Why electrify at all?
Natural gas is a fossil fuel, and its largest component is methane. Leaky pipelines and old gas distribution systems in communities all over California have led to a steep rise in methane emissions, which are 84 times more powerful than carbon emissions. Trying to fix all these leaks is prohibitively expensive. The unavoidable solution to these leaks is the rapid phase-out of natural gas use in buildings in favor of electric appliances for space heating, water heating, and cooking.
Technology is available for transitioning to electric appliances. In California, heating water occupies much of total energy demand, so replacing natural gas water heaters with electric heat pump models is one of the best ways to rapidly reduce greenhouse gas emissions. Ductless or ducted heat pumps that can replace central natural gas furnaces are also gaining ground rapidly. These and other appliances like electric induction ranges, high-efficiency electric clothes dryers, and myriad other electric products now permit existing homes to reduce or eliminate their use of natural gas. Such steps are essential for a climate-safe future.
Every electric device just keeps getting cleaner
As David Roberts of Vox points out, as we continue to reduce greenhouse gas emissions on the electrical grid with more renewable energy sources, electrical devices such as electric water heaters, electric stovetops, and even electric cars become cleaner and cleaner. Juxtaposed against this, a natural gas furnace’s rate of greenhouse gas emissions is basically fixed by its design. It will emit the same level of carbon-emissions-per-unit-of-heat throughout its 20-year lifespan, no matter how clean the electricity grid becomes.
Strategic electrification is important
Strategic, beneifical electrification means identifying systems that run on dirty power that can be switched to use clean electricity, 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
- Enable better grid management
Strategic electrification will be key to achieving our science-based goal of 80% below 1990 levels of greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions by 2030, accelerating existing state policy timelines.
When you have the ability to power equipment— from stoves, heat pumps and lawn equipment to cars and buses— off the electricity grid, the moment you make the grid cleaner, you make everything cleaner.
This strategy presents complex logistical challenges– from how to finance projects to how to perform the work in the existing space. We have no illusions that this will be easy. Like most climate action at scale, it will take monumental collaboration. And it will be worth it– for a climate-safe future.
Key studies on electrifying everything
- Environmental and Energy Economics (E3)
- Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory (LBNL)
- Mark Jacobson and colleagues at Stanford University
- The UN Sustainable Development Solutions Network’s Deep Decarbonization Pathways Project
- The California Council of Science and Technology
- The Acadia Center’s EnergyVision report
- Jeffrey Sachs and Johan Rockström of Columbia University and Stockholm University respectively
Natural gas poses dangers to public health, especially in lower-income communities
While natural gas has been touted as a “clean” energy source it is, in fact, a fossil fuel and leaks are dangerous.
The Aliso Canyon gas leak (October 2016 to February 2016, pictured right) drew some attention to the fact that natural gas is indeed, a large source of carbon pollution, with other dangerous emissions as well. Governor Jerry Brown issued a state of emergency, and the leak’s carbon footprint was larger than the Deepwater Horizon leak in the Gulf of Mexico.
Local residents reported headaches, nausea, skin rashes, and about 50 children per day saw school nurses for severe nosebleeds. By December 25, 2015, more than 2,200 families from the Porter Ranch neighborhood had been temporarily relocated, and more than 2,500 households were still being processed. By mid-January of 2016, more than 11,000 people were temporarily relocated by SoCal Gas.
Phasing out fossil fuel-powered vehicles
Transportation represents 41% of California’s measured emissions. For a climate-safe California, we must address these emissions, and a key component will be phasing out fossil fuel-powered vehicles. More than 15 countries have already committed to phase-outs. Despite the misinformation being spread by special interest groups, the science is clear: Over the lifecycle of the car, electric vehicles are far more climate-friendly than gas-powered vehicles.
The Climate Center has produced a report outlining all of the nations that have made clean car commitments. Norway is a clear leader and has put in place many incentives to make choosing electric cars far more attractive– including reduced taxes, bridge tolls, parking fees, and ferry charges, and even access to bus lanes. As a result, half of the cars in Norway are now electric.
As a global climate leader, it’s time for California to join Norway, Mexico City, Paris and Madrid, which are all scheduled to begin their phase-outs in 2025. For a more complete list of strategies for addressing emissions from transportation, click here.