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The US energy infrastructure is not aging well. Last summer in California, heatwaves taxed the grid to the limit, creating rolling blackouts. This winter, record low temperatures in Texas froze gas valves and pipes, leaving millions of people without electricity, heat, and water. What were once hundred-year storms now create havoc regularly with flash floods, record snowfalls, devastating hurricanes, and wildfires.

Eventually, we will realize these climate events result from our reliance on fossil fuels and that we can’t keep dumping pollution into the atmosphere without consequence. The Earth’s climate is changing, and these catastrophic events are a direct result. California policymakers are taking the lead in curtailing greenhouse gas emissions, which will be no small feat. The challenges of making this transition are enormous but not insurmountable. 

There are many opinions about what to prioritize, but we have to start somewhere whatever the approach. As with any large-scale problem, it makes sense to break the challenge down into smaller pieces to avoid being overwhelmed. 

Here are four significant steps that we at Efficiency First believe the country must take to move to a more sustainable energy future.

1. Energy Efficiency – wasting less is always the best solution

Our first suggestion probably won’t surprise you, as it’s in our name. Efficiency in its simplest form equals less waste.  Unfortunately, many parts of the “American Dream” are very wasteful.

The industrial sector is the largest consumer of energy in the US and the most challenging to make more efficient. Concrete production, for example, is responsible for as much as 8 percent of total global greenhouse gas emissions. A large part of this comes from direct emissions created by the chemical process of making cement. While there’s no easy way to reduce these direct emissions, producers can, in theory, cut indirect emissions by replacing coal or gas-powered kilns with electric, even as they continue to research new, lower-carbon alternatives to traditional cement. Other industrial processes face similar challenges. 

The transportation sector is the largest source of greenhouse gas emissions in the US.  America has a long-term love affair with personal transportation, which is the least efficient way to get around. After World War II, affordable automobiles allowed many Americans to move out of the cities to newly developed suburbs. The car allows us to live in this vast country’s remote regions, but this freedom has come at a price. Every day millions of transportation pods roll down our roads, burning fossil fuels, spewing tailpipe emissions into the atmosphere.

Busses, trains, light rail systems are much more efficient than individual automobiles. But while city dwellers can walk or use mass transit to travel to their destinations, those who live in the suburbs rely heavily on personal transportation. As much as we love cars, there is no denying their impact on greenhouse gas emissions. 

Internal combustion vehicles have come a long way in terms of efficiency, but they are still better at generating heat than locomotion, even with modern advances. A couple of years ago, Toyota produced the world’s most efficient gasoline engine. New materials science and electronic controls allowed it to achieve 40 percent thermal efficiency. While that is a significant milestone compared to the average internal combustion engine, which is around 20% efficient, it still represents a lot of waste. We need to do better.

Our buildings are not much better. They too rely primarily on the combustion (burning) of fossil fuels. The majority of buildings in the United States are over 37 years old. When they were built, energy was cheap, and builders paid little attention to making them efficient. 

Energy efficiency building codes, adopted in the late 1970s, are updated every three years. As a result, buildings in California are much more efficient than they once were. The problem is building code’s impact is mostly on new construction. California has millions of pre-energy code buildings that are energy hogs. If we are serious about reducing greenhouse gas emissions, we need to aggressively promote the multiple benefits of energy efficiency (EE). Including upgrades for existing buildings. 

2. Electrification – electricity is the cleanest fuel we have today

 A few years ago, when California policy makers started seriously looking into the various ways of reducing greenhouse gas emissions, it became clear that electrification of both transportation and buildings would be a necessary strategy. The transition will require new electricity rates and other policy changes to be effective, no small task. 

The biggest reason to transition to electricity is that California is currently producing large amounts of electricity from carbon-free sources, including solar PV, wind, hydro, and yes, nuclear. Another benefit of electrification is that electric devices are typically much more efficient than their fossil fuel counterparts. Let’s take cars, for example. As we stated above, the average ICE (Internal Combustion Engine) car is around 20 percent efficient. Electric vehicles are over three times more efficient than ICE vehicles, delivering an average of 77 percent of their power to the wheels. What is truly amazing is that most electric cars have an energy storage capacity equivalent to about 2.5 gallons of gas (one gallon is equal to 34 kWh), and yet they have a range of over 200 miles. 

Electric buildings are much more efficient too. Gas furnaces max out at roughly 98 percent efficiency. Heat pump space heaters and other heat pump technologies easily exceed 300 percent efficiency and do not rely on fossil fuels. Heat pump water heaters, heat pump space heaters, induction cooktops, and heat pump clothes dryers are reliable and established technologies. We can electrify buildings without compromising our lifestyle.

For these reasons and others, electrification will continue to be a key strategy to reducing greenhouse gas emissions. 

3. Electrical Generation – the grid is changing

The current electrical grid was designed and built for the central generation of electricity and a one-way transmission. In many parts of the country, this is still basically true. Electricity is generated at a remote location, a power plant, and distributed by high voltage power lines to its end-use. In many cases, these high voltage power lines transverse remote mountain regions, maintenance an expensive proposition. When the strong winds blow high, transmission lines break, and wildfires are often the result. Some utilities do a better job than others at maintaining these high voltage lines. PG&E’s reputation is not stellar, and people have died as a result. 

Imagine how different the situation would be if we relied on many small power generators instead of a few massive ones. Until recently, this wasn’t possible. Today, though, we have multiple distributed generation options that were not around when the grid was built. Wind, solar, geothermal, and other renewable sources can provide local power generation, eliminating the need for extensive high voltage power lines crossing remote woodland areas.

Rooftop solar has a role too. Building owners today have the option to generate their power from the sun that hits their homes. Don’t have enough roof space for your power needs? Why not share some space with someone who does?  Community-based solar and shared resources can amortize the costs of rooftop solar across several users. 

I predict that the days of purchasing energy from a controlled monopoly are rapidly coming to an end. Think about telephones.  For years people only had one choice for telephone service. The advent of cellular technology and a free market has changed all of that. Millions of people worldwide today have no physical phone lines running to their homes. 

Beyond communications, what about the wireless transmission of electricity itself? Nikola Tesla supported this idea back in the late 1890s. Is it possible that we will finally advance this technology and get rid of wires altogether? It might not be as far-fetched as it seems.

The way we manage the flow of electricity is changing too. Controlling the flow of electrons on the grid is a lot more complicated than it used to be.  Combining massive utility-scale electricity generation with local source production and multiple renewable generation sources is an enormous challenge. Power plants don’t ramp up fast, and solar does not produce at night. Wind does not blow at a steady rate. All of these factors make providing reliable electricity a challenge. How we manage these loads and generation sources is evolving daily. 

Utilities have a variety of tools related to grid management. Demand response systems (DR) can reduce loads during peak demand. “Peaker” power plants can fire up rapidly. Some utilities use exotic solutions, such as Blackhawk helicopters to ferry gas-turbine generators to service remote grid sections during outages (PG&E). The art and science of managing and shifting loads on the grid are crucial. Get it right, and you avoid brownouts. Get it wrong, and your customers can be without electricity during an extreme weather event. 

Microgrids are getting traction. Several college campuses and other industries have begun to use these. Microgrids generate electricity on-site and can operate without connection to the primary electrical grid if necessary. Microgrids provide both local control of generation and resiliency to power outages, especially if multiple communities connect their grids. If you have the resources and space, a community-based microgrid might be a viable solution. Market factors will impact this transition, but I don’t think we are far from this as a reality.

In many ways, our electrical distribution system is like hardwired landline phones. Few could have imagined the impact of cell phones and decentralized communications just a few decades ago. The electrical grid and how we use electricity are changing. I caution folks who base their predictions about electrification on current technology and infrastructure. New technology and new business models will supplement and eventually replace the existing grid. If the consumer demand supports wide-scale electrification, the market will respond with solutions. There is too much money at stake, and innovative solutions will be worth a fortune.

4. Storage – reserve capacity will change everything

The current electrical grid has no reserve capacity — grid managers must anticipate future loads and modify generation output in real-time. Get it right, and it’s a beautiful thing. Get it wrong, and people can die. 

In addition to making sure the lights stay on, managing supply has financial implications. Provide too much capacity, and the price of electricity plummets and the utility loses money. Don’t provide enough, and you might need to shut off power to parts of the grid (rolling blackouts). If your predictions are way off, the whole grid can crash. It is an expensive and dangerous game to play, yet this happens every day in California. Are you aware that we curtail (shut-off) clean energy from solar regularly? If the slow-to-ramp-up power plants produce too much baseline power when demand is low, we can’t take advantage of the carbon-free energy generated by utility-scale solar farms. Adding energy storage to the electrical distribution system changes all of this. 

When we talk about storage, most people think of batteries. Batteries are one solution, but they are expensive and rely on caustic chemicals and rare materials. Battery technology is improving, and the options are increasing every day. Eventually, the cost will come down to make them a commonplace solution. 

In the meantime, there are other options. Rather than curtailing excess solar power production, why not crank up water heaters? If the tank is well insulated, the energy losses are minimal, effectively storing extra energy for use later. When the user needs hot water, it is ready to go. 

Utilities can use clean electricity, generated during peak solar production, to compress air and store it in abandoned wells underground; when demand increases, the compressed air is released, spinning turbines to generate electricity. Or how about using peak solar electricity to pump water uphill from one reservoir to another? When demand dictates, discharge the water from the uphill dam to spin a turbine and generate electricity. Many brilliant people are working on energy storage solutions, and we are just starting to see the potential.

Every significant energy change in our industrial world has faced challenges. We made it from horses to steam, from steam to oil. The next big step will be to move from fossil fuels to carbon-free energy. It’s a big step, but I am confident we can overcome the barriers. Energy efficiency, electrification, distributed grids, energy storage, and other solutions will make it a reality.

As difficult as this transition might seem, the real question is, what happens if we give up and stay with the status quo? I think mother nature is already responding to that question.