If you’re like me, the concept of “Electrify Everything” only came into your life recently and, especially with active discussions in Congress, it suddenly feels like it’s all over the media. As with all other climate change topics, there’s a lot of misinformation out there.
Here are 8 common false claims about electrification served up with facts and a side of opinion.
Note: This post relies heavily on a phenomenal interview
with journalist David Roberts and energy strategist Kingsmill Bond.
Myth #1: Electrification is too expensive.
At a systems level two words debunk this myth: learning curves. The four key technologies, the “horsemen’’ of the energy transition, are wind, solar PV, batteries and electrolyzers. The first three together enable us to cost effectively harness energy from the wind and sun, store it and use it for our energy needs. Electrolyzer technologies split water into hydrogen and oxygen, creating green hydrogen that stores carbon-free energy and can be used to power high heat applications like steel production, heavy transportation or even electricity generation, complementing wind, solar and batteries to increase the reach of renewable energy.
Building solar and wind is already cheaper than running fossil-fuel alternatives in most of the world. Costs will continue to decline because all four technologies are on “learning curves,” which means cost drops as growth continues at an exponential rate. This learning curve pattern is apparent from every technology that has disrupted an incumbent technology in the past, from the introduction of electricity, to refrigerators, to color TV, to CDs in music or smart phones.
In the past, experts repeatedly underestimated deployment and overestimated cost, largely because they were, incorrectly, assuming linear growth. Solar PV & wind deployments have grown at 25–45% per year for the past 2 decades, doubling roughly every 2 years at an exponential (not linear) rate. A recent paper from expert modelers at Oxford that assumed a continuation of this exponential rate showed that a rapid transition to cleaner energy will likely result in trillions of dollars of savings.
At a household level, building all-electric homes is cheaper than building fossil fuel homes, the average American household will save $362 in energy bills each year by going electric, and EVs are cheaper to operate than internal-combustion engines (ICEs). These cost advantages will only increase as these clean energy technologies continue to scale.
Myth #2: Intermittency is and will remain a problem.
First, all four of these technologies are complementary and, by design, when used together will solve nearly all of the intermittency issues. Battery technology and cheap green hydrogen from electrolyzers will enable short and long duration energy storage to offset periods of low renewable generation. Second, as costs of all four technologies drop, developers will build more renewable technologies which will increase the predictability of the grid.
Finally, this is a future problem: today wind and solar only provide 10% of the world’s energy and we have many years before we get to 80%. Kingsmill Bond reminds us that we have figured out solutions to all energy challenges in the past.
Myth #3: There will be material shortages and supply chain challenges with system-wide electrification.
Bond calls this a “bogus problem.” First, we have enough Lithium and Cobalt, two primary minerals, to satisfy almost a century of demand. Second, electrified systems require fewer materials, not more. EVs, for example, require 200kg “extra” mineral materials than their internal-combustion engine (ICEs) counterparts, which is 1000x less than the 15,000kg of oil ICEs require over their lifetime to operate. Finally, we have continuously solved each supply chain problem we have encountered. Economics 101: as the supply of a material constricts, prices go up, we extract more of the material, supply increases, and prices drop. Companies continue to innovate to use less material.
Myth #4: We can’t transition some sectors, like industrial processes and heavy transportation, away from fossil fuels.
It’s true that some sectors are harder to power with currently available renewable energy technologies. However, newer technologies, mainly green hydrogen, are already being deployed in these sectors, notably shipping, steel and cement.
Myth #5: Our financial markets will tank when we abandon fossil fuels.
Yes, money is deeply ingrained in fossil fuels. According to Kingsmill Bond, ¼ of equity markets and ½ of the bond market are invested in fossil fuel producers or heavy users of fossil fuels.
In good news, we have likely already hit the peak for global fossil fuel demand. According to Kingsmill Bond, this peak sets off a series of market feedback loops which creates a tipping point for the acceleration to clean energy solutions. For example, in the car industry incumbent automakers are beginning to experience declining sales as EVs absorb all the new growth in the market. Therefore, they will need to allocate costs across a smaller number of cars, which will lead to rising costs per unit making it harder for them to raise capital. Challengers, like Tesla, on the other hand, will be able to produce more technology at declining costs (due to the learning curves), causing demand increases making it easier for them to raise more money from financial markets.
As a result of these feedback loops and tipping points, financial markets are starting to revise their risk models, no longer assuming ever rising fossil fuel demand, new financial activists are being born and ever-bigger pension funds, educational organizations and more are divesting.
Myth #6: Electrification is unpopular.
This is untrue at the system level and even more untrue at the household level. Voters across party lines in the U.S. overwhelmingly prefer investments in clean energy technology. Both parties support utilities prioritizing lower energy bills and increasing energy efficiency, and Democrats want utilities to transition to energy that doesn’t contribute to climate change. The majority of American voters support federal investment to provide rebates to purchase and install zero-emission, electric technologies.
Myth #7: Politics will never catch on.
If you’re like me then you’re feeling depressed with Joe Manchin’s slashing of the Clean Energy Performance Program in the U.S. and the country in-fighting in lead-up to COP26. But there are reasons to hope. First, cities and states continue to lead. According to the Sierra Club, in the past 2 years over 50 cities across California passed local building codes to phase out gas in favor of electric technologies, and other cities and states are considering the same. Second, “politics follows technologies.” Boris Johnson, for example, was publicly skeptical of green technology 20 years ago and now that EVs are similar in cost to ICEs he is considering a ban on the sale of fossil-fuel cars for the UK.
Myth #8: Biden’s ambitious electrification agenda — to decarbonize electricity by 2035 and for the US to be net-zero carbon by 2050 — is not achievable.
The cost of our energy transition is cheaper than the cost of business as usual. Technologically, this transition is feasible. Electrification is popular. Strong political mobilization is needed to push politics to respond. We don’t have 20 years to wait for another Boris Johnson conversion. It’s important to keep pushing local and federal politicians to amend existing and create new policies to support the transition to renewables.
“Electrification will win” — Chris James, the founder of Engine No 1, in conversation with Christiana Figueres.
If you’re like me, just hearing that gives you a sigh of relief. Economics aside, that is not a reason to stop fighting, funding, taking individual action and spreading the word.
With that, a call to action: