Mass electrification and its cruel twist to the climate challenge

  • Dr. Louis Gritzo Vice president and manager of research, FM Global
  • Forbes, Jan. 19, 2022

France, which has all but abandoned coal-based power, warned it might have to ration electricity if this winter gets too cold. The US has a different issue: It will probably fail to meet its 2030 climate goals without a change in energy policy; in fact, greenhouse gas emissions are growing faster than the economy. Meanwhile, Elon Musk, among others, has warned against the shutdown of nuclear plants.

All of these strains illustrate the inherent conflict between satisfying the world's voracious energy appetite and dramatically reducing our climate-altering CO2 output. Not only is the transition to a low-carbon economy an enormous, epochal undertaking; it's also far more complicated and harder to achieve than it initially appears.

If the world is to dramatically reduce fossil fuel use, society will need to confront what is currently a huge shortfall in both the supply and distribution of lower carbon-emitting energy. Not only are these huge challenges that will affect global, national and local economies, but there will be even greater widespread implications for resilience.

Let's break this down. Almost three-quarters of today's global greenhouse gas emissions result from energy production. Reducing emissions to mitigate climate change is therefore largely reliant on massive reductions in energy now produced from the combustion of fossil fuels. The expected progression is that many of the world's heating, transportation and manufacturing systems—now typically powered by gasoline, oil, and natural gas—will instead operate on electricity supplied by renewable sources such as solar, wind, hydroelectric, geothermal, or tidal. This transformation is sometimes called mass electrification.

The transition to a largely electric-powered, low-carbon economy requires massive increases in both the renewable production and transmission of electricity. This transition is currently in the early stages and will be a long and challenging journey.

Right now, fossil fuels constitute 80 percent of the world's energy mix. At the present implementation rate, renewables will be able to meet only around half the projected increase in global electricity demand over 2021 and 2022, let alone make progress on addressing baseline fossil fuel demand. In the US alone, meeting current energy demands by photovoltaic solar (the best option for massive scale increases) would require 10% of the total usable technical potential of the entire country (i.e., the achievable energy generation given system performance, topographic, environmental, and land-use constraints). That's a tremendous amount of land covered by solar panels, with other adverse environmental and agricultural consequences. Our experience to date shows how vulnerable these sources are to wind and hail.

Currently, about one-fourth of global energy is used for transportation. Only a small number of vehicles (roughly 11 million) run on electricity. Under one optimistic scenario, they would number as many as 230 million in 2030, but that would still be fewer than 12% of all vehicles on the planet. Even that modest share would require 140 million home chargers. And despite that noble effort, internal combustion engines would still comprise 98% of the energy needed for transportation. Hence, the ability to scale up to a low-carbon economic model for the transportation sector alone is a daunting task. The challenge is exacerbated by the need to further increase utility-scale electricity production to meet the massive new demand for electricity to be produced and transmitted to locations suitable for vehicle charging, rather than the production of mechanical energy by combustion within each vehicle.

Well, you might ask, what about nuclear (which strictly speaking is not a renewable source since it requires the mining of uranium)? Fission is increasingly being evaluated as an option for low-carbon emission energy generation. Although more feasible to scale, the public perception of safety, high construction costs, and management of the radioactive waste remain huge challenges. Better plant design and the potential for fusion (which produces more energy and less waste) are still active areas of research.

All this means that electrical energy will have to be transmitted from a larger number of sources, at significantly higher rates, to many more points of use. Yes, multiple sources of energy can theoretically make the overall energy system more resilient. The challenge, however, is the sheer scope of the capacity required, the lack of robustness of renewables (compared to a traditional power plant), the huge increase in required transmission capacity (to transmit more energy), and the need to connect more places with larger lines). Inadequate supply or transmission means rolling blackouts like those that are a daily reality in developing countries, shaky power supply like in wildfire-ravaged California, or the great Texas freeze where residents lacked electricity for heating. The impact of widespread disruptions like these on livelihoods and business continuity are simply unacceptable.

The mass electrification challenge has three other complicating dimensions:

1. Backup power. Businesses and homeowners have always relied on generators to preserve power during electrical outages. In a massively electrified world, property owners will use energy storage systems (ESSes), i.e., lithium ion batteries, for supply gaps and backup. The capacity of these systems is increasing and we are already seeing risks. In 2019, an ESS caught fire in Arizona, seriously injuring firefighters. In September, the largest ESS facility in the world failed and began to smolder, putting the plant offline for weeks. An electrified world means systems like these will be commonplace in plants, stores, offices, hospitals and homes, altering the risk landscape for the worse. Every home, office building, and plant will arguably become more vulnerable to fire damage than when it housed an external generator with a gas line or fuel tank for backup. Even if fossil fuels are still used for backup, their availability will be reduced and costs increased.

2. Reliability. With enough renewable capacity and a way to transmit and store it, narrowing the energy mix would inherently decrease resilience. The prospect of one transmission line serving a business or town becomes much dicier when property owners lack other readily available options and all systems depend on one source. There will have to be new requirements for making the grid much more resilient than our current one, i.e., building failover and redundant systems so that when one distribution line goes down another one takes over.

3. The last mile, or block, or meter. In an electrified world, businesses and homeowners are going to have to increase their own capacity (i.e., rewire, add ESS, and install new wiring systems to power everything). The cost is not negligible. On top of everything else, electrical failures or malfunctions are the number one source of fires in commercial properties6 and the second leading cause of home fires in the US.

The picture of a new low-carbon energy system at scale that meets these challenges using the current approach isn’t particularly environmentally friendly. It requires land and forests to be given over to solar and wind energy generation, a massive increase in large power lines, and all the adverse consequences of repairing, replacing, and rebuilding the systems that are affected by weather or fire.

The word for what we need to support the massive systems-engineering challenge of wise mass electrification is new technology and infrastructure. The infrastructure bill recently passed in the US Congress is a good start, but it’s not enough. A full-over re-engineering is needed.

This means industries, businesses, governments, and others will need to reconsider energy production resilience in their strategic plans, budgets, risk management strategies, facilities, emergency response plans, and operational protocols.

It's complicated, more complicated than commonly considered, and just as necessary.

As originally published in Forbes

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