Clean up electricity and electrify everything

David Roberts gets on Leslie Glustrom’s bandwagon! 27 Oct 2017

Tackling climate change is a complicated undertaking, to say the least. But here’s a good rule of thumb for how to get started:

Electrify everything.

Replace technologies that still run on combustion, like gasoline vehicles and natural gas heating and cooling, with alternatives that run on electricity, like electric vehicles and heat pumps. Get as much of our energy consumption as possible hooked up to the power grid.

The need for electrification is well understood by climate and energy experts, but I’m not sure it has filtered down to the public yet; the consensus on it is fairly new. For decades, the conventional wisdom has been the other way around: Electricity was dirty and the process of generating it and transmitting it involved substantial losses, so from an energy conservation point of view, the best thing to do was often to burn fossil fuel on site in increasingly energy-efficient devices.  So why did the CW change? There are several factors involved; I’ll run through the three most important.

1) There is a path to zero-carbon electricity

The context for energy has changed over recent decades, with growing concern over global warming. Avoiding dangerous climate change means getting as close to zero carbon emissions as possible, as fast as possible. How can we get to zero?

Think of consumer energy technologies as two basic types:  those that run on electricity (anything that plugs in or has a battery) and those that directly combust fuels like oil, gasoline, natural gas, or biomass. A heat pump versus a natural gas furnace; an electric car versus a gas car; a solar+storage system versus a diesel generator.

We know, or at least have a pretty good idea, how to get electricity down to zero carbon. There are options: wind, solar, nuclear, hydro, geothermal, and coal or natural gas with carbon capture and sequestration (CCS). There are plenty of disagreements about exactly what mix of those sources will be needed to get us to a carbon-free grid, and what mix of centralized versus distributed resources, and what mix of supply-side versus demand-side solutions — but there’s broad consensus that pathways to fully clean electricity exist.

The same cannot yet be said of combustion fuels, which are increasingly out of place in the modern world, as this clever Nissan Leaf ad shows:

No matter how efficient a gas car gets, it can’t eliminate carbon emissions. The only currently viable alternative liquid fuels — biofuels —have proven problematic for all sorts of environmental and economic reasons. So-called drop-in biofuels (which work in existing internal combustion engines) would be welcome, and some could arguably lower carbon emissions, but there is as yet no prospect of practical, scalable, carbon-free biofuels (or biomass). There’s no clear road to zero.

(One zero-carbon possibility is “synthetic gas,” which uses electricity to split hydrogen from water and then mixes it with carbon dioxide to form substitute hydrocarbon fuels. That’s a long way from commercial, though.)

If we know how to clean up electricity and we don’t yet know how to clean up combustion fuels, it makes sense to begin replacing combustion tech with electrical tech, insofar as it’s possible. 

2) Greener electricity lifts all electrical boats

In the developed world, most consumers get their power from the electricity grid (even those who also contribute to the grid with rooftop solar panels). When you are connected to a grid, everything you use that runs on electricity is, in carbon/climate terms, as clean as that grid.

electricity substation
This has some profound implications. It means that, as long as we are reducing carbon on the grid, every single electrical device is getting cleaner throughout its life.

To see how this works, think of two home heating systems, a natural gas furnace and a heat pump that runs on electricity.

The natural gas furnace’s rate of carbon 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.

Over the same 20 years, the power grid from which the heat pump draws its electricity will be getting cleaner — less coal, more renewables. That means the heat pump’s carbon-emissions-per-unit-of-heat will decline throughout its life. Its environmental performance improves as the grid improves.

The same is true for cars. An internal combustion engine (ICE) vehicle will emit roughly the same level of carbon-emissions-per-mile throughout its many decades of life; the only chance for improvement is when it finally wears out and is replaced by a new car. By contrast, as long as the grid keeps getting greener, an EV’s carbon-emissions-per-mile declines throughout its life.

vehicle to grid
Electrical grids are giant levers that can move the environmental needle on hundreds of millions of distributed technologies at once. Every device, appliance, or vehicle that runs on electricity benefits from the grid’s every incremental improvement.

With a tech that runs on liquid fuels, the only opportunity to reduce carbon emissions is at the end of the lifecycle, when it is replaced. With tech that runs on electricity, improvement is continuous — and far, far faster.

3) New uses for electricity enable more renewables on the grid

Wind and solar power are not like conventional power sources. They can’t be turned on and off, or “dispatched,” by grid operators. They come and go with the wind and sun; grid operators have to adjust to them, not the other way around.

One problem grid operators face when the grid begins to absorb more wind and solar is that there are times — especially sunny or windy times — when renewables generate more power than the grid can use, and other times when they generate only a fraction of what the grid needs. The variations become more extreme the more wind and solar are added, producing the much-discussed “duck curve” in electricity demand:

california's duck curve.

The legendary (in, uh, some circles) “duck curve” produced by renewable energy, show here affecting the California grid.

To absorb more variable renewables, the grid needs ways to smooth out those large swings.  There are tons and tons of ways to do that. One is “dispatchable load,” i.e., power consumption that can be scheduled, drawing more energy in times of peak production and in some cases releasing clean power back to the grid during the valleys.

Transitioning transportation and heating/cooling over to electricity would create a huge new source of dispatchable load. Surplus renewable electricity can be stored in a fleet of electric vehicle batteries, or as heat in water heaters, or as ice in air conditioners, and used when wind and solar production has slowed.

Adding more dispatchable load means the grid will be able to safely accommodate a much higher level of wind and solar. 

In summary, a simple plan for decarbonization

All three of these advantages of electricity suggest the same two-pronged strategy for deep decarbonization:

  1. Clean up electricity.
  2. Electrify everything.


Experts agree on electrification, but add a warning

2016 paper in the Electricity Journal refers to what I’ve just described as “environmentally beneficial electrification.” It notes that the expert consensus on electrification has grown quite broad. Here are links to a few recent reports and notable experts that stress “fuel-switching” to electricity as crucial for meeting carbon emission goals:

There’s increasing expert consensus: Decarbonization requires electrification.

But there’s a problem. Our energy planning rarely takes the kind of holistic view required to see and measure the benefits of fuel switching. More specifically, our energy metrics don’t capture it very well. And so, unwittingly, our policy may discourage it.

Many public policies seek to promote energy efficiency, but as the authors of the Electricity Journal paper — Keith Dennis of the National Rural Electric Cooperative Association and Ken Colburn and Jim Lazar of the Regulatory Assistance Project — point out, energy efficiency isn’t precisely what we want. What we want is emissions efficiency, i.e., getting the same amount of work with less carbon. (They try to coin a new term for this, “emiciency,” but I’m just going to let that pass.)

Here’s the thing: If a state shifts a bunch of transportation and building heat over to electricity, overall consumption of electricity could rise and average electricity-sector efficiency could fall, at least temporarily, even as economy-wide carbon emissions decline. Policies like the Clean Power Plan would, perversely, penalize a state for this.

By focusing exclusively on the electricity sector and energy efficiency, policies like the CPP miss the possibilities of environmentally beneficial electrification. Even an electric technology that is mediocre in terms of energy efficiency can help avoid emissions from dirtier liquid-fueled alternatives. Those avoided emissions need to be taken into account. “[E]nergy efficiency,” the authors caution, “is an inadequate metric to measure technology performance when it comes to GHG emissions.”

Substantial electrification will require targeted policy

Carbon wonks will reply that this is a good argument for an economy-wide price on carbon, which would boost all carbon-reduction strategies, without favor. And they’re not wrong. But it’s worth remembering that a carbon price’s influence on gasoline prices (for example) is quite oblique. A carbon tax of $20/ton will raise the price of a gallon of gasoline by about 20 cents. Even $100/ton, far higher than anyone is now contemplating, adds only about $1 to a gallon of gas — not nothing, but well short of powerful enough to drive a rapid, mass transition from ICEVs to EVs.

bev adoption
A policy puzzle: how to speed this up.  (BNEF)

A carbon tax hits the electricity sector first, precisely because that’s where the cheapest carbon reductions are found. Transportation, in many ways the most difficult challenge, will be the last affected by a tax. If we want to drive a wholesale transition of transportation and heating to electricity, at a time when fossil fuels are cheaper than ever, it’s going to require something more forceful and targeted than any realistic carbon price.

Still, it is now clear that deep decarbonization will involve pushing as much energy usage as possible to electricity grids. Farsighted policy will seek to accelerate that process, achieving the enduring benefits of electrification that much sooner.

Such policies would involve substantial investment in the short term for payoff over the long term, which is not exactly the forte of democratic politics in the best of circumstances, and these … are not those.

Nonetheless, this perspective brings a welcome clarity to the immediate challenges of climate policy. Once more, for the cheap seats:

  1. Clean up electricity.
  2. Electrify everything.


Flattening the “duck curve” to get more renewable energy on the grid, By David Roberts on, 12 Feb 2016

But they do have their challenges.

In my previous post, I discussed one of those challenges: the “duck curve,” i.e., the effect wind and solar energy have on daily demand for utility electricity.

Here’s the key graph:

california's duck curve.(CAISO)

Those lines show “net load” — which is total demand for electricity minus whatever renewable energy is on the grid — over a typical spring day in California.

As you can see, as more and more solar energy comes online during the sunny daytime hours, demand for utility electricity is pushed down further and further. That’s the duck’s belly.

But just as the sun is setting and solar energy is declining, people are getting home from work and turning on all their appliances. So net load rises very rapidly (the duck’s neck) to an early-evening peak (the duck’s head).

Grid operators do not like these big valleys and peaks, and they really don’t like the steep, rapid ramping in between them. Keeping a power grid stable is hard enough already.

So the duck curve is a problem. The question is how can the duck be flattened? How can those peaks and valleys be smoothed out?

duck in flight
Flatten out, duck. Flatten out.

It’s a fun puzzle, to be honest. You have these two variables, supply and demand, that have to be balanced at every moment. To some extent both can be controlled, moved around, mixed and matched. It’s like a real-time Rubik’s cube, only the solution keeps changing every hour.

Vis–à–vis duck flattening, I’ll touch on two big, visionary ideas and then 10 smaller, more immediate, more practical measures that use existing technologies.

The main point to make is that we have a decent (if somewhat hazy) understanding of the long-term solutions to the duck curve, the kind of stuff we’ll be dealing with in 2050 when wind and solar are getting toward 60, 70, 80 percent of grid energy.

But we have a very clear understanding of the sort of immediate steps we could take to accommodate more wind and solar than we have today. There’s no reason the duck curve should delay the growth of renewables.

The two big, long-term solutions to duck curvature

The first big strategy to flatten the duck is interconnection. The more grids can be connected with one another to form larger grids over larger areas, the more spread out the potential for wind and solar will be and the more spread out load will be, both of which will serve to smooth out the peaks and valleys in the curve.

Theoretically, you can push the problem back for a long time with this strategy, hooking up more and more grids. Maybe someday we’ll get to the much-discussed global grid.

Transmission today, transmission tomorrow, transmission forever.

But that’s a long way off, and in practice, though the technology of high-voltage transmission is well-understood, the politics of it — how to get funding and rights of way, how to deal with NIMBYs — is not.

The second big strategy is energy storage. If you can store some of that wind and solar energy rather than automatically sending it to the grid, you make it “dispatchable,” meaning you can time it. It becomes a movable piece of the puzzle.

A sufficient amount of energy storage would, almost by definition, flatten the duck and remove any limits on the integration of wind and solar. But at least at current prices, that would be prohibitively expensive.

Advocates of these two strategies are always arguing with one another about which is the ultimate long-term solution.

Researchers from NOAA recently published a study in Nature Climate Change showing that by a) siting renewables where they have the highest potential, and b) building high-voltage transmission lines to those areas, the US could cut greenhouse gas emissions 78 percent from 1990 levels in 15 years — with no new energy storage.

Wind power potential across the US.
Wind power potential across the US in 2012.

By linking the entire US into a single high-voltage grid, you can keep the duck flat enough to accommodate, to be technical about it, a metric shit-ton of new renewables. (As a bonus: According to NOAA, it can be done at comparable costs to a fossil-fueled grid.) Thus, NOAA researchers say, there’s no need to wait for storage to scale up and get cheaper.

And that’s true. But, as storage fans respond, getting high-voltage transmission lines built is extremely difficult and time-consuming. Meanwhile, storage is rapidly getting cheaper and seeping into the grid to fill the cracks.

It’s kind of a pointless argument: They’re both right. Both new transmission and lots of storage will eventually be necessary to get the grid to zero carbon. (Transmission will help wind more; storage will help solar PV more; see this study.)

But it’s important to remember that we don’t have to wait on new transmission lines or a scale-up of energy storage. There’s a great deal that can be done immediately, with existing tools and techniques.

10 steps to flatten the duck quickly

flying duck(RAP)

To guide us through this somewhat nerdy territory, we have “Teaching the ‘Duck’ to Fly,”by utility guru Jim Lazar of the always excellent Regulatory Assistance Project.

(The paper was originally released in 2014; since then, utilities have tried out many of the ideas, experts have offered feedback, and the new and improved second edition was just released.)

Lazar starts with a hypothetical California-like grid with a duck problem:

duck curve(RAP)

The blue line is total electricity demand. The green line shows how wind and solar duck it up.

Lazar then offers 10 practical ideas to start flattening the duck. I’ll walk through them quickly. (Their relative contributions, and much supporting detail, can be found in the report.)

1) Target energy efficiency to the hours when load ramps up sharply

If load ramps up quickly during a certain time of day (mainly between 4 and 7 pm), then target the energy uses that cluster in those hours.

Lazar focuses on “residential lighting, air conditioning, and office building lighting controls.” Technologies to substantially cut energy use in these applications is widely available and affordable, and would cut demand when it’s most needed.

2) Acquire and deploy peak-oriented renewable resources

Policies that require utilities to purchase renewable energy generally do not say anything about the timing of when that energy is produced. But timing turns out to be important (a regular theme in the duck-flattening literature).

If renewable energy production needs to be pushed back a few hours later in the day, there are particular resources that can help. Most big hydropower facilities have some storage (“pondage”) that allows them to alter the timing of their power production; they could be induced to push it later.

hoover dam
Saving some power for later.

Some wind sites produce energy more regularly in the evening hours; they could be favored in procurement. Solar panels could be turned to face west rather than south, which somewhat decreases their total production but, importantly, keeps them producing for up to two hours after south-facing panels stop.

And concentrated solar plants (CSP), which use the sun to heat fluid that turns a turbine, can store some of that heated fluid and delay some of their production.

In short, renewable energy can be pushed back into evening, when it will be more help with the peak (er, duck’s head).

3) Manage water and wastewater pumping loads

This one sounds boring, but it turns out pumping water consumes 7 percent of total electricity in the US (and much more in California, where lots of water gets moved over long distances).

Current electricity rate structures encourage water and wastewater utilities to use small pumps that operate continuously, at a low level, throughout the day. Tweaks in the rate structure (I’ll spare you the details) could instead encourage them to use large pumps that operate only in off-peak hours, shutting off during high ramp or peak times.

4) Control electric water heaters to reduce peak demand and increase load at strategic hours

Hot water is most intensively used in the morning and evening. But there’s no reason water heaters should heat the water during those hours. Heated water can be stored a long time.

hot water heater
The hot water heater: one of clean energy’s more humble champions.

Theoretically, the 45 million electric water heaters in the US could be connected to the grid and controlled; water heating could be shifted to those times when excess wind or solar energy needs to be absorbed.

Not only could load be shifted, but those same water heaters could effectively be treated as batteries that provide grid frequency and voltage control.

This would require simple load-control technology on the heaters and some new institutional arrangements with customers, but it’s entirely doable. Lots of utilities are already doing it.

5) Convert commercial air conditioning to ice storage or chilled-water storage

Air conditioners are a huge part of peak load for most utilities. And a big part of that is commercial air conditioners, those giant units you see on malls and university buildings.

But just as water heaters don’t need to heat water during the hours it’s being used, commercial air conditioners don’t need to make cold during the hours people use it. They can make it beforehand, when power is cheap, in the form of ice (or chilled water). Then when demand is peaking and power is expensive, they can use the stored ice to cool buildings (as a bonus: much more quietly).

In this case, ice is the battery that allows an air conditioner to shift its time of peak power consumption.

Ice-storage air conditioners are a widely available and affordable technology.

6) Rate design: Focus utility prices on the “ramping hours” to enable price-induced changes in load

This one’s pretty straightforward. If you want people to shift their energy use from certain hours to certain other hours, reflect that in the price of energy. This is known as “time of use” pricing, whereby the price of electricity varies throughout the day.

Studies have shown that customers voluntarily shift their load in response to price signals. And eventually, much of that process can be automated by “smart” appliances and home energy control software.

7) Deploy electrical energy storage in targeted locations

Unlike thermal storage (hot water, ice) or mechanical storage (pumped water), electrical storage is still pretty expensive, though the cost is falling rapidly.

However, there are certain targeted places on the grid where compressed airpumped hydro, or battery storage make sense. These need to be places where storage can produce multiple value streams:

  • Defer investments in new grid infrastructure
  • Time-shift power use, storing power when it’s cheap and releasing it when it’s expensive
  • Provide spinning reserves and frequency or voltage control to the grid
A pumped-hydro energy facility just outside Los Angeles.
A pumped-hydro energy facility just outside Los Angeles.

8) Implement aggressive demand response programs

I explained demand response in this post. It basically amounts to finding lots of little ways that customers can shift their demand, aggregating all those customers together, and treating the sum of their demand-shifting capacity as dispatchable power — “negawatts” instead of megawatts.

9) Use inter-regional power exchanges to take advantage of diversity in loads and resources

This is Lazar’s nod to interconnection, only it’s not about building new power lines; it’s about using existing interconnections more strategically.

There are places in the US where separately managed grids already have links with one another. Those interconnections can be better used to trade power. Different regions have different times of production and different peak loads; they can help smooth out each other’s peaks and valleys.

10) Retire inflexible generating plants with high off-peak must-run requirements

There are some big, older power plants (coal, nuclear, and natural gas) that are extremely inflexible. They cannot ramp up and down quickly. And it’s very expensive to shut them completely off and restart them, so they must always be kept running at a minimum level. When renewable energy starts expanding too much, it bumps into these limits and is curtailed.

coal plant
A dinosaur in twilight.

What a modern grid needs above all is flexibility. Over time, these inflexible plants should be retired and replaced with flexible resources — newer natural gas, storage, and (some) renewables. The more flexible the overall grid is, the more wind and solar can be integrated.

So that’s the 10 steps!

(It’s worth pausing to acknowledge, as Lazar does, that every region and utility is different and each will need its own customized set of solutions.)

Supply and demand curves are not fated — they can be reshaped

Here’s what all these measures put together do for Lazar’s hypothetic grid:

duck curve, flattened
A flat duck.

That dotted line is the old net load curve — the duck. The thick green line is the new and improved net load curve, after all Lazar’s strategies have been applied.

As you can see, the belly no longer hangs so low and the head no longer pokes up nearly so high. There are no more steep ramps. The duck has been flattened. It’s flying!

And it’s been accomplished using existing technologies and demonstrated policies. No breakthroughs or grand schemes required.

It’s just a matter of breaking supply and demand down into their constituent parts, assessing which parts can be controlled or shifted (which is more and more of them), and rearranging them so that they balance throughout the day.

It’s not rocket science. It’s, uh, duck science. And it can enable any utility that’s ready and willing to accommodate a lot more clean, renewable energy.

Further reading:

If you can’t get enough of this ducking stuff, here are some ways to dive deeper:

These are all about the duck curve specifically. On the somewhat broader topic of integrating more wind and solar into the grid, a reading list would run several (kabillion) pages. Just start with this post and this post, which contain links to lots of other resources.

The Lancet Commission on pollution and healthThe Lancet, 2017; DOI: 10.1016/S0140-6736(17)32345-0)

Also: Simon Fraser University. “Pollution responsible for 16 percent of early deaths globally.” ScienceDaily. 20 October 2017.

The aim of this Lancet Commission on pollution and health is to raise global awareness of pollution, end neglect of pollution-related disease, and mobilise the resources and the political will needed to effectively confront pollution. To advance this aim, we make six recommendations. Additional recommendations are presented at the end of each Section. The key recommendations are:

(1) Make pollution prevention a high priority nationally and internationally and integrate it into country and city planning processes. Pollution can no longer be viewed as an isolated environmental issue, but is a transcendent problem that affects the health and wellbeing of entire societies. Leaders of government at all levels (mayors, governors, and heads of state) need, therefore, to elevate pollution control to a high priority within their agendas; to integrate pollution control into development planning; to actively engage in pollution planning and prioritisation; and to link prevention of pollution with commitments to advance the SDGs, to slow the pace of climate change, and to control non-communicable diseases.

Targets and timetables are essential, and governments at all levels need to establish short-term and long-term targets for pollution control and to support the agencies and regulations needed to attain these goals. Legally mandated regulation is an essential tool, and both the polluter-pays principle and an end to subsidies and tax breaks for polluting industries need to be integral components of pollution control programmes.

(2) Mobilise, increase, and focus the funding and the international technical support dedicated to pollution control. The amount of funding from international agencies, binational donors, and private foundations that is directed to control of pollution, especially pollution from the industrial, transport, chemical, and mining sectors in low-income and middle-income countries is meagre and needs to be substantially increased. The resources directed to pollution management need to be increased within cities and countries as well as internationally. Options for increasing the international development funding directed to pollution include expansion of climate change and non-communicable disease control programmes to include pollution control and development of new funding mechanisms.

In addition to increased funding, international technical support for pollution control is needed in prioritisation and planning of processes to tackle pollution within rapidly industrialising cities and countries; in development of regulatory and enforcement strategies; in building technical capacity; and in direct interventions, in which such actions are urgently needed to save lives or can substantially leverage local action and resources. Financing and technical assistance programmes need to be tracked and measured to assess their cost-effectiveness and to enhance accountability.

(3) Establish systems to monitor pollution and its effects on health. Data collected at the national and local levels are essential for measuring pollution levels, identifying and apportioning appropriate responsibility to each pollution source, evaluating the success of interventions, guiding enforcement, informing civil society and the public, and assessing progress toward goals. The incorporation of new technologies, such as satellite imaging and data mining, into pollution monitoring can increase efficiency, expand geographic range, and lower costs. Open access to these data is essential, and consultation with civil society and the public will ensure accountability and build public awareness. With even limited monitoring programmes, consisting of only one or a few sampling stations, governments and civil society organisations can document pollution, and track progress toward short-term and long-term control targets. Pollution control metrics should be integrated into SDG dashboards and other monitoring platforms so that successes and experiences can be shared.

(4) Build multi-sectoral partnerships for pollution control. Broad-based partnerships across several government agencies and between governments and the private sector can powerfully advance pollution control and accelerate the development of clean energy sources and clean technologies that will ultimately prevent pollution at source. Cross-ministerial collaborations that involve health and environment ministries, but also ministries of finance, energy, agriculture, development, and transportation are essential. Collaborations between governments and industry can catalyze innovation, create incentives for cleaner production technologies and cleaner energy production, and incentivise transition to a more sustainable, circular economy. The private sector is in a unique position to provide leadership in the design and development of clean, non-polluting, sustainable technologies for pollution control, and to engage constructively with governments to reward innovation and create incentives.

(5) Integrate pollution mitigation into planning processes for non-communicable diseases (e.g., cancer, heart disease, inflammatory diseases, autism, Alzheimer’s, physical and mental health). Interventions against pollution need to be a core component of the Global Action Plan for the Prevention and Control of Non-Communicable Diseases.

(6) Research pollution and pollution control. Research is needed to understand and control pollution and to drive change in pollution policy. Pollution-related research should:

  • Explore emerging causal links between pollution, disease, and subclinical impairment, for example between ambient air pollution and dysfunction of the central nervous system in children and the elderly;

  • Quantify the global burden of disease associated with chemical pollutants of known toxicity such as lead, mercury, chromium, arsenic, asbestos, and benzene;

  • Identify and characterise the adverse health outcomes caused by new and emerging chemical pollutants, such as developmental neurotoxicants, endocrine disruptors, novel insecticides, chemical herbicides, and pharmaceutical wastes;

  • Identify and map pollution exposures particularly in low-income and middle-income countries;

  • Improve estimates of the economic costs of pollution and pollution-related disease; and

  • Quantify the health and economic benefits of inter-ventions against pollution and balance these benefits against the costs of interventions.