Electrification 101 🔦🔌

Electrifying Our Way to a Sustainable Future

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What do Denver, Berkeley, Boston, and Ithaca have in common? They are cities trailblazing the electrification movement, leading the way in adopting electrification strategies for buildings and transportation. In the coming years, your city will likely follow suit, ushering in a new era of improved interactions with the built environment.

In this newsletter, we’ll get you up to speed on this “electrify everything wave.”

The Gist 🎯

Electrification is a broad term with two co-existing definitions:

  1. The process of transitioning our energy consumption from fossil fuel-based sources to electricity.

  2. Generating electricity from clean energy sources

Energy currently comes from the combustion of fossil fuels, whether at a power plant that delivers electricity to your home or on-site by your water heater or gas stove. And of course, most vehicles today still rely on gasoline combustion as a fuel source. Electrification means that both the energy that comes from power plants is clean and the appliances or vehicles we use no longer rely on fossil fuel combustion.

Transitioning to renewable sources is essential, and electrification is the mechanism through which we can harness the power of renewables to fuel everything. Today, only 30% of global electricity comes from renewable sources, but IRENA (International Renewable Energy Agency) estimates this figure needs to be closer to 90% to meet our climate goals by 2050. Electrification enables the use of more renewable energy sources and marks a step towards decarbonization. To achieve these goals, both definitions need to occur simultaneously. As the quote from a seminar on electrification highlights, “replacing every fossil fuel-burning device with a clean energy alternative is a monumental task to achieve by 2050. This replacement includes coal and gas power plants, cars and trucks, gas furnaces, water heaters, and more.”

There are three sectors that collectively contribute to almost two-thirds of greenhouse gas emissions in the US: Buildings, Transportation, and Industry.

Building electrification refers to using electricity for core building functions such as heating, cooling, and cooking. Today, commercial and residential buildings are responsible for almost a third of US electricity greenhouse gas emissions*. We already have the means to make the transition. Each core building function has viable electric substitutes, such as induction stoves instead of gas stoves and air-source heat pumps or electric water heaters instead of furnaces. However, it may be costly to replace all or any of these appliances in your home. And is it better for the environment to replace an appliance before its end-of-life in the name of electrification? No. Instead, “we need to take advantage of the natural replacement cycle today”. This means replacing appliances at the end of their life. To help with this transition policymakers are introducing electrification plans and updating building codes to facilitate reaching electrification targets, while incentives such as tax credits and rebates provided by bills like the IRA make purchasing major appliances more affordable.

Transportation electrification refers to powering vehicles (personal and public transport) with electricity rather than gas and diesel. This sector is responsible for 27% of US greenhouse gas emissions. Electrification provides economic, environmental, and social benefits while promoting energy resilience. Electric vehicles are cheaper than traditional gasoline-powered vehicles in the long run, and they eliminate tailpipe emissions, thus reducing greenhouse gas emissions. Less emissions also means less air pollution for historically marginalized communities. These communities are often near heavily trafficked highways. Bidirectional technology allows for discharging to the grid when demand is high, which builds energy resilience. In addition to electrifying personal transportation vehicles, we can also electrify public transit like buses and rail. By electrifying and expanding public transit operations, we really can cut emissions from this sector.

Industrial electrification involves using electricity as a heating source for industrial operations that produce materials such as steel, cement, and glass. These operations account for about 22% of total US greenhouse gas emissions. Achieving industrial electrification will be technologically challenging, requiring significant alterations to existing processes and, therefore less economically feasible.

As all these sectors electrify, we’ll increase our demand from the grid. So the biggest challenge across these sectors is ensuring the grid can reliably and efficiently meet these demands. There’s a lot of work to do but there’s plenty we each can do to reach our goals.

Questions I Should Be Asking? 🤔

  1. How do you heat or cool your home? Is it from a furnace or an electric heat pump?

  2. If it's from a water heater, how many more years should I expect to get out of it?

  3. What are my current energy requirements in my home? Specifically what is the most energy-intensive appliances?

  4. Are there any home electrification or transportation electrification incentives that I can genuinely take advantage? Check this guide to the the Inflation Reduction Act to see how it benefits you!

TL;DR + What’s Next 🗺️

In conclusion, electrification is a crucial component of achieving a sustainable future. By transitioning from fossil fuel-based sources to clean electricity, we can reduce greenhouse gas emissions and increase our reliance on renewable energy sources.

Electrification marks an exciting time as it propels us toward a sustainable future in which our infrastructure is powered by electricity. The future is coming!

This edition concludes our exploration of sustainable energy systems (for now)! In the coming weeks, we’ll explore what a sustainable transportation system really looks like!

*We use two different accounting methods for determining the share of greenhouse gas emissions. For buildings, we use electricity end-use sectoral shares, and for transportation and industry, we use economic sectoral shares.

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