benefits of fuel switching. More specifically, our energy metrics don’t capture it very well. And so, unwittingly, our policy may discourage it.

Many public policies seek to promote energy efficiency, but as the authors of the Electricity Journal paper — Keith Dennis of the National Rural Electric Cooperative Association and Ken Colburn and Jim Lazar of the Regulatory Assistance Project — point out, energy efficiency isn’t precisely what we want. What we want is emissions efficiency, i.e., getting the same amount of work with less carbon. (They try to coin a new term for this, "emiciency," but I’m just going to let that pass.)

Here’s the thing: If a state shifts a bunch of transportation and building heat over to electricity, overall consumption of electricity could rise and average electricity-sector efficiency could fall, at least temporarily, even as economy-wide carbon emissions decline. Policies like the Clean Power Plan would, perversely, penalize a state for this.

By focusing exclusively on the electricity sector and energy efficiency, policies like the CPP miss the possibilities of environmentally beneficial electrification. Even an electric technology that is mediocre in terms of energy efficiency can help avoid emissions from dirtier liquid-fueled alternatives. Those avoided emissions need to be taken into account. "[E]nergy efficiency," the authors caution, "is an inadequate metric to measure technology performance when it comes to GHG emissions."

Substantial electrification will require targeted policy

Carbon wonks will reply that this is a good argument for an economy-wide price on carbon, which would boost all carbon-reduction strategies, without favor. And they’re not wrong. But it’s worth remembering that a carbon price’s influence on gasoline prices (for example) is quite oblique. A carbon tax of $20/ton will raise the price of a gallon of gasoline by about 20 cents. Even $100/ton, far higher than anyone is now contemplating, adds only about $1 to a gallon of gas — not nothing, but well short of powerful enough to drive a rapid, mass transition from ICEVs to EVs.

bev adoption
A policy puzzle: how to speed this up.

A carbon tax hits the electricity sector first, precisely because that’s where the cheapest carbon reductions are found. Transportation, in many ways the most difficult challenge, will be the last affected by a tax. If we want to drive a wholesale transition of transportation and heating to electricity, at a time when fossil fuels are cheaper than ever, it’s going to require something more forceful and targeted than any realistic carbon price.

Still, it is now clear that deep decarbonization will involve pushing as much energy usage as possible to electricity grids. Farsighted policy will seek to accelerate that process, achieving the enduring benefits of electrification that much sooner.

Such policies would involve substantial investment in the short term for payoff over the long term, which is not exactly the forte of democratic politics in the best of circumstances, and these … are not those.

Nonetheless, this perspective brings a welcome clarity to the immediate challenges of climate policy. Once more, for the cheap seats:

  1. Clean up electricity.
  2. Electrify everything.

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