Your electric future

Source: Wikimedia

What’s new?

Colorado’s Public Utility Commission and other Colorado government agencies have opened discussions with the Colorado companies that provide natural gas service about future plans for large natural gas infrastructure, as described by Allen Best in Mountain Town News this week.

What does it mean?

Mr Best explains that gas infrastructure is expensive and long lasting. The discussions will be based on the long term effects of large decisions, looking out 10 to 20 years. Limiting new installations of natural gas facilities will help the state meet ambitious goals to reduce emissions of greenhouse gases; a 2019 Colorado law requires the regulatory agencies to act to support these goals.

He places this action in the context of a movement called beneficial electrification. As explained by the Environmental and Energy Study Institute: “Beneficial electrification (or strategic electrification) is a term for replacing direct fossil fuel use (e.g., propane, heating oil, gasoline) with electricity in a way that reduces overall emissions and energy costs. There are many opportunities across the residential and commercial sectors. This can include switching to an electric vehicle or an electric heating system – as long as the end-user and the environment both benefit.”

The long term goal of moving completely away from fossil fuels to renewable energy increasingly looks like electrification because electricity can be generated economically from renewable sources such as solar and wind. While the COVID-19 crisis has slowed the electrification trend somewhat, the US Energy Information Agency and analysis by the financial asset management firm Lazard both state that renewable energy has won the cost battle. “In other words, it is now cheaper to save the climate than to destroy it.”

I am proud to point out the huge contribution of engineers in this achievement. The trend is driven by improvements in the devices and physical systems, improvements in the manufacture of those items, and improvements in the use of those items. For example, wind power has improved with better designs for wind towers, turbines, and all their components; more efficient manufacturing of all of those items leading to lower costs; and better designs for operating electrical grids to maximize the use of the wind when it is available. Furthermore, electrified devices can incorporate sophisticated controls that optimize their operation to provide high user satisfaction and low energy use. My two favorite engineering specialties, industrial engineering and mechatronics, deserve a lot of the credit. Industrial engineering drives the improvement in manufacturing and mechatronics drives the use of controls of devices and systems.

The National Academy of Engineering cites electrification as the greatest engineering achievement of the 20th century, and the book Networks of Power: Electrification in Western Society, 1880-1930, by Thomas P. Hughes, makes the case for the huge societal changes that ensued. David Nye’s Electrifying America: Social Meanings of a New Technology emphasizes even more the social impact of this technology. The current second wave of electrification is likely to have equally large impacts.

Much work remains to be done.  As skeptics point out, the sun does not always shine and the wind does not always blow, so storage technology is essential for this electrified future. The cost, range, and usefulness of electric vehicles will depend crucially on battery technology and, thank you again to the engineers, that technology is improving at a rapid pace. It is not “if,” it is “when” electric vehicles will be cheaper than vehicles with internal combustion engines. Other technologies are also on the way to or have already achieved economic feasibility: utility scale energy storage, efficient grid management, and advanced building design. My favorite not-so-crazy idea is the increasing use of direct current, rather than alternating current (yes, I think Edison was right, not Tesla).

Regulatory issues, the topic where I started this article, remain important, especially concerning the financial incentives felt by consumer of electricity.

What does it mean for you?

Consumer uses tend to dominate the discussion of beneficial electrification, including home heating, water heating, electric vehicles, and so forth. Some of those technologies apply in business settings and increasingly your offices and other buildings will rely on electricity.

Industrial uses present more of a challenge, especially processes that require large surges of power for short time periods. But if the steel mill in my town can move to solar power, other industrial processes can and will do the same. The mill has already transitioned to using only recycled steel and now is leading in the electrification trend. Electric forklifts, induction heating, and efficient heat pumps are already here.

Where can you learn more?

This March 2018 report from Lawrence Berkeley National Lab lays out the potentials for electrification, with an emphasis on the industrial and commercial sectors. Saul Griffith is a power voice advocating for the electric future and he is creating companies that move us there. McKinsey & Company argue that companies should be factoring electrification into all of their capital spending plans.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.