Electrify Everything and Slow Climate Change
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Cities are innovating, companies are pivoting, and start-ups are growing. Like you, every urban practitioner has a remarkable story of insight and challenge from the past year.
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Cities committed to 100 percent Renewable Energy
Hundreds of U.S. cities have committed to 100 percent renewable energy (RE). Cities already achieving 100 percent include Burlington, Vermont, Aspen, Colorado, Greensburg, Kansas, and Rock Port, Missouri. In these cities, energy efficiency makes the transition to renewables much easier. In every city, it is a different mix of solar, wind, hydropower, and geothermal.
What about large cities? Today, over 92 percent of Seattle’s electricity is from renewables, with eight percent nuclear and fossil-generated imported on the grid during peak demand. Tomorrow this city of 700,000 people will be 100 percent powered by solar, wind, and hydro. Critics warned that the transition to renewables would destroy their economy. Instead, Seattle is one of the nation’s top cities in economic growth and job creation.
Minneapolis established the goal to use 100 percent renewables for municipal facilities by 2022 and citywide by 2030. In 2014, after threatening to form a municipal utility, the city’s existing utilities, Xcel Energy and CenterPoint Energy, agreed to the renewable goals. It often does take that type of pressure to gain the support of utilities with billions invested in old coal and gas power plants. The commitment to RE supports the city’s 2050 goal of reducing greenhouse gas emissions by 80 percent.
When Trump withdrew the US from the Paris Accord, he said, “I was elected to represent the citizens of Pittsburgh, not Paris.” Pittsburgh Mayor William Peduto responded, “President Trump’s decision is disastrous for our planet, for cities such as Pittsburgh, to the commitments the United States made to the rest of the world, and to our responsibility to save the globe for future generations.” Pittsburgh is one of 2,700 US cities and corporate members of We Are Still In, committed to the Paris Accord. The city government’s 2030 goals for its buildings, fleet and infrastructure:
- 100% Renewable Energy Supply
- 50% Energy Consumption Reduction
- 50% Water Use Reduction
- 100% Fossil Fuel Free Fleet
I detail the successful transition from a city built with coal and steel in my article “Pittsburgh: From Steel to Sustainable.” More cities are meeting all energy needs with renewables like wind and solar. These cities have zero needs for nukes, natural gas and “clean coal.” California, with a bigger economy than India and France and Russia, has eliminated coal, is shutting down its last two nuclear plants, and is eliminating 50 natural gas (methane) plants, replacing them with renewables, smart grid, and energy storage.
Twenty-five percent of U.S. homes are all-electric, eliminating the need to pipe in natural gas (methane) for water heating, appliances, and cooking. From fracking to storage to piping to use, methane leaked into the atmosphere traps 100 times the heat of CO2 over methane’s 16 year life in the atmosphere.
In California, millions of homes are all-electric and 819,337 have solar roofs. Electric heat pumps can accommodate all needs for water heating, air conditioning and heating. Starting in 2020, all new California homes will be required to be zero-energy, accomplished by being well insulated, very efficient, all electric, and having solar roofs. Zero-energy homes, government and commercial buildings will allow the major cities of San Diego, San Francisco, and even massive Los Angeles to meet city goals of using 100 percent renewables.
In 42 U.S. states, there are zero-energy homes, apartment complexes, schools, government and commercial buildings. A zero-energy home, school, or community generates as much renewable energy as it uses annually. The Rocky Mountain Institute (RMI) forecasts that the global market for zero-energy buildings is projected to grow from $629 million in 2014 to $1.4 trillion by 2035.
Leading cities are not only powering homes and buildings with renewables, they are leading a transition from gasoline cars and diesel heavy vehicles to mobility powered with sun and wind. When Los Angeles hosts the 2028 Olympics, most of the electricity will be from renewable energy. Visitors will use apps to seamlessly navigate between rail, electric buses, and electric autonomous ride sharing cars and shuttles. Los Angeles Metro commuter rail is all-electric and will be powered with renewables. The planned high-speed rail connecting LA with all of California will be 100 percent electric, 100 percent renewables. All 2,400 LA natural gas buses will be replaced with electric buses using renewable electricity. LA already has over 100,000 electric vehicles from cars to buses to trucks; annual growth is strong.
Wind, Water, Solar
Any state and any nation can be completely powered with wind, water, and solar (WWS) including all heating, mobility and industrial processes. Dr. Mark Jacobson has lead a team of engineers and scientists at Stanford and other leading universities to develop WWS models. You can see a cost-effective 100 percent WWS scenario for any state or nation at The Solutions Project. The RE solutions include links to the scientific research reports, and open-source spreadsheets with embedded data. Although we could get there sooner, the scenarios are based on reaching 100 percent by 2050.
For example, select Minnesota and the model shows that a cost-effective mix is 79 percent of its energy from wind power; 17 percent with solar and four percent hydro. The transition to 100 percent would create 75,792 jobs. The transition would not cost money, it would save. For example, the clean air would save over six billion dollars in healthcare costs. Minnesota needs zero coal, natural gas, gasoline, diesel, biofuels, and nuclear. This WWS scenario envisions complete electrification of buildings, heating and cooling, transportation, and industry.
Sunny Arizona models 100 percent by 2050 with 73 percent solar, 67,736 jobs would be created, with healthcare savings of 25 billion. For New York State, an even mix of wind and solar is optimal, 269,419 jobs created, and 22 billion saved in healthcare.
The idea of meeting all energy needs with renewables is a threat to the oil, gas, and coal industry, including utilities with billions of sunk costs in old plants. Although it would be a change for the better, many people resist change. Critics say that getting from today’s global seven percent renewable power cannot be done. Yet, the detailed WWS models show how it can be done.
WWS has been criticized as needing to add too many generators at existing hydro facilities. In one WWS scenario, extensive expansion is modeled, in others it is not. The published WWS scenarios do not assume improvements in solar, wind, and storage by 2050, making the published models conservative. Solar and storage prices will fall. We will see large growth of zero-energy homes and buildings, smart mobility, smart cities, and a smart grid. The WWS models are open-source spreadsheets available for others to use in modeling their state and city.
50 Percent Renewables in 20 Years
Although getting to 100 percent renewables is politically challenging, getting to 50 percent is not. In 2018, it does not make sense to spend $10 billion on a new nuclear plant, or combined-cycle coal plant where all emissions are sequestered, then spend more for decades of rising fuel cost. In this era of smart grid and storage, it makes no sense to run giant plants 24/7, when they are only needed at peak hours.
For the same ten billion, three times as much solar or wind power can be built. If we are energy efficient and electrify everything, we will need less energy not more. The creation of millions of jobs, the boost to economies and the savings of millions of lives are compelling.
Even if getting to 100 percent is politically challenging, getting to 50 percent renewables in 20 years makes so much economic sense that the growth of renewables will continue to gain momentum.
Getting to 100 percent has technical challenges. All-electric factories would require arc and induction furnaces. Getting large planes and long-haul trucks to all-electric propulsion would not only require batteries, but hydrogen fuel cells or other range extenders. The technology is there, but it is challenging.
Getting all buildings, industry, and mobility to run on 80 percent renewables by 2050 is easier.
The continued increase of renewables, energy efficiency and electrifying everything will result in global greenhouse gas emissions peaking in ten years and then falling. Because of the long life of CO2 in the atmosphere and the acidification of the oceans, it is too late to avoid all ill effects of climate change. Yet, once we get to 50 percent renewables, emissions will have fallen to the point where our air and water will be much cleaner; agriculture lands, forests, and oceans will begin to heal. Millions of lives will be saved. We will have avoided the worst effects of climate change.
Hundreds of cities are leading the way to reduce current electricity needs by being smarter using wind, water, and solar to generate all electricity. The leaders have made remarkable progress in partnership with corporations and nonprofits. The best are extending their use of renewables to all heating, cooling, mobility and industrial processes. They are electrifying everything and powering with renewables.
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In my business, we’d rather not be right. What gets a climate change expert out of bed in the morning is the desire to provide decision-makers with the best available science, and at the end of the day we go to bed hoping things won’t actually get as bad as our science tells us. That’s true whether you’re a physical or a social scientist.
Well, I’m one of the latter and Meeting of the Minds thought it would be valuable to republish an article I penned in January 2020. In that ancient past, only the most studious of news observers had heard of a virus in Wuhan, China, that was causing a lethal disease. Two months later we were in lockdown, all over the world, and while things have improved a lot in the US since November 2020, in many cities and nations around the world this is not the case. India is living through a COVID nightmare of untold proportions as we speak, and many nations have gone through wave after wave of this pandemic. The end is not in sight. It is not over. Not by a longshot.
And while the pandemic is raging, sea level continues to rise, heatwaves are killing people in one hemisphere or the other, droughts have devastated farmers, floods sent people fleeing to disaster shelters that are not the save havens we once thought them to be, wildfires consumed forests and all too many homes, and emissions dipped temporarily only to shoot up again as we try to go “back to normal.”
So, I’ll say another one of those things I wish I’ll be wrong about, but probably won’t: there is no “back to normal.” Not with climate change in an interdependent world.