2021-08 Lab Notes Header—Electrification.jpg

The electrified future

How we get to there from here 

Renewable energy has a long history of derision and scorn from proponents of more traditional generation methods. Already in the 1970s Arab oil embargo, gasoline companies aired TV ads showing windmills that slowed to a stop as the wind died down. The ads asked: “But what do you do when the wind stops?” Even 15 years ago, the U.S. Energy Department echoed claims that renewables were too uncertain and unpredictable to meet the nation’s energy needs. However, the potential effectiveness of renewable energy in building a much cleaner world and heading off the worst effects of climate change is backed by a growing body of international research. And the best news from researchers is that it’s both feasible and affordable, thanks to innovation and mass-production capabilities that have already made wind and solar power installations cheaper than most fossil-fueled power plants.

The keys to decarbonization and the drastic reduction of greenhouse gas emissions are well established: promoting renewable energy and making it the fuel of the future; increasing electrification, all while increasing efficiency, to come out the other end with lower overall power consumption. It’s easier said than done. Fortunately we have the assistance of tools like computer simulations and models that have been enormously enhanced by artificial intelligence to project pathways to lower our dependence on fossil fuels.

Researchers run through iterations of simulated potential future energy scenarios for any location on any scale given, and tinker with different variables, like “What happens if we can get 80 percent of people into electric cars?” They also ask very complex questions:

 

  • What is the impact on power lines and other infrastructure? 

  • What will decarbonizing do to spur extra job growth? 

  • What will happen to decarbonization if Washington buys billions less of natural gas, coal, and petroleum products? Who will be the winners—and the losers? 

  • What is the impact on decarbonization on economic growth through 2030? 

  • What are the projected cost changes of renewable electricity, nuclear, coal, and gas-fired power?

 

Continued from the emailed newsletter

What we do know, with the help of simulations, is that the cost of cleaning up gas- or coal-fired power plants by equipping them to capture their carbon pollution remains quite expensive. Decades of R&D and government subsidies and incentives haven’t solved that problem for Big Power. In the meantime, technology innovation is making electrification equipment cheaper with steadily improved performance. Battery advances have been making electric cars cheaper—as cars become computers on wheels. Even certain industrial processes that have relied on fossil fuels are being electrified not only to cut greenhouse gases but also to lower costs. Likewise even oil and gas drilling rigs and pipeline compressors are being converted to electric.

 

The primary political challenge is the acceleration of the transition to an “electrified future” by 2030. President Biden’s $2-trillion infrastructure package is a very important—albeit small—step in that direction. Building the needed power transmission lines will require unprecedented geotechnical and political challenges, including the likelihood that the transition to a low-carbon economy could involve a near-term slowing of economic growth and fewer jobs. Fossil fuel interests and their lobbyists have been calling modeling biased and potentially dangerous, raising the threat of energy shortfalls.

 

The latest report from the International Energy Agency (IEA) did not support claims by oil and gas drillers that renewable energy strategies threaten the global economy. The IEA report (issued on May 18, 2021) covers what will be necessary to avert global warming of greater than 1.5 degrees Celsius above pre-industrial levels—close to the ceiling set in the Paris climate agreement. The IEA was emphatic that achieving this goal necessitates “no new oil and gas fields approved for development, and no new coal mines or mine extensions beyond 2021.”

 

The significance of the IEA 2021 report is that it presents a major change in policies and goals on the part of the IEA.  Previous reports left room for a much bigger role for new oil and gas development as a way to meet the world’s growing demand for energy. This year’s report challenges the business model of major oil companies in a new and significant way. It still leaves a great deal of room for continued fossil fuel production from existing fields between now and 2050, but calls for the contribution of fossil fuels to overall energy production to reduce from 4/5th today to 1/5th in 2050.

 

For several reasons the IEA report is of great importance in the global battle to prevent climate change: first and foremost, major oil companies no longer can use IEA’s calculations and projections as a justification for sticking to their traditional business model. Thus they can no longer use the IEA as a shield to justify ignoring the mounting urgency of a climate crisis. In addition, the IEA called for major oil companies to invest at least $5 trillion annually to speed up the commercialization of renewables.

 

Most of the decarbonization scenarios endorsed by scientists to prevent climate change that endangers future generations say that peak heating beyond 1.5°C may be an existential threat to the biosphere and also humanity. However, many scientists also warn that various scenarios for reducing carbon emissions to achieve this 1.5°C goal in reality involve as much as an 80 percent probability of breaching the 1.5 degrees Celsius (C) “safe limit” agreed to by the world’s nations under the 2015 Paris Agreement. To wit: the U.N.’s Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) and the U.N. Environment Program raise serious concerns about the actual current levels of carbon emissions and call for emissions to be halved by 2030 with a “net zero” target for 2050. All of IPCC’s decarbonization scenarios, even the most ambitious ones, violate the 1.5°C peak heating target by a large margin. The only solution that cuts the risk down to 20%: a fast and complete global transition to renewable energy, led by solar power and electrification, to be completed before 2030!

 

The threat of dangerous climate change is so severe that scientists even recommend speeding up decarbonization with a temporary increase in fossil fuel emissions for the sole purpose of accelerating the growth of renewable energy capacity. This radical strategy would be to use today’s fossil energy system to overbuild solar capacity and produce a rapid global solar energy transition enabling fast exponential growth of much cheaper electrification. Building “solar overcapacity” is envisioned as necessary to significantly reduce atmospheric CO₂ concentration. In other words, a solar-dominated renewable energy system can be the pathway to “the electrified future.”

St. James Faith Lab will keep monitoring the progress of decarbonization in our energy infrastructure as electrification increases in the coming years.

The Rev. Canon Cindy Evans Voorhees

Executive Director

St. James Faith Lab

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