Living Better Electrically?

When General Electric Corporation coined that slogan in the late 1950’s it is unlikely that they envisaged a world where virtually all energy end use would be fully dependent on electricity. But that is the vision now dominating many climate change discussions as societies look to what a very low or zero carbon future might look like. Does this make any sense? Maybe, but it depends a lot on how you go about it and when.

The case for is simple: A lot of GHG emissions come from so-called distributed combustion – multiple sources in transport, buildings and industry - and if the combusted fuel is a hydrocarbon there is no plausible GHG mitigation technology aside from increased efficiency. On top of that electricity at end use is very clean, usually very efficient and flexible.

The case against starts with the fact that electricity only delivers about a fifth of end use energy  in Canada today so the transformation, including completely remaking our energy delivery infrastructure, would be massive and unprecedented. Conventional fuels, especially natural gas, are also flexible and clean and they are often very efficient at end use, especially in heating equipment. And they are economical. And there is the real rub.

The new clean electricity system of the future doesn’t look like it is going to be cheap. Cheap hydro is a thing of the past and other renewables are still expensive. In a world of rampant “social licence” the timing and cost of new electrical infrastructure is going to shock a lot of people. And if that infrastructure has to expand to provide all the energy value now accounted for by fossil fuels then the economy may end up being electrocuted before it is electrified.

So let’s all take a deep breath and think this through. Electric cars may well start to take a big piece of the market with lots of potential benefits but they won’t do it without an argument from the people leading technological change in internal combustion engine technology including hybrids. Electric heat may make sense if you have the physical conditions that allow you to enjoy the efficiencies of a ground source heat pump or if it is make up heat in a super high efficiency building. Electricity for process heat may or may not make sense for many industries but that decision probably belongs with their management.

Forcing the electric revolution through technological determinism is – simply put – a really bad idea. Driving it through pricing mechanisms is quite the opposite.

In the face of a carbon tax of – say -$50/tonne escalating gradually to twice that, there will be a race between the electrics and the conventional engine proponents and may the best technology win. Or the bio-fuels community may get there first, at least if they can get over their habit of relying on public subsidies. Faced with meaningful carbon pricing and reputational challenges, industries such as oil and gas may opt for new energy sources including new hydro from throughout western Canada as outlined by CERI in a research report issued last January. Most heating applications are a long way from shifting to electric; recent calculations from the gas industry suggest that the implied carbon price could be well north of $1000/tonne. Even the Ontario government with its appetite for fabulously high implicit carbon pricing on its electricity system appears to be climbing down from that idea. 

Electricity will most likely take a growing share of end use energy markets over the coming decades provided that costs and challenges to building new infrastructure can be managed. But it won’t get the world or Canada anywhere close to zero carbon by 2050 or even well beyond and it is time that governments faced up to that inconvenient truth.

Forced by governments making technology choices or trying to ramrod infrastructure into reluctant communities, the electric transformation could come about even more slowly as the mistakes pile up and public and consumer resistance actually grows. On the other hand, driven by carbon pricing that is visible and understood by consumers and investors, who knows what might happen? The revolution might be made up of much higher efficiency, bio fuels and even carbon capture as well as more electric applications. But I would rather bet on markets and technology developers than on governments to make that call even if it means we don’t look like we are trying to meet targets that we won’t likely meet anyway.