Electrify everything, or aim for beneficial electrification?

My how things have changed. Back in the day, when most of the electricity we used was derived from fossil energy sources, any reduction of electricity use was considered a good thing by those concerned about emission. Now that the grid is on a trajectory toward ever cleaner sources, the dynamic has changed. Fuel switching from fossil gas powered systems to electric systems can, and most often is, a cleaner way to go.

But does this mean that we should electrifying everything, always, everywhere? Or is there a more thoughtful, measured approach that prioritizes electrification that brings the most benefit, socially and environmentally, and leaves room for other clean systems? Let’s also not forget age old common sense: it is rarely ever a great idea to put all your eggs in one basket. Consistent with that wisdom, electrifying everything may leave those who have electrified everything with nothing when there is no, or limited, electricity to be had.

Let’s start by defining these terms. When we say electrify everything, that can easily be construed to mean what it appears to say, that the aim is to simply electrify everything that requires power. For the sake of this article, that is the definition we will use. Beneficial electrification means identifying systems that run on dirty power that can be switched to use electricity with no detrimental social or environmental impacts, thus providing multiple benefits to direct users and others. Beneficial electrification is not necessarily at the exclusion of other options, both powered, and non-powered.

The Regulatory Assistance Project, an independent nonprofit organization, points to three criteria that electrification should meet to count as beneficial. It should:

  • Reduce harmful environmental impacts;
  • Save consumers money over the long run; and
  • Enable better grid management.

If we abide by these criteria, we can identify many candidates for electrification. And if we abide by our non-exclusionary principle, other non-electrified options can be considered. Let’s take a look at few use cases.

Buildings

Solar water heating is the lesser-known solar technology. When most folks think of solar power, they think of solar photovoltaics, the conversion of sunlight to electricity. Solar hot water is the conversion of solar energy to heat and it works without a need for gas or electric power. Solar water heating is a well-established and proven technology has been around since the 19th century and is used widely in many parts of the world. In Israel for example, it is estimated that 90% of households use solar water heating. Although it has significant upfront installation costs, solar water heating meets our three criteria.

I use a solar oven. I have been using it – the same one – since 2008. It is a wonderful way to avoid using gas or electricity and it is downright fun. In full sun, it rapidly shoots to over 300 degrees, hot enough for many cooking tasks including baking. Come over some time and I’ll make you a wild blackberry pie. It is also a great rice cooker – set it and forget it. Just put it out on the deck with the pot of rice & water aimed toward the south. The sun arcs across the sky in just the right amount of time to cook the rice and to then “turn off” as the angle of solar radiance becomes so steep that the temperature drops. When we are ready for dinner the rice is usually still warm enough to just scoop out onto a plate. Solar ovens meets our three criteria.

Lastly, it is critically important to remember to not electrify inefficiency. “Efficiency first,” so the loading order goes. (1. energy efficiency, 2. demand response, 3. clean distributed energy resources). Simply electrifying a bad or inefficient system is not the best way to go about things. The obvious case is solar photovoltaics (PV). Although PV costs have dropped precipitously over the past 15 years, solar panels are still expensive. It makes sense to look at ways to maximize efficiency, which often costs far less than PV, prior to calculating the size of PV array needed.

It is important to consider that a key benefit is in the specific cases where the technology itself is much more efficient. Resistance electric heaters are electric, but not efficient. They use a lot of energy, and potentially can burn more natural gas and have higher greenhouse gas emissions, than burning natural gas in a home heater. Electric heat pump space and water heaters are helpful because they are two to three times more efficient than a gas or resistance electric heater. So it is important to consider what kind of electrification technology we are talking about.

Transportation

Simply electrifying transportation will still leave us with congestion and a system that does not meet the needs of a large portion of the population. To address the transportation question adequately, investments not just in electrification, but in public transit, pedestrian and bicycling amenities should be considered. Beyond that, we can look at advancing ways to reduce the need for travel at all, such as teleworking, and redesigning our urban environments to be more conducive to non-powered transit. This is not to say that powered transportation should not be electrified. It should. The point is that we should look at these systems holistically and aim to address some of the problems that won’t be solved by electrification alone.

For greater penetration of variable clean energy sources (wind and solar), there is a critical need for tandem technologies to be deployed. A clear example is the abundance of solar PV available but not always needed during the day. We need a place to store that energy. So in the same breath that we talk about electrification we need to talk about technologies such as energy storage and automated demand response in order to realize the full benefits.

Let’s not forget about conservation. With the world population projected to reach about ten billion by 2050, resources required for the batteries and other technologies that make electrification possible will not be infinite. Conservation means reducing energy consumption by simply using less of a service, especially where that service itself is frivolous, wasteful, or not really benefiting people.

Lastly, as we consider beneficial electrification, the social, political, economic, and cultural contexts of energy use should be taken into account. Energy democracy, social justice, affordability, and concern for the effect on communities, wildlife habitat, and natural resources must be included as part of the analysis. Yes, we need to scale up renewable energy in the built environment and expand electric vehicle adoption. But if the broader context is not brought to the center of the discussion, a blind push to electrify everything could ultimately be counterproductive to the main problem that electrify everything claims to solve – addressing the climate crisis.

Woody Hastings
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