Alan Journet, Co-facilitator, Southern Oregon Climate Action Now
There exists a growing movement promoting the electrification of our entire economy. A common response to this is: “Why electrify?”
The answer to this reasonable question falls into two parts:
- What is the benefit to switching away from fossil fuels?
- Why is electricity a superior energy source?
What is the benefit to switching away from fossil fuels?
For a quick review of the twelve-step explanation of the climate change problem, visit: the twelve-step climate consensus
We know that the major driving force causing the climate crisis that now confronts us is the extraction, processing, transportation, and combustion of fossil fuels. Our use of these fuels results in emissions of greenhouse gases. Among the major greenhouse gases, the largest contributor to the problem is carbon dioxide (CO2). Second and third on the list of contributors resulting from human activity are methane (CH4), and nitrous oxide (N2O). Interestingly, carbon dioxide is not the greatest contributor because its capacity to absorb heat is greater (on a pound-for-pound basis) than the other gases. In fact, with the warming potential of carbon dioxide defined as ‘1’, methane is actually 86 times worse on a 20-years basis and 34 times worse on a 100-year basis. Meanwhile, nitrous oxide clocks in at nearly 300 times worse than carbon dioxide on a 100-year basis.
Instead, carbon dioxide is the most important greenhouse gas because of its concentration in our atmosphere, a concentration that is increasing mainly because of the combustion of fossil fuels though other human activities, notably land use, are also contributing. While CO2 is measured in parts per million, the other gases are measure in parts per billion. Fortunately, their concentrations are about a million times lower than CO2. However, just as carbon dioxide is increasing in concentration, so are the other gases. Indeed, methane is now estimated to be causing some 25% of the warming we are experiencing. This means that we must not only reduce carbon dioxide emissions, we must also target the other greenhouse gases. While methane emissions assuredly occur as a result of warming the permafrost and the extraction of coal and oil, a huge contribution comes from the fracking, processing, and transmission of fossil (natural) gas. Even though, when combusted, fossil gas results in lower carbon dioxide emissions than coal or oil per unit of energy generated, sufficient methane leaks during the life cycle from extraction to combustion potentially to negate that advantage (see Natural Gas: A Bridge to Nowhere).
The message is that our use of fossil fuels absolutely must be curtailed, and curtailed rapidly. Looking at the greenhouse gas emissions budget we have remaining on a global basis, the latest IPCC assessment (AR6) indicates that for an 83% chance of limiting warming to 1.5⁰C (2.7⁰F) above pre-industrial levels, we have fewer than 5 years of emissions at our current rate.
Why is electricity a superior energy source?
If all our electricity were generated from renewable source such as solar and wind, it would be self-evident why switching to electricity is beneficial. However, except for those who are off the grid and supply their needs from solar panels or wind turbines, most of us derive our electricity from a grid which is supplied from an assortment of power stations, many of which are themselves powered by coal or fossil gas. This raises the inevitable question: why, then is electricity better than fossil fuel? The answer depends on the use:
- Transportation In Oregon and nationally, transportation is the greatest source of regulated greenhouse gas emissions, largely in the form of carbon dioxide resulting from the combustion of fossil fuels (gasoline, fossil gas, and diesel). We know that electric motors are much more efficient than the standard Internal Combustion Engine (ICE). This means that electric vehicles are almost universally superior to ICE vehicles, whether they are Hybrids or fully Battery-powered. Indeed, they would have to be unconscionably inefficient for that to not be the case. Full life cycle assessments reveal the huge benefit of the electric vehicle compared to the fossil fuel driven vehicle. This is true, even if the electricity we are using comes from a coal-fired power plant. Of course, if the electric vehicle is powered by energy derived from solar panels or wind turbines, the equation favors the electric vehicle even more dramatically. This is why visions of a clean future almost always start with electrifying transportation.
- Industrial/Commercial/Residential This may seem less obvious. Fossil fuels are used in industry to generate electricity and for heating. Electricity generation could be converted to renewable sources but extreme heating could be a more serious problem. The fossil gas corporations have been promoting Renewable Natural Gas (RNG) as though there exists capacity to replace much of their piped fossil gas with this product. Unfortunately, the gas companies and their lobbyist organizations have convinced legislatures that RNG is clean. Visit What’s Up with RNG for a brief discussion of why this campaign is just another corporate fossil fuel effort to deceive and misinform.
Where fossil gas is used domestically, a transition to electricity is possible. This is certainly the case with heating, but is also the case for cooking. Although many folks much prefer gas to electricity since it provides instant heat, the relatively new and abundantly available induction cooktop option provides equally instant and as rapid heating as gas. The only catch is that cookware must be ferromagnetic: metal and respond to a magnet. Visit Master the Four Methods of Heat Transfer in Cooking for a discussion: “On average, it takes 25% to 50% less time to cook on an induction stove than on gas or electric…” This means that the induction system uses less energy and thus results in fewer emissions even if the electricity is fossil fuel generated.
- Fossil gas in home/industry/commercial use Regrettably, the fossil gas companies have long been promoting the total fiction that fossil gas is ‘the clean fossil fuel.’ It is not, and they know it! There is no doubt that we should be converting away from any use of fossil gas in the home. Beside the greenhouse gas emissions, and despite the claims of the gas corporations to the contrary, fossil gas is a toxic health hazard. For a full discussion of the evils of fossil gas, visit Methane Gas: Health, Safety, Economic, and Climate Impacts: A Case for Equitable Electrification and the report, ‘too dirty, too dangerous: Why Health Professionals Reject Natural Gas‘ of the Physicians for Social Responsibility and this letter to the EPA from the American Society of Pediatrics urging increased regulatory rigor. The bottom line here is that even if we ignore climate change, natural gas is still a health hazard to be avoided. While it seems that gas provides an alternative when the grid is unavailable, it is worth remembering that gas production requires electricity, water heater pilot flames do not ignite without electricity, and gas stoves and cook-tops emit toxic chemicals and should not be used without electric fans to remove these air pollutants
The trend towards clean electricity
Finally, worthy of consideration is the trend in legislation. In Oregon, for example, HB2021, passed during the 2021 legislative session, imposes on electrical utilities the requirement that all electricity retailed in the state shall, by 2040, be produced by means that emit no greenhouse gases. This applies to electricity generated instate or out-of-state and thus will result in all electricity in the state being clean so we will no longer have to worry about whether it is produced in a coal-fired power plant; this will be precluded. This trend is the wave of the future as federal efforts coming from the Biden Administration are destined to have parallel results.
This trend, of course, adds another argument to the reasons for electrifying our transportation system.
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