BY ALEXANDRA MERLINO
It is said that beneficial electrification, efficient electric technologies powered by a clean grid, is the path to meeting our national emission goals and stimulating our economy. It’s a lot to assume of one technology, can beneficial electrification do everything that’s promised? Meet our climate needs, reduce our dependence on fossil fuels create jobs, and save individual Americans money?
Let’s explore by looking at three areas crucial to the success of electrification.
Electric Vehicles (EVs)
EVs offer many benefits over fuel-powered vehicles, most importantly they reduce the harmful emissions that negatively impact the environment and harm individuals’ health and wellness. EVs are changing the way individuals, municipalities, and corporations think about transportation.
Electric vehicles for the individual save money in the long run.
The EV market share of new cars sales has grown from 1.4% in 2019 to close to 5% in December of 2021, EVs are transforming how Americans get around and are quickly becoming a mainstream driving option for people across the country. Nothing confirms this more than General Motors announcement that it would stop selling gas-powered vehicles and go all electric by 2035.
For individuals EV sticker shock is alleviated by long term benefits. Mile for mile the cost to power an EV is approximately half of what it costs for a typical fuel powered vehicle. This plus the reduced costs for repair and maintenance can lead to thousands of dollars in savings in the long term.
As for the environment, it takes one year of operation on average for an EV to achieve ‘carbon parity’ with a fuel-powered vehicle. However, more CO2 is generated manufacturing EVs and batteries than fuel-powered vehicles. But EVs do make up for this setback overtime; where your electricity comes from is the determining factor. If an EV draws electricity from dirty power sources such as a coal fired grid, that period stretches to 5+ years. If the grid however is powered by a carbon-free grid it can take as little as six months.
Electrifying public transportation and delivery vehicles will reduce greenhouse gas emissions.
Nearly 30% of greenhouse gas emissions in the US come from the transportation sector. It makes sense then that transitioning traditional public transportation and last mile delivery vehicles to electric vehicles will make large strides in meeting our climate goals. An important byproduct is improved air quality and noise pollution making for healthier communities.
For municipalities, transitioning public transportation fleets to electric vehicles not only saves money on fuel and maintenance, but also saves on health costs. Diesel exhaust released from traditional heavy-duty vehicles contribute to respiratory illnesses, converting fleets to electric improves the health and wellness in communities.
For corporate fleets, going electric vehicle means saving on fuel and maintenance, and maintaining customer confidence by meeting corporate responsibility goals.
UPS and Amazon are investing in thousands of electric vehicles to transport orders thereby decreasing the carbon footprint of purchases. For Amazon whose corporate pledge is to make half of its deliveries carbon-neutral by 2030, electrification of their delivery fleet is an important part of the strategy.
Delivery trucks are the ideal for going electric:
- They usually travel under 100 miles per day reducing the high cost of batteries;
- They can conveniently be charged during alternate shifts;
- They require less maintenance than fuel driven trucks;
- They have simpler powertrains that requires less maintenance in the heavy stop-and-go typical in delivery routes.
Electrifying Homes and Buildings
There are many different appliances in our everyday lives that can now be powered by electricity. While the technologies are not new (over 50 million American households are electrified), electric appliances have become more efficient and safer to use than the older gas-powered ones.
Here are a few examples:
Heat pumps offer an energy-efficient alternative to furnaces and air conditioners for all climates. Like your refrigerator, heat pumps use electricity to transfer heat from a cool space to a warm space, making the cool space cooler and the warm space warmer. During the heating season, heat pumps move heat from the cool outdoors into your warm house. During the cooling season, heat pumps move heat from your house into the outdoors. Because they transfer heat rather than generate heat, heat pumps can efficiently provide comfortable temperatures for your home.
Heat pumps are usually more expensive to install, but you end up saving more money throughout the year with low maintenance costs, making heat pumps a great investment. Additionally, heat pumps are much safer with no risks for a gas leak, which can expose you to carbon monoxide.
Water heaters powered by electricity are safer than gas ones.
Water heating accounts for almost 20 percent of household energy use and is a major area of opportunity to optimize and cut back energy costs. Electric water heaters are cheaper to both purchase and install than gas-powered heaters. They are also safer to own since there is no chance of a gas leak occurring. Electric-powered heaters have smaller space requirements (since they will not combust) and have less parts, so their life expectancy is longer than gas ones. Electric heaters are insulated better, so they are able to keep water warm for longer. With this feature, you can choose to heat water when costs are lower and use it when costs are higher. Overall, electric-powered heaters are more efficient and use cleaner energy than their gas counterparts, which rely on fossil fuels for power.
As with EVs the environmental benefits of electrification depend on what is powering your electricity; a grid powered by wind and solar is preferable to a coal powered grid.
Electrifying your home removes the need for any gas hook ups, reducing the inevitable line leaks and reduces methane leaked into the environment.
Energy storage holds energy at one time so it can be used at another time. Building more energy storage allows renewable energy sources like wind and solar to power more of our electric grid.
Electric storage helps to address the challenge of renewable energy reliability.
Solar and wind provide “intermittent” electricity, meaning their energy production changes depending on the weather. People often need energy when the wind is not blowing or the sun isn’t shining, so we can end up with too much electricity at some times, and not enough electricity at other times. If we could store the extra energy when we have it, save it for later, then use it when we need it, we could get all or nearly all our electricity from wind and solar.
Today, electric storage technology remains expensive, making fossil fuels cheaper the clean energy alternatives like wind and solar. The need for cheap and abundant energy storage has become a key challenge for building an energy system that does not emit greenhouse gases or contribute to climate change. Ultimately, storage is an enabling technology. It can save consumers money, improve reliability and resilience, integrate generation sources, and help reduce environmental impacts.
Things to consider
Electrification is important in the move toward global climate goals, and as we move forward there are some important issues to consider.
Electric storage and batteries require precious metals. Procuring these materials supports extractive industries. Let’s be proactive in instituting circular protocols to reduce environmental damage and the financial burden of future cleanups on local communities.
Most Americans will not buy into the “electrify to fight climate change” goal if costs are too high. Public opinion polls show that nearly 70% of Americans would not pay just $10 a month in higher electric bills to combat climate change.
The economic disadvantages stem from the fact that most electrification upgrades are cost prohibitive for many Americans. The idea of paying more today for long term savings doesn’t work for households living paycheck to paycheck. To make sweeping changes, it’s critical to subsidize clean energy solutions until pricing is affordable for all Americans. What policy shifts need to happen so there so all Americans can take advantage of clean solutions?
The push to electrify will cause a surge in electricity usage in the US putting more demand on the grid. Power consumption has been flat since 2009. Does the US power grid have the capacity to support the increases? Can gird infrastructure updates keep pace with electrification goals?
Beneficial electrification is a clear path to a cleaner future, so start considering which upgrades fit in with your life and energy goals!