With global energy demand expected to increase by as much as 58 percent in the next three decades, the urgency to transition away from burning fossil fuels to power buildings and vehicles is growing. Over the past few years, calls for turning to electricity as a power source have grown louder and more persistent. The motto of this movement is “electrify everything,” and it is starting to bring tangible results to cities and industries across the world.
Rachel Golden, the deputy director of the Sierra Club’s building electrification program, is on the front lines of the movement. She says electrifying buildings has a key role to play in achieving net-zero carbon emissions by 2050, an aim set by President Biden that aligns with the goals of the Paris Agreement. That’s why she’s spent the past several years working to spread the message of electrification’s benefits among policymakers and the public at large.
“In order to make buildings carbon neutral by 2050, we need to phase out the sale of gas appliances by 2030,” Golden says. Gas appliances typically last 10 to 15 years, so any new gas appliances installed before 2030 could still be replaced by electric ones by 2050, she says. Achieving this goal will require governments at all levels to make rules that encourage or require electrification.
That’s already happening in many U.S. cities. In July 2019, Berkeley, California, became the first to prohibit gas connections in most new buildings, effectively requiring the use of electric heaters, water heaters, and stoves. Soon after, a host of other California cities followed suit, including Menlo Park, Santa Cruz, and San Jose. To date, more than 40 cities across the country have joined the movement, including Brookline, Massachusetts, and Ann Arbor, Michigan.
“It’s really exciting to watch,” says Golden, who predicts the number of cities to adopt similar policies will rise above 100 within the next year or so. “As more and more cities pass these laws, they’ll start to establish proof of concept and inspire state policymakers to follow suit,” she says. The idea is even catching on at the federal level, Golden notes, with President Biden calling for the construction or retrofitting of more than 2 million energy-efficient homes as part of his recently announced $2 trillion infrastructure plan.
Alongside new rules against natural gas use in buildings have come moves to electrify transportation systems. Seattle is one of the most recent cities to call for the electrification of both buildings and vehicles. After passing an ordinance banning natural gas in most new buildings in February, in March the city committed to a plan that would electrify all public transportation and ride-hailing services by 2030.
Meanwhile, electric vehicles are being embraced more fully than ever, with industry experts predicting demand for electric car batteries to increase about 30-fold over the next two decades. Electric cars have already been found to be cheaper than gas-burning cars over the long term, in spite of higher sticker prices, due to lower maintenance and fueling costs. And, despite a carbon-intensive battery manufacturing process, their emissions are usually offset within the first year and a half of their driving life.
Electric trucks are the next frontier for electric vehicles, and already many delivery companies are committing to electrification. UPS, whose global fleet of trucks numbers 125,000, is partnering with multiple companies to electrify its delivery system, and has already put in an order for 10,000 vehicles from British company Arrival. Rivian, a Michigan-based startup with $6 billion in investments, is planning to produce 10,000 delivery trucks for Amazon by 2022, and 100,000 by 2030. And Chanje, a California-based company, plans to make more than 5,000 electric trucks this year, most of them for FedEx.
The changes can’t come soon enough. A recent report from the World Economic Forum projects that the number of delivery trucks in the world’s 100 biggest cities will increase by 36 percent over the next decade. Under a business as usual scenario, that would lead to a 32-percent increase in freight transport carbon dioxide emissions, according to the report. The shift to electric delivery trucks is especially urgent from a climate justice perspective, since pollution-heavy transportation corridors often run through underserved and low-income communities.
President Biden’s infrastructure proposal acknowledges the scale of the problem. Under the proposal, $174 billion would be set aside for electric transportation. Biden’s plan calls for 500,000 electric vehicle charging stations, electrifying 20 percent of school buses, and electrifying all U.S. Postal Service vehicles.
Big challenges, even bigger benefits
Vehicles account for more than a quarter of the total greenhouse gas emissions in the U.S., while about 10 percent is created by burning gas or other fossil fuels for heating, cooking, and water-heating systems. If net carbon emissions are to be reduced to zero by 2050, electrifying both buildings and vehicles will play a critical role.
Of course, the electrification of the grid doesn’t automatically reduce carbon emissions. For that to happen, the energy used to generate electricity must continue to shift from fossil fuels to renewable sources like wind and solar. That’s where companies like CleanChoice Energy come in. They enable customers to replenish the energy they use from the grid with solar and wind power. This not only reduces pollution from burning fossil fuels but accelerates the transition toward cleaner energy more broadly.
Shifting to renewables on a grand scale will require a different grid management system that accounts for renewables’ inconsistent output, says Eilleen Quigley, executive director of the Clean Energy Transition Institute, which has been modeling pathways to decarbonization in the Pacific Northwest. Plus, she says, as more buildings and vehicles require electricity to run, the system will need to transmit more total energy.
“None of this is impossible to overcome,” Quigley says, “but it will require a fundamental shift in how we have conceived of energy ever since the Industrial Revolution.”
Resilience in the grid
February’s storm-induced energy crisis in Texas shed light on another potential obstacle for electrification: As subfreezing temperatures left millions without power for days, gas stoves made life more tolerable for some residents by allowing people to continue to boil water and cook hot food.
This doesn’t mean that relying on gas is the answer, however. “There’s a false perception that only homes with electric appliances are vulnerable to the grid going out,” Golden says. “Lots of gas appliances rely on electricity to operate. Plus, electric homes allow for renewable-powered grids to shift the load more easily. For example, you can time your water heater to go on when there’s less demand on the system. That makes the grid more resilient to outages, in addition to reducing harmful emissions that contribute to weather-related disasters.”
With more than 60 percent of American homes relying on gas or other fossil fuels for heat and/or cooking, the challenge of converting to electricity is a big one. But in recent years electric appliances have become cheaper, more efficient, and easier to use than they once were, making them an even more attractive option for renovations and new buildings.
Electric appliances are also the healthier option. Unlike gas appliances, they don’t produce harmful byproducts like carbon monoxide, nitrogen dioxide, or particulate matter that damages the lungs — an important selling point for consumers and regulators alike.
This hasn’t stopped the gas industry from using its considerable clout — and money — to influence decision-makers, building a false narrative that gas-powered appliances are cleaner, cheaper, and safer than their electric counterparts. But as more cities ban gas connections and create incentives to use electric transportation, electricity will likely become the standard power source for new buildings and vehicles.
Electrification alone won’t solve the climate crisis, but it will help reduce emissions and rid the air of dangerous pollutants. That’s good news for all of us — and for the planet. And it’s another reason the public is coming around to electricity. “Who wants a miniature gas plant in their attic or garage?” Golden says. “No one.”
CleanChoice Energy is a cleantech company that empowers people and businesses to easily access climate solutions. We use data-empowered technology to offer consumers easy, feel-good climate solutions so they can cut emissions, support renewable energy, and live cleaner lives. Founded in 2012, the company has become one of the fastest-growing businesses in America, as ranked on the Inc 5000 and Deloitte’s Technology Fast 500™. CleanChoice Energy is a Certified B Corporation and is certified with the highest available rating by Green America’s Green Business Network. For more information or to become a customer, visit CleanChoiceEnergy.com.