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We need a clean grid for electrification to decarbonize

Electric grid
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Experts agree: Electrification is key to reaching deep decarbonization and curbing the worst impacts of climate change. It’s why "electrify everything" has emerged as a simple, unifying principle for climate think tanks and NGOs — and the inspiration for GreenBiz’s newest event, VERGE Electrify

Of course, electrification will decarbonize only if there is ample and affordable clean energy on the grid to feed the growing demands. If all buildings, vehicles and industry were magically electrified with today’s grid, emissions actually would increase in the short term. That’s because, depending where you live, our electricity grid isn’t that clean. More than a quarter of energy in the U.S. still comes from coal.

Emissions rates by region

But the grid is not static. The electrify everything movement is about anticipating and preparing for a clean energy future. Appliances that companies and households buy today will be around for the next 10 to 30 years. In that timeframe, the grid is going to get a lot cleaner. It already has. 

The grid is already halfway to zero

A recent study from Berkeley Lab shows that the power sector is decarbonizing faster than anticipated, with emissions at half as much as projected 15 years ago. In 2005, many projections anticipated that the power supply in the United States would reach 3,000 million metric tons (MMT) by 2020. In reality, direct power emissions reached 1,450 MMT.

"By this metric, in only 15 years the country’s power sector has gone halfway to zero emissions," the report says. 

Clean grid graphic

The reason for the reduction: A little bit of everything. Energy efficiency improved, renewables came online and coal plants shut down faster than anticipated, and natural gas generation grew rapidly, which is less carbon-intensive when combusted than coal. 

The Berkeley Lab study illustrates how hard it is to project the impacts of disruptive technologies. Renewables and climate tech fell in price and deployed faster than most predicted. Looking at power generation trends of the 20th century cannot capture the speed and scale of renewables, which are already the cheapest form of energy on a levelized cost basis and will continue to fall in price. 

The second half of decarbonization will be more complicated. In the words of innovator and VERGE Electrify advisor Saul Griffith, "You can’t ‘efficiency’ your way to zero; that requires transformation."

Policy is key to getting all the way to zero

There are clear policy signals pushing for a carbon-free grid. More than 40 percent of Americans live in a state or district with 100 percent clean energy, net-zero or carbon neutrality goals. Getting there will be complicated, given that utilities are tasked with ensuring accessibility, reliability and affordability. 

California, the largest state in the country with a goal to reach 100 percent clean energy by 2045, recently released a 179-page report outlining different strategies to reach this goal. The report is a microcosm of what regulators and energy providers will face across the county. The high-level takeaways: 

  • Reaching 100 percent clean energy is technically achievable. 
  • It will require California to sustain record-setting build rates for new renewables. 

California has never built more than 2.7 gigawatts of non-rooftop solar or 1 gigawatt of wind power in a year. In order to have a chance at its 100 percent goal, the state will have to deploy at least that capacity every year for the next 25 years. In addition, the state will need to deploy a suite of other technologies, including batteries, long-duration storage and demand response. 

Given the disruptive nature of renewable energy and its hockey-stick growth curve, meeting that goal doesn’t seem outlandish. But it will require California to prepare for and address pinch points, including workforce development, land-use planning, supply chains and the regulatory process. That means a lot of players need to be pulling in the same direction. 

Unfortunately, border alignment is currently elusive. Even as some states push hard toward clean power, more than 31 states have adopted local or state restrictions to limit renewable deployments, according to a study from Columbia’s Sabin Center for Climate Change Law. Energy policy is already a confusing patchwork of regulation, with utilities operating in energy markets that extend beyond state lines and that are subject to state public utility commissions wherever they operate. 

Clear policy signals from the federal level may be essential for aligning efforts. And if the Biden administration gets its way, there may soon be a 100 percent clean energy goal for the whole country by 2035. 

How to do your part 

While utilities and policymakers are making the grid cleaner and cleaner, companies and consumers will have millions of individual opportunities to choose machines and appliances that can run off clean electricity. 

"How quickly we decarbonize relies on us making every one of those choices correctly at the next opportunity," wrote Griffith in an article last year. "You can think of this as purchasing your own clean infrastructure, the things that will make your life fit into the new zero-carbon infrastructure of the 21st century."

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