Monday, September 19, 2016

The Key to Tackling Climate Change: Electrify Everything - Updated by David Roberts

Electricity (Credit: Shutterstock) Click to Enlarge.
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
  2. ... 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:
    Gas Powered Everything commercial
    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.
  3. Greener electricity lifts all electrical boats
  4. 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. 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. ... 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.
  5. New uses for electricity enable more renewables on the grid
  6. 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:  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 entirely 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:
  • Clean up electricity.
  • Electrify everything.

Read more at The Key to Tackling Climate Change: Electrify Everything

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