Tuesday, May 03, 2016

Science Says this Centuries-Old Discovery Will Save the Planet

The case for electrifying everything.

Spark (Credit: Ase/Shutterstock) Click to Enlarge.
The United States leads the world in the number of electric vehicles on the road, but the count is still tiny: about 350,000.  That's less than 1 percent of all passenger cars and trucks in the country.  Recent market research suggests that number will climb steadily over the next several decades.  But will it climb fast enough?  When it comes to fighting climate change, that could turn out to be one of the most important questions of the next few years.

On April 22, world leaders gathered in New York City to sign the Paris Agreement on climate change, in which they vowed to keep global temperature rise to "well below" 2 degrees Celsius (3.6 degrees Fahrenheit) above pre-industrial levels, a limit the world is already more than halfway toward exceeding.  Meanwhile, energy experts have begun to map out the fine-grain details of what meeting that goal would actually require.  And it's becoming increasingly clear that electric vehicles have an indispensable role to play. 

It turns out that one of the most immediate societal changes for average Americans in a climate-savvy future would likely be the electrification of just about everything.  In other words, the hope of the planet could lie in a force—electricity—we've known about for hundreds of years.

That might sound strange, given that electricity production is the No. 1 source of greenhouse gas emissions in the United States.  Coal- and gas-burning power plants are still our main sources of electricity, and in some parts of the country the power grid is so dirty that electric vehicles might actually cause more pollution than traditional gas-guzzlers.

But thanks to the explosive growth of solar, wind, and other renewable energy technologies, electricity is getting cleaner all the time.  Over the last decade, the share of total US electricity production from renewables (including hydroelectric dams) rose from about 9.5 percent to more than 14 percent, with year-to-year growth getting faster all the time.  So there's a good case to be made for phasing out the other types of fossil fuel use in our daily lives—particularly gasoline for cars and oil and gas for heating buildings.  We should be using electricity instead—even if that means using more electricity overall.

That's a key finding of the Deep Decarbonization Pathways Project, an international consortium of energy researchers that produced a detailed technical study of how to cut US greenhouse gas emissions by 80 percent compared with 1990 levels by 2050—the change necessary if Americans hope to do their part to stay within the two-degree limit.  The report found that it's technically possible for the United States to meet that target, at an annual cost of about 1 percent of GDP, without sacrificing any "energy services."  That is, the report assumes we'll still drive and have houses and operate factories the same as we do today.  But to do so will require a major boost in electrification—which will in turn require that the US produce about twice as much electricity as it currently does—while reducing the carbon emissions per unit of energy down to just 3 to 10 percent of their current levels.  In other words, at the same time we're electrifying everything, we need to continue to clean up the electric grid and double down on energy efficiency, especially in buildings.

Read more at Science Says this Centuries-Old Discovery Will Save the Planet

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