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Electricity Gets Greener
It's Time to Switch
As I drive my Chevy Bolt EV, I’ve often been chided (usually with a smile and a wink) for driving a car powered by coal. I’d be lying if I didn’t admit this is both true and irritating to hear. But the U.S. and the global energy mix is shifting in a distinctly greener direction.
According to Our World in Data, the carbon intensity of electricity in the United States has been reduced by about 29 percent from 2000 to 2021. Just 71 percent to go. There is a long way to go, but it doesn’t go without saying that meaningful progress has been made.
Globally, the same general trend holds with a decline of 5 percent. The challenge globally is that low-income countries with a desire for economic development have deployed the cheapest power source. In too many parts of the world, the answer has been coal. Even with that pressure, electricity is getting greener on average worldwide.
Switch to Electricity Where and When Possible
When we talk about switching to electricity, our first thought is to change how we move, going from gas to electrons. In December 2017, Gail and I bought our first EV, a used 2012 Nissan Leaf with about 50 miles of range.
The big surprise to us was that it was cheaper to drive the EV than not owning a car, which is what we’d been doing. We’d get around by walking, public transit, Lyft/Uber and occasionally a rental car. Owning the Leaf was terrible for my waist but great for my pocketbook.
Today, we drive a 2017 Chevy Bolt with about 250 miles of range. We love it! Operating costs remain surprisingly low. Yes, the car needs new tires every few years. And wiper fluid. It has brakes, but we seldom use them and don’t anticipate servicing them for a long time. Electricity is a lot cheaper than gasoline per mile. Dramatically so today. We’re paying about $0.04 per mile for power. At $4.52 per gallon (the national average as I write this), with a car that gets 30 miles per gallon, gas alone costs $0.15 per mile, almost four times the cost.
Still, there is much more that we can and should switch. In my native Utah, where natural gas has always been cheap, most buildings, including homes, are heated with it. So is water in most of those buildings. The same is true in much of the country. Heating oil is common in the Northeast.
We can’t end global warming without ending the use of fossil fuels when it isn’t necessary.
Heating a home with electricity can be cheap when you install a ground-source heat pump. This isn’t new technology, but it does have significant up-front cost. Small homes and apartments can be heated efficiently with air-source heat pumps, basically air conditioners that reverse operation in the winter.
While many water heaters operate on natural gas, there are affordable electric alternatives. Tankless water heaters are gaining popularity because they are just better. They only heat water when you need hot water. There is no massive tank of water slowly rusting away in your home, ready at any moment to leak or flood your home. Because they only heat water when you need it, most families find they are cheaper to operate than traditional tank-style water heaters.
“Now we’re cooking with gas.” If you haven’t said it, you’ve heard it. The old saying comes from the notion that cooking with gas is better than the alternatives. Who do you think came up with the idea? You guessed it. The phrase was used by the natural gas industry in the 1930s to promote cooking with gas.
Fancy new induction cooktops can give you the same sense of pride in having the best, latest, fanciest appliance in your kitchen without the pesky risks of dying from a gas leak or the indoor pollution gas stoves produce.
Swapping out appliances only to address climate change is asking a lot. I get it. Consider making plans to include your transition to electric at the next natural point. When the gas furnace fails, replace it with a heat pump. When you remodel the kitchen, switch to electric by design. If your water heater has a tank and is more than ten years old, put a tankless water heater on your shopping list.
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How to Make Electricity Greener Still
To give you a sense of how much greener we can make our grid, note that America’s carbon density is about 14 times greater than Norway, one of the world’s largest oil exporters. We can improve rapidly if we choose to do so.
For better or worse, much of the progress we’ve made in the U.S. toward greener electricity has been driven by the switch from coal to natural gas, which generates about half as much carbon.
In 2000, coal-fired power plants supplied 51.3 percent of America’s electricity. At the time, natural gas provided just 16 percent. Twenty years later, coal was down to 19.1 percent, and natural gas had jumped to 40.2 percent.
Over that 20-year span, total fossil fuels declined from 70.2 to 59.7 percent as renewables doubled from 9.3 to 19.5 percent.
Do you see the opportunity? Renewables still make up a relatively small part of the total. Solar power was only 2.24 percent of the total in 2020. With all the talk of solar, you’d think we were getting half our power that way.
Energy storage is an absolute necessity if we are going to rely more on wind and solar. The wind doesn’t always blow, and the sun takes a 12-hour nap, on average, every single day. This challenge will solve itself with a little nudge from Washington.
As more people switch to driving electric cars, vast amounts of energy storage are distributed around the country and parked in garages every night. As more people work from home (like I do), people will park more of these vehicles there for an average of 23 hours per day.
Congress should mandate that electric cars interface with the smart grid by 2030 so that electric utilities can draw power from your car in a pinch. Ford designed its 2022 F-150 Lightning pickup with this in mind. Heck, Nissan created the 2011 Leaf with this capacity.
It is helpful to put some context around car batteries relative to homes. In our 1,800-square-foot condo last month, we used less than 1,000 kwh for the entire month. We averaged about 30 kwh per day. Our car’s battery holds 65 kwh or enough for two days of regular use.
Likely, most EV owners would never notice a difference from having their cars connected as backup power for the grid. Settings would allow you to determine when the battery needed to be full and thus only available for providing power to the grid when it isn’t.
As EVs leave service, owners could recycle their batteries. It may be wiser, however, to redeploy them for use at home. My car has the equivalent of eight Tesla Power Walls in it. In a decade, it will likely retain the equivalent of six. That should be cheaper and more environmentally friendly than recycling the battery.
Bottom line: electricity is already getting greener and will continue to get greener. Let’s switch what we can when we can and push Washington to make electric utilities and auto manufacturers work together to accelerate the transition to renewable energy.