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Electrify all the Things!

While there is no technological silver-bullet to combat climate change, electrification is about as good as it gets - maybe at least a silver spoon to help keep the monsters at bay...

Today about 80% of the world-wide energy consumption is still based on fossil fuels. The good news is that as part of a net zero transformation of the energy system, we do not need  to replace all the fossil fuel inputs, but only their useful outputs.

According to this Sankey energy flow diagram for the US in 2022 (source: LLNL), about 20% of the system input is based on low CO2e energy sources. However this would correspond to 65% of the actually useful energy services provided by the system. Some of the most significant sources of loss are from the use of petroleum in the transport sector or from the electricity generation using natural gas or coal. 

While generating more electrical power from modern renewable sources like wind and solar reduces the need for gas & coal by at least 2 times, assuming the average conversion efficiency of less than 50% across the fleet of existing fossil fuel plants. (The world record efficiency for a modern combined-cycle natural gas burning plant is currently at about 63%).

However the biggest gains in efficiency comes from the direct electrification of all the processes which deliver useful energy services to their end users - typically in the form of movement or heat.

The largest aggregate fossil fuel consumer is the transportation sector, where the largest part goes to moving cars and trucks.

While the typical pump-to-wheel efficiency of a gasoline powered vehicle is around 15-30% or 30-40% for diesel, the typical plug-to-wheel efficiency of a battery-electric vehicle is 50-80%. Taking the transportation sector average efficiency of 20% from the diagram above, electrifying road traffic would reduce its input energy needs by 2 to 5 times.

While burning natural gas, oil or coal for heat generation in households or industry has a yield of close to 100%, electrically powered heat pumps can reach effective yields of 200-500% by transferring ambient heat rather than conversion of input energy into heat.

The fossil fuel industry itself is also a very large energy consumer. The estimated well-to-tank efficiency for Gasoline is about 80%, which means that 20% of the energy is used for extraction, transport and refining. Since gasoline production is a legitimate industrial activity, its energy use would be counted as energy service and not energy loss due to inefficiency.

Assuming an resolute push for large-scale direct electrification, the amount of low-carbon electricity generation would only about have to double from today in order to mostly eliminate fossil fuel use from the system globally.

At the other end of the spectrum, if we wanted to leave the energy consumers unchanged and replace all the current fossil fuels use with synthetic equivalents created from green hydrogen and captured C02 at less than 50% conversion efficiency, then we would need to add more than 10 times the amount of existing low-carbon electricity production.

By moving away from the stone-age technology of burning stuff, electrification has the potential to gain massive efficiencies and cut the global energy consumption in half.

While consistent electrification wherever possible is clearly the most credible path to decarbonize the global energy system, doing so is neither going to be cheap nor easy! However the consequences of not doing it would most likely be much more costly.