If the climate crisis is caused in large part by burning coal, oil, and natural gas, can we grind the crisis to a halt by switching whatever uses those dirty fossil fuels to clean fuels like solar and wind?
If we electrify everything, we just might be able to.
Moms Clean Air Force recently signed on to a Senate resolution to “advance…widespread electrification of appliances and machines in American homes and businesses.” Called the Electrifying America’s Future Resolution, the measure aims to stop climate change, as well as put millions of Americans to work and advance an equitable economy and strong labor standards, by “decarbonizing the entire electricity sector by 2035.”
That’s the big picture. But what would it mean in real life?
Ultimately, there would be a lot of replacing going on. Replacing a gas water heater or kitchen range with electric ones. Replacing oil-burning furnaces with electric HVAC systems. Replacing gasoline-powered vehicles with EVs. Replacing gas barbecue grills, gas (or wood) fireplaces and stoves, and gas-powered garden tools like lawnmowers and leaf blowers with their electric counterparts.
There would be a lot of rebuilding going on, too. Right now, America’s infrastructure—highways, bridges, manufacturing facilities, railroads, airports, warehouses, power lines, municipal services, the Internet—all depend on coal, oil, or natural gas (in some cases, they use a fossil fuel directly; in others, they use electricity generated by fossil-fuel-dependent utilities). To “decarbonize” them, they would need to be rebuilt to be able to function on clean, renewable electricity. We already see this on a small scale: many street lights and highway signs are powered with small solar photovoltaic (PV) cells attached right to their motors. Some warehouses run on the solar energy generated by PV arrays installed on their rooftops. But these examples are the exception. They need to become the rule.
We also need to ramp up America’s ability to generate all power from clean renewable sources. In 2020, the US got 79% of its energy from coal, natural gas and petroleum. Nuclear provided 9% and renewables 12%. While renewables – which include biomass, geothermal, hydropower, solar, and wind – are the fastest growing source of energy in the US, they have a ways to go to be able to provide all the power we’ll need to make a clean electric future a reality. President Biden’s infrastructure plan will help, with its proposal to spend $100 billion to update the country’s electric grid and as much as $175 billion to boost the electric vehicle market and shift away from gas-powered cars, CNBC reports.
In the meantime, here’s one immediate step we can take: reduce total energy demand to as close to zero as possible, regardless of the power source. Treehugger’s Lloyd Alter makes the case for “Efficiency First” because “it creates the groundwork for renewable energy because so much less is needed.” Not only that, but in most cases, as soon as we increase efficiency and reduce demand, we start saving money. The U.S. Department of Energy estimates that the typical household can save 25% on utility bills by becoming more energy efficient. That amounts to over $2,200 annually.
Fortunately, there’s no need to wait for “the future” to reduce demand. It’s already pretty easy to add insulation to attics, walls and crawl spaces, replace old incandescent and CFL light bulbs with far more efficient LEDs, and activate the many energy-saving features that help computers, big-screen tvs and play stations use fewer kilowatts.
Even if we’re not yet ready to buy an EV, we can reduce the amount of energy our vehicles need by keeping tires properly inflated, doing regular vehicle maintenance, carpooling, walking or taking mass transit where possible, and using GPS to avoid traffic in favor of the most direct route available to our our destination.
We can upgrade to electric appliances that meet federal ENERGY STAR standards for energy-efficiency while buying green energy from one of the increasing number of utilities that offer it.
Communities have lots of options, too. Eugene, Oregon, for example, is looking at ways to create “20-Minute Neighborhoods.” The idea is to help people reduce their reliance on cars by making it easy and convenient to access the places and services they use daily, like grocery stores, restaurants, schools and parks. Community solar coops offer another way to jump start the adoption of clean electricity where you live.
Ford Motor Company rocked the auto world recently when it unveiled its new Ford F-150 Lightning, an all-electric version of the best-selling vehicle in America. General Motors is bringing one of the biggest gas-guzzlers of all time – the Hummer – back, but as a top-of-the-line premium electric pickup.
But perhaps the most significant indication that a clean electrified future is on the horizon can be found among the biggest perpetrators of climate change: oil companies.
“A record two-thirds of senior oil and gas professionals report that their organization is actively adapting to a less carbon-intensive energy mix in 2021,” reports WorldOil.com. “Some 57% plan to increase investment in renewables, up from 44% last year.”
Only 21% say they will invest in more oil projects in 2021. If that doesn’t foretell a clean, all-electric future, nothing does.