Complete electrification and close to 100 percent renewable energy generation: this is a vision of the United States 15 years from now. According to the visionaries, this objective is completely possible to achieve, and the transition to it would be painless.
But can this vision really become a reality?
Mass electrification is not a new concept. In fact, the dominant opinion concerning energy transition is that the only way to get to a low-emissions or even emission-free future is by electrifying everything we can electrify. But most voices in this field believe we need to innovate more to get there. Unlike them, the founders of Rewire America, an organization dedicated to solving both the climate change problem and the U.S. unemployment problem, say the country can electrify using nothing more than the technology we have available today.
According to a report released by Rewire America in late July, it is all about scale. All it would take to go from one of the top carbon emitters in the world to zero-emissions is building more wind farms, more solar farms, more batteries, and more heat pumps. It would also take selling many more electric cars and expanding the power grid because the U.S. would need to generate a lot more electricity than it generates now. Although it may sound counterintuitive at first, despite this greater electricity demand, total energy demand would fall substantially, the report’s authors say.
The logic seems to be that with the elimination of fossil fuels, a lot of energy demand will be eliminated, too. For instance, if everyone switches from internal combustion engine cars to EVs, the energy necessary to find, pump out, and refine the fuel needed to power those ICE cars will go away. The rest of the energy the country needs will be supplied by electricity, almost entirely generated from wind and solar, as well as some nuclear. Generation capacity, according to Saul Griffith and Sam Calisch, would need to jump from the current 450 GW to between 1,500 to 2,000 GW. Nuclear capacity would need to double to 200 GW.
Other than this sizable boost in power generation capacity, changes include a lot more distributed power generation systems, a lot of battery storage installations, and, as mentioned already, an adjustment of the grid. This, the authors note, will create 25 million jobs over the medium term and five million jobs over the long term. And it will all cost as much as Joe Biden plans to spend on addressing climate change: some $3 trillion over a decade.
The electrification hype is in full swing, skeptics might say. Yet the Rewire America report makes one stipulation that sets it apart: it can be done with existing technology. We don’t need more sophisticated battery arrays or better wind turbine blades, or more efficient solar panels.
We can do it with what we have now.
This is not something that many agree on, but it makes sense. Insisting on more innovation to bring about the renewable revolution is, from a certain perspective, an excuse not to go all-in now. From another perspective, either with or without further innovation, this revolution is not happening.
For one thing, an almost exclusive reliance on electricity to power an economy—especially an economy the size of the American one—is a bit far-fetched in the period set by the report, according to some. IRENA says that the global share of electricity in the energy mix could rise from the current 20 percent to close to 45 percent, but not until 2050. In some places, the agency said in its Global Energy Transformation roadmap, this share could increase to 60 percent and maybe even higher, but the share of renewables in it would be about 60 percent. IRENA recognizes wind and solar alone, or with modest help from hydrogen and nuclear, cannot do it on their own.
Then there is the topic of space. Wind farms— and to an even greater extent, solar farms—require space. Tripling the current U.S. generation capacity with only wind and solar—and some nuclear—would mean using up a lot of land. Although the United States has lots of land, much of it is currently in use as arable land. There are also places that are not suitable for either wind or solar power generation. That’s one of the challenges of renewables: they need optimal conditions. Otherwise, the electricity they produce would not be profitable.
The third challenge would be changing people’s attitudes. This may well turn out to be the biggest challenge of all. The rest is doable: the technology is there, and perhaps the money is there. Even the land is there as such. But how do you convince millions of people to switch from ICE cars to EVs and to install a rooftop solar system on their house complete with battery storage?
Sure, government incentives would help, but it is arguable that they would help with the mass adoption Rewire America sees as the only way to deal with climate change. And again, solar panels on every roof might not be the solution for all: some places are not as sunny as others, not to mention snowy places where the solar roof would be rendered useless for hours and maybe even days on end. These places would need very high-capacity batteries, and these do not come cheap.
Electrifying a whole country is certainly an interesting idea. Creating millions of jobs in the process makes it a noble idea. But the obstacles to making this idea actually work may well prove insurmountable without a mental rewiring, and for better or worse, we still don’t have the technology to do that, not in such a short period.
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