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Watt's Happening: Electrify everything


donJust in case you missed this in my last column, here is one of the most important statements you may ever read:

“It is our best understanding that, if we bring carbon dioxide [emissions] down to net zero, the warming will level off. The climate will stabilize within a decade or two. There will be very little to no additional warming.”

Dr. Joeri Rogelj of the Grantham Institute in London, and a lead author of the Sixth Assessment of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, made this historic statement in December 2020. For decades the scientific consensus has been telling us that even if we stop our carbon emissions, the momentum of warming would continue for centuries. That created hopelessness and despair, and it was incorrect.

Science learns

That’s one of the best things about science: it’s never afraid to say it was wrong. As new evidence arises and new information comes to light through careful observation and experiment, science will happily change course and come to new conclusions. In this way, the truth, or the next iteration that is getting us closer and closer to the truth, keeps evolving and getting closer and closer to what is actually, really happening.

So, let’s trust the science and realize that it actually is possible to stop climate change in its tracks by getting our carbon emissions down to zero, and, optimistically, we can do it in 30 years… or maybe even less.

But how?

In two words: electrify everything! And generate all that electricity with renewable energy, mostly solar and wind.

To electrify everything, North America will need about three times the amount of electricity that it presently produces. The U.S. grid delivers about ½ terawatt (TW) of electricity (a TW is a trillion watts), so to electrify everything they will need about 1.5, maybe at most 2 TW. That’s a lot!

But it’s easy. There is definitely no shortage of renewable energies. The amount of solar radiation, for instance, that makes it through our atmosphere and onto earth is about 85,000 TW. So solar and wind energy (wind is actually a form of solar energy) will supply most of this new carbon-free energy.

We are on the right path

Both solar and wind are mature and readily available technologies, even now rapidly expanding around the world, and their costs continue to decline as production ramps up and efficiencies improve. Already, solar and wind are the least expensive energies, ever.

This explains why, in 2018, 66% if new power plants globally were carbon-free renewables! This is good, very good, but not good enough: across the board and around the world we now need an adoption rate of 100%, starting immediately.

The solar industry is presently growing at about 25% annually, wind about 10%. If we can maintain these growth rates, by 2037 wind and solar alone will produce all of the roughly 10 TW of clean electricity the world will need to fully electrify.

In 2019, of the 75 million vehicles sold globally, only 1.1 million were electric. But the EV industry is growing somewhere above 20% per year. At this existing growth rate, by 2033 the world will be making 75 million EVs each year. Wow.

Compound growth

These numbers are thanks to the magic of compound growth: a 25% growth rate means production doubles very three years, and then three years later doubles again, etc.

Let’s just go crazy with optimism and say we double these rates yet again for a truly heroic push to save our world by stopping climate change as quickly as possible: 40% growth rate for EVs, 50% for solar, and 20% for wind turbines. That means we could reach net zero carbon and fully electrify the planet by 2030!

Is this really possible? Yes it is. It would be an effort similar to our effort in the Second World War, but it would cost less and it would make most everything cheaper, more plentiful and just plain better. Let’s keep going! Let’s declare World War Net Zero!

Don Pettit lives and writes in Dawson Creek, and is Executive Director of the Peace Energy Cooperative.