The future of electricity: electrification
Last updated 3/17/2020
As electric generating facility technologies improved, and as more and more power plants were built throughout the country, an increasing number of energy needs could be met by electricity. However, not all of our energy needs are met with electricity at the moment: many processes in your home, business, and car are still met by burning fossil fuels on-site.
Future uses of electricity
Historically, there has been a limit to the number of things that can run on electricity: many industrial processes and transportation technologies rely on their own combustion engines to run. However, as technology improves, it is increasingly possible for this need for an on-site, fossil-fuel powered combustion engine to be replaced with electricity, a process known as electrification.
The car is a perfect example of this shift. Until very recently, all cars were powered by their own gas-fired pistons: the internal combustion engine (ICE). The ICE is effectively a miniature, on-site, gasoline-fired power plant for cars, that produce energy when the car needs it (i.e., when you push the gas pedal). With improvements in energy storage technologies, electric vehicles have become viable alternatives to gasoline-powered vehicles, and are becoming increasingly popular throughout the country and world. As more and more people switch from an older ICE car to a newer electric vehicle, electrifying their own transportation, the need for electricity continues to increase throughout the country.
Another process that’s witnessed a similar shift towards electrification with improved technology is home heating. Previously the domain of natural gas, oil, propane, diesel or even coal, innovative new and improved technologies, such as air source heat pumps and geothermal heat pumps, now mean that the energy required to heat your home can come from electricity rather than from burning fuel.
Certainly, there are still limits to what can be powered by electricity. For instance, the cost, power requirement and, most importantly, weight of batteries means it is not yet possible to power a commercial airplane exclusively or primarily with electricity.
Yet, technology is shifting where those limits lie. Recent technological innovations have the potential to electrify more processes that previously required their own combustion engines. A big component of this could be the new technology pioneered by Heliogen, which, if scalable, promises to run highly energy intensive processes, like producing steel, with renewable solar energy.
The impact of electrification
Though the difference between creating energy by burning fossil fuels on-site versus powering things with electricity may seem nuanced, electrification has many ramifications.
First, electrification will shift our overall energy consumption habits from a need for fuels to burn locally–gasoline, oil, natural gas and others–to a need for electricity. This means that our nation’s demand for fossil fuels will decrease, while our overall demand for electricity will increase.
Second, electrification, if done well, can lead to a major decrease in national carbon emissions. There’s a limit to how many emissions you can reduce and offset if the only option is “fuel switching” from one form of fossil fuel to another, slightly cleaner one (like from diesel to natural gas). However, if the country switches from burning fossil fuels to running processes on clean electricity generated by renewable energy facilities, we can drive much further carbon reductions across all sectors of the economy.
And finally, electrification means individual homes and businesses will have energy freedom and independence. Instead of relying upon fossil fuels that are extracted somewhere in the world, which you have to purchase at volatile, ever-changing rates, by installing solar, you can now produce your own electricity to power your electrified processes.