The Great Re-Energization
Transitioning to an all-electric culture is still years away. Until it’s firmly in place, there are lot of preparations to make.
Edited by Alan Naditz
Sometime in our future: You wake up early to start your day. It’s a chilly winter morning, but since your utility switched to renewables, you confidently turn the thermostat and switch the lights on (rolling blackouts are a thing of the past). And not only is the electricity renewable, but you’re also moving heat from one place to another using a heat pump, the most efficient way to heat spaces.
An estimated 1 in 12 homeowners have installed solar panels in their homes, while another 4 in 10 are giving it “serious thought,” according to Pew Research. Imaged created with AI technology.
You meander into the kitchen to fill the espresso machine with water directly out of the tap. Water quality and availability have now dramatically improved; there’s no need for extra filtration.
Your teenagers (yes, you have kids now!) are up and dressed, cooking their breakfast on your electric stovetop since gas appliances were discarded years ago. Your induction cooktop creates the heat exactly where it’s needed, in the base of the pan. And because drought events have been curtailed, food production has increased, and you have a robust variety of produce to offer your family.
Meanwhile, you’re reading the news on your device, and articles about energy security are scarce. Countries have reduced their reliance on oil, gas, and coal imports and are using local, renewable resources instead. You shuttle the kids to their respective schools in your electric vehicle (EV), grateful that all vehicles on the road are now EVs. No more respiratory issues, and the traffic noise has declined. Perhaps you live in the city and your kids walk to school. They’re no longer breathing toxic exhaust fumes.
As you progress to work, you see a friend walking her dog at a community park where there was once an industrial site that spewed pollutants into the air. At work, you observe the real-time display in the lobby that tracks the amount of electrical and thermal energy used in the building. The amount equals the renewable energy generated on-site via solar panels, making it a net-zero space.
What a perfect world, as crafted by PSC CEO Alex Boyd in his eBook, “Perspectives on the Energy Transition.” It sounds almost too perfect. And yet, Boyd notes, there’s no reason it can’t become true. We are, in fact, working toward an all-sustainable state, gradually transitioning away from fossil fuel dependence. But there are significant—but not insurmountable—obstacles in the way.
Until the transition is complete—a process that will take decades—the worlds of clean energy and fossil fuels will need to peacefully coexist.
3 Ways to Start the Clean-Life Conversation
Boyd stresses that any dialogue about energy transition must begin by answering three questions:
What is it? The energy transition is about a transformational shift away from fossil-based sources to zero-carbon sources by the second half of this century, intending to reduce energy-related carbon emissions to mitigate climate change and limit global temperature to within 1.5 degrees Celsius of pre-industrial levels.
What’s driving the energy transition, and why is it so important? Beyond the urgency of climate change, the need for the global energy transition is emphasized by energy security concerns, high fossil fuel prices, pollution-causing disease, and the conservation of our natural resources.
Technology is powering the energy transition, supported by a societal shift towards a sustainable future and facilitated by renewables and electrification. The energy transition represents transformative change across the entire value chain, from generation to consumption.
Switching from one energy source to another takes a long time, so part of the importance is the sheer urgency of getting started and creating the necessary momentum to scale up.
How does the energy transition impact me? The energy transition is not a theory—it is happening now. The energy mix is changing, with renewables outpacing fossil fuels and new technologies taking hold.
The benefits of the energy transition mainly affect the environment, but our economy and society also share positive outcomes. “As energy consumers, we should be informed to make the best choices toward a just transition,” Boyd notes.
Information about clean energy, including its various forms and their importance to the environment, can be accessed via apps such as Renewable Energy Sources and Renewable Energy.
Why We Should Care About Electrification
For Boyd, there’s a single word for why clean energy should be on everyone’s minds: health. Environmental pollution and burning fossil fuels is taking a toll on everyone’s health. The World Health Organization (WHO) estimates that 99 percent of the global population is exposed to air pollution levels that put them at increased risk for heart disease, stroke, chronic obstructive pulmonary disease, cancer, and pneumonia.
As we become more aware of the deadly effects of air pollution, particularly from fossil fuel burning, changing energy sources gains new urgency.
Additional data on environmental pollution and its effects paint an even more sobering picture. Each year:
- 6.7 million people die from indoor and outdoor air pollution.
- $886.5 billion is spent on the health impacts of fossil fuel-generated electricity.
- 50 billion metric tons of greenhouse gasses (GHGs) are emitted.
- 350,000 premature deaths occurred due to fossil fuel-related air.
In contrast, the growing use of renewable energy sources and mandates focused on electrification and decarbonization are driving the current energy transition:
- Global renewable energy consumption in 2019 increased from 8.7 percent (2006) to 11.2 percent (2019).
- The Paris Agreement is working to limit global warming levels and reduce GHG emissions.
- In 2021, the U.S. established a new target to achieve 80 percent carbon-free electricity by 2030
The data also reveals the health advantages of renewables. In 2021, a team of environmental researchers projected that improvements to air quality and health, per unit of CO2 reduced and renewable energy deployed, would exceed the costs by approximately one-third.
No More “Either/Or”
Boyd notes that there have been two sets of arguments when it comes to electrification and conversion from fossil fuels. For example, the EPA states that EVs typically have a smaller carbon footprint than gasoline cars, even when accounting for the electricity used for charging. And, as more renewables are used to generate electricity to charge EVs, the associated emissions could be even lower—an evolution not possible with internal combustion engine vehicles.
Electric vehicles currently account for just 1 percent of all vehicles on the road in the U.S., according to the Environmental Protection Energy. That number is expected to at least triple by 2028.
Also, reducing the use of fossil fuels in transportation and electricity generation will result in cleaner skies, fresher air, access to clean energy, and better overall health—specifically for those exposed to higher levels of air pollution and those who are least able to afford to mitigate its effects.
On the other hand, some consider renewables to be complex due to their intermittent nature (i.e., the wind doesn’t always blow, and the sun isn’t always shining). Others believe that because distributed renewables are often small and behind the meter, it can be difficult for grid operators to track and complicate load forecasting.
And while moving to green electricity offers many benefits, an adequate infrastructure is required to prepare the grid for the widespread use of fossil fuel alternatives: electric car charging stations, transmission lines to carry electricity from new wind and solar farms, and retrofits in existing buildings.
These types of opinion differences result in a polarization between the pro- and anti-renewables groups. “The current energy transition approach is ‘either/or,’” Boyd notes. “We either continue to embrace our fossil fuel energy system or make a complete shift to renewables.”
This approach is flawed because it assumes there is only one option to resolve a situation (i.e., if ‘X’ is true, ‘Y’ must be false), Boyd writes. It can also encourage extremism, creating a counterproductive environment to achieve workable solutions.
“As we transition to renewables, the only realistic scenario is ‘both/and,’” Boyd notes. “Just because we’re on the path toward integrating more renewables doesn’t mean we aren’t aware of or grateful for the vital role fossil fuels have played in ensuring decades of secure, reliable energy supplies.”
For example, oil and gas companies are plowing money into clean alternatives to fossil fuels and are already emerging as strong contenders in post-transition utility models, Boyd adds.
No Overnight Solution
The bottom line is that people need to understand that people can’t just shut off fossil fuels, according to Boyd. A shift of this magnitude takes time and requires thoughtful and strategic planning to support and create an industry ecosystem in which it can thrive. The foundation of this planning is cooperation and collaboration between the renewables sector and fossil fuels stakeholders.
“Fossil fuels will still play a vital role during this multi-decade transition. We have a long way to go,” he notes. “Our best strategy will be an ‘all-fuels-on-deck’ approach with teamwork rather than conflict.”
A key part of that strategy lies with aligning the various stakeholders to sustainable causes—something that may not be as difficult as people think. Many are motivated and support the energy transition:
- Deloitte’s 2022 CxO Sustainability Report indicates that businesses are responding to the climate crisis with net-zero commitments and actions.
- The power sector is leading the effort to decarbonize electricity production by transitioning from burning fossil fuels to renewables.
- In 2021, clean electricity sources generated 38 percent of the world’s electricity, more than coal (36 percent) for the first time.
- Automotive companies are setting long-term goals to end ICE vehicle production, counter to the short-termism often associated with public companies.
- Big oil and gas companies (e.g., Shell, Total) are adopting clean-energy strategies and investing in renewable energy generation and related businesses.
- A 2022 Pew Research Center survey found that 69 percent of U.S. adults prioritize developing alternative energy sources (i.e., wind and solar) over expanding the production of oil, coal, and natural gas.
“The [energy transition] requires collaboration across all stakeholders: utilities, regulators, governments, consumers, businesses, industry, academia, and others,” Boyd notes, “recognizing that one entity doesn’t hold the reigns.”