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Two Steps Forward

Electrification gets down to the wire

Electrification

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It’s a shockingly heady time for electricity.

The push to quickly transition carbon-intensive activities away from fossil fuels while meeting the world’s growing energy needs has put electricity producers and consumers squarely in the forefront of the emerging clean economy. The once-humdrum electricity sector has become a hub of interest and innovation for the worlds of energy, infrastructure, manufacturing, transportation, buildings, policy, finance and others.

This week, in the run-up to our VERGE Electrify virtual event next month, our fleet of GreenBiz weekly newsletters will focus on the potential and pitfalls of transitioning energy users away from fossil fuels to cleaner power sources. "Electrify everything" has become the glib shorthand for that movement. It’s not that bad an approximation of what’s needed to address the climate crisis.

Success will require reforming and optimizing the entire system, not just its component parts.

And it’s happening:

  • Electric vehicles are quickly gaining traction, with the world’s major automakers accelerating efforts to transition some or all of their new vehicles to run on electricity instead of oil. And not just cars: The electrification of trucks, tractors, buses, trains, ships, even aircraft is gearing up faster than many had predicted. Yet it could take decades to convert all of these things to electric powertrains.
  • Buildings are similarly opening their doors to being powered entirely by electricity, supplanting natural gas and other fuels for heating and cooling. Local jurisdictions are banning the use of natural gas in newly constructed (and, in some places, renovated) homes and commercial buildings. That’s leading manufacturers to amp up a new generation of boilers, chillers and other machines and appliances to accommodate the growing demand.
  • Manufacturing is going electric, too, as companies ratchet up their net-zero-carbon goals. Compressors, boilers and other industrial processes that have long relied on fossil fuels are gradually shifting to electricity. Even the so-called hard-to-abate industries — manufacturing concrete and steel, for example, along with many energy-intensive processes in chemical manufacturing — are beginning to shed natural gas in favor of electricity.

All of these represent the surest pathways toward decarbonizing the global economy, and all are ramping up to meet the commitments by governments to align with the goals of the Paris climate agreement.

Surge protection

Of course, electrification is hardly plug-and-play. Trillions of dollars of legacy equipment, some not yet in need of replacement, risks being stranded in an all-electric world. There’s the complex carbon composition of the electric grid, which can vary widely from place to place — in the United States, for example, from Washington state (which relies heavily on hydropower) to Wyoming (powered almost entirely by coal).

And the era of fossil fuels is hardly over. More than 130,000 miles of oil and gas transmission pipelines are planned globally, representing roughly $1 trillion in capital expenditures, according to a recent report from Global Energy Monitor. More than 80 percent will carry natural gas, the once-heralded "bridge fuel" that is increasingly in disfavor due to its negative climate and water impacts. China alone is planning more than 20,000 miles of new oil and gas pipelines. Such projects are on a collision course with the global transition to net-zero emissions by mid-century.

Perhaps the most critical question is about electricity's underlying infrastructure: Can it handle the expected surge in electricity supply and demand?

What we refer to as "the grid" is, in developed economies, an extraordinarily complex web of asset owners, equipment manufacturers, energy producers, utilities and other energy distributors and national, regional and local governments. In the United States that means coordinating more than 9,200 electricity generating stations and more than 600,000 miles of transmission lines. Not to mention the growing number of smart buildings, vehicles and other devices that can communicate directly with the grid.

We’ve seen recently the fragility of this ecosystem, whether due to severe cold, heat, wildfires, hurricanes, floods, droughts and other all-too-frequent manifestations of a changing climate. The aging power-generation fleet in developed countries, including coal-fired power plants and nuclear facilities, is approaching the end of its useful life and is increasingly vulnerable to such disruptions.

Meanwhile, there’s the fast-growing renewable energy resources providing power to the grid, although usually not on the 24/7 basis that legacy power plants produce. Connecting them to the grid at scale will require massive new investments in distribution wires, transformers and intelligent controls. The improving cost and availability of grid-level energy storage represents both an opportunity and challenge for grid operators.

Even basic materials such as copper — a key ingredient of transmission lines, cables, transformers, circuit breakers, switches and substations — factor in. Global demand is high, thanks in large part to China’s substantial appetite for the metal. Long-running underinvestment in mining and industrial production have exacerbated the situation, according to Goldman Sachs, which predicts nearly 5 million tons of additional demand in the second half of this decade due to the demands of decarbonization. That’s a lot of mining, with all of its environmental impacts.

The paths from here to electrification and decarbonization are costly and complex.

All of which is to say that while "electrify everything" has become the mantra of advocates of climate and energy policy, the paths from here to electrification and decarbonization are costly and complex. Even if every company’s facilities and fleets were to make a sharp turn away from fossil fuels and toward an all-electric future, there are massive structural, political and economic hurdles to overcome.

None of which need be a show-stopper. We'll need, all of us collectively, to power through these challenges. This is arguably the most significant move needed by the global economic order in the face of growing climate disruption.

But success will require reforming and optimizing the entire system, not just its component parts. It will require new ways of deploying public and private funds, and unprecedented collaboration among energy producers, grid operators, policy makers and energy consumers, among other players.

There’s little doubt that electrification will be our future. The only questions are how quickly the transition will take place, at what cost, and how long the incumbents will be able to cling to their profitable (for now) but polluting ways.

It will fall to the private sector as much as the public sector to drive these changes, both politically and economically. Are we up to the challenge?

I invite you to follow me on Twitter, subscribe to my Monday morning newsletter, GreenBuzz, and listen to GreenBiz 350, my weekly podcast, co-hosted with Heather Clancy.

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