We now know we can secure the energy we need from zero carbon sources. Decarbonisation of the world’s economy is no longer the insurmountable challenge facing mankind that it was just a few years ago. Electrification is the key.
Electricity is an energy carrier that enables all sources of energy to be clean at their point of use. For this reason alone, electrification of energy use is a good idea. Electricity, however, is only as clean as the energy source from which it is generated, which can be dirty or clean. When energy is harnessed from the power of water flowing, the wind blowing or heat radiating from the sun and converted to electricity, the world’s decarbonisation goals are brought within reach.
Clean electrification of the global economy requires lots more electricity from renewable sources of energy. As well as providing light and powering appliances, green electricity must charge our cars, heat our buildings, and energise industrial processes heavily dependent on fossil fuel. More demand for electricity requires more of our power systems and more of the transmission and distribution wires designed for a previous age of centralised fossil fuel generation. The capacity of the wires must be boosted and power systems far better interconnected. Joined up and robust power systems are capable of absorbing shocks that destabilise the delicate balance of supply and demand in smaller, weaker systems.
Heating indoor spaces can be done cheaply and cleanly in urban areas using heating networks served by renewable energy. Denmark has shown the way. The scale of change needed is not to be underestimated, but even a country with challenges the size of those in the UK can decarbonise its heating and lower its cost, given sufficient political will to do so.
Electricity will also be needed to power electrolysers to produce hydrogen, a process that is entirely free of carbon emissions, as is its use. Hydrogen fuel cells hold potential to decarbonise heavy transport and hydrogen may replace fossil fuels in some industrial processes. Hydrogen trains are showing great promise and a few are in commercial operation. A consensus is emerging that these are the best applications for hydrogen and talk of using it in power and heating systems is a distraction.
The most carbon intensive use of fossil fuel is in heavy industry. Full electrification of cement and steel manufacturing, the two biggest sinners, would require new processes, innovations that may come up short for total decarbonisation. They are industries that need serious government help, not protection..
If nothing else, our deep dive into electrification is a positive story of human ingenuity at work. No longer is decarbonisation an aspiration impossible to achieve. Through electrification it can be done.
– David Weston, Editor
It is the affordability of renewables that makes direct and indirect electrification of heating, transportation and some industrial processes possible. Ridding the world of carbon pollution is no longer a pipedream, but a job to get done
Without a European grid up to the task of not only meeting more demand for electricity, but also assimilating it from distributed renewables, green electrification of heating and transport is stymied from the start. Decarbonisation requires new infrastructure, yet the public is having none of it.
Three concerns are said to be hindering the uptake of electric passenger cars—high purchase cost, fear of a flat battery, and lack of charging infrastructure. But cost has fallen, the range of car batteries now rivals that of a full tank of fuel and recharging a depleted battery when the need arises is proving to be easier than expected
A new transmission line across the Baltic Sea shows that a more integrated European power network is not only steadily evolving, but that innovative approaches to infrastructure design can bring down the cost of the energy transition.
Denmark has led the way on decarbonisation of heating, with a rapid transition away from fossil fuels aided by its large scale adoption of heating networks over the past 40 years. Instead of exchanging individual heating appliances in every home and commercial building, the Danes are centrally converting their heat networks to renewable energy, saving citizens a pile of money in the process
As the United States legislates for higher shares of renewables, the development of its straggling and disjointed grid network to match its clean energy ambitions is lagging behind
Cement and steel manufacturing are two of the most carbon intensive industries in the world. Electrification can play a role in decarbonising both, though technology innovation is expensive and removing all emissions from the processes is a tall order.
Decarbonisation of heating requires switching from systems and appliances that combust fossil fuels to those that rely on renewable energy. Nowhere is the switch more challenging to achieve for existing building stock than in the UK. If it can be done there, it can be done anywhere
No matter how much wind and solar power is generated, the energy transition cannot be achieved without a built-for-purpose electricity infrastructure. Gaps in the interconnections of Europe’s grid network and lack of capacity on the wires where it is needed most will halt green electrification of energy.
Hydrogen suffers from an abundance of hype, particularly about what it can be used for in the energy transition. Wild claims for the application of hydrogen, with little basis in current science and commercial reality, have worked to obscure the realistic opportunities for putting truly clean hydrogen to work here and now.