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  • Randy Rankin

Electrify Everything (reasonable)

In a recent post I offered my opinion of the three things we need to do now to combat climate change. One of those was to electrify everything reasonable. This is complex topic that I will try to simplify.

The Department of Energy is aggressively studying and forecasting US energy use through 2050. Their latest estimates show that a high level of electrification defined to include adoption of EV transportation and building electrification drives a reduction in absolute energy-sector CO2 emissions over time regardless of the fuel, technology, and system constraint assumptions[1]. The study shows that growth in the US electricity industry needs to double between 2018 and 2050 for high electrification and doing so creates an economic market for both Renewable Energy (RE) and Natural Gas (NG) and can’t be accomplished without both. The balance between these two energy sources drives other decisions on how to expand the US electric grid and impacts how much CO2 and other GHG reduction can be achieved.

This growth in both RE and NG may come as a surprise. Those demanding the end of the oil & gas industry, and conversely those fearing the end of the same need to recognize the potential win-win this opportunity provides. (See the Methane Emission post about the urgent need to clean up methane leaks from oil & gas, another sub-topic of the Three Things posting).

Electrification makes sense even in the absence of renewable energy growth due to increased efficiency. The move to Electric Vehicles (EV) is important simply because EV’s are more energy efficient. The best internal combustion engine loses more than 70% of the available chemical energy in gasoline through heat loss and friction compared to less than 30% losses for EV’s. On the other hand, not every electrification makes sense. A high efficiency NG water heater extracts more of the chemical energy to heat than replacing your water heater with a traditional electric water heater because the best power plants are only 40% efficient. But if you replace your NG water heater with an electric heat pump water heater the tables turn with the latter being more efficient meaning less overall CO2 emissions. Better yet is if you have solar PV to provide that electricity.

Our electrical infrastructure needs to expand to meet the doubled electrical load by 2050. Transmission from the RE rich central and southwest regions of our country to the coasts is in great need. Fortunately, the US electricity transmission capacity does not have to be doubled, especially with high penetrations of renewable energy. RE by nature is a distributed energy source and wide adoption of RE lessens the need move electricity long distances.

Electrification with aggressive growth in RE provides the path to directly reduce CO2 and nearly eliminates SO2, and NOX emissions across the US.

[1] C. Murphy et al., “Electrification Futures Study: Scenarios of Power System Evolution and Infrastructure Development for the United States,” NREL/TP--6A20-72330, 1762438, MainId:6548, Jan. 2021. doi: 10.2172/1762438.

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