Challenges of Electrification

Recently I’ve heard a lot about the challenges of electrification and the township EAC has been thinking a lot about electrification. First, what is electrification? Many organizations, including the township, have made commitments to reduce their carbon emissions to zero. In order to do that, they’ll need to convert anything using fossil fuels to a system that uses electricity from non-fossil fuels like solar, wind and hydro power. Many organizations use carbon offsets, but there’s a lot of questions about whether that’s legitimately doing anything to reduce carbon emissions. So electrification absolutely has to happen for America to prevent devastating future climate disasters.

Electrification is challenging. It means gas stoves need to be converted to induction ones. Natural gas and oil heating systems need to be converted to heat pumps. Gas powered cars need to be converted to electric. Gas powered airplanes need to be converted to…something, its not clear what yet. And so on. Retrofitting these items is expensive in the case of stoves and heat pumps and near impossible in the case of cars and planes.

A Talk At Swarthmore College

The first item I heard recently was a talk at Swarthmore College on the Challenges of Electrification. The speaker, Hans van Doesburg, laid out a series of challenges:

Zero emission electricity generation does not (yet) exist.
Clean technologies are more (rare) minerals intensive.
Electric vehicles produce emissions.
Hydrogen is not a panacea.
Nuclear Power needs wider acceptance.

In the first point, he pointed out that building wind and solar power is not zero emission. The emissions are much, much lower than fossil fuel generators, but not zero. In order to build a solar panel, sand has to be converted to silicon, metals need to be mined, processed and shaped. Many of these resources for wind and solar are expensive or environmentally damaging to extract. And the process of creating them often uses fossil fuels. A lot of these materials are not recycled. He had a picture showing obsolete wind turbine blades being buried in the Midwest. Because of the speed that wind and solar technologies have advanced in the last ten years, power companies have had a financial incentive to replace older technologies with newer ones before their full usable life, generating waste as the old wind blades and panels cannot be easily recycled and are often landfilled. It remains a technical challenge to create a zero waste source of electricity.

In the second, he pointed out that renewable energy generation requires a lot more minerals (and rarer minerals) than natural gas, coal or oil power plants. And those minerals have to come from somewhere. Usually from countries with appalling human rights records. There are both environmental and ethical issues with many of the minerals used. There’s been some recent effort by the Biden administration to source the minerals in America or closer to it, but those efforts are decades late at this point as climate denialism has put America far behind the competition.

The third point was that because electric vehicles are powered by the electric grid and a lot of the electric grid uses fossil fuels currently, electric vehicles still produce emissions. That’s the case now, but the grid has been shifting to renewable energy rapidly, so the solution to this is already being implemented. I think he was overselling this as a issue yet to be resolved.

The fourth is that for moving vehicles, hydrogen is seen as an alternative to gas. Hydrogen as a fuel has a lot of issues beyond its historical ones. The problem is that hydrogen is energy-intensive to make and has lower energy density. In fields like aviation where heavy batteries are not an option, its probably the only way forward. But hydrogen has a lot of challenges. One of the examples he gave involves a tanker full of toluene transporting hydrogen back and forth between a place where energy is abundant to a city where the hydrogen is consumed. Toluene is a flammable chemical that causes neurological damage, so the idea of a bunch of tankers of the stuff floating around isn’t an ideal long-term solution. Other options are not a lot better, liquifying hydrogen is very hard for instance as the liquification temperature of hydrogen is very low (-253C for hydrogen vs. -161.5C for natural gas). Pipelines for oil and gas cannot easily be converted to hydrogen.

The last, nuclear power, is misleading. Many of the technologies he spoke of like micro-reactors and fusion are cutting edge and unproven. The nuclear waste issues he glossed over are not resolved. Having lots of smaller reactors storing waste would be a security and environmental hazard. Recent efforts to build larger, modern nuclear reactors in America have not been successful. Nuclear power is not going to resolve America’s electrification problems for many decades, if ever. The joke among physicists is that clean nuclear fusion is 40 years away, just like it was 40 years ago.

PECO Interconnection Map

The next item I came across was from Solarize DelCo. PECO has a tool that let’s you look at how ready the power grid in your area is for rooftop solar generation. Much of the township is yellow, which means the grid likely needs upgrading before solar is possible. Garden City, Putnam and Sproul Estates down at the southern end of the township look to be in good condition but much of the rest of the township, and all of Rose Valley, are full of yellows.

Heat Pumps

Finally, I read a lengthy post on NextDoor about a Swarthmore homeowner’s conversion to a heat pump. Heat pumps are basically reversible air conditioners. They move heat from outside to inside in the winter and from inside to outside in the summer. We have a heat pump water heater and its much more efficient than the electric one it replaced. But, compared to natural gas, propane or oil, heat pumps are generally more costly. The cost of converting from one of these systems to a heat pump one can be high. Ideally you’d want to install them in new construction and design around them, but few places require this. The other problem is that heat pumps are not efficient at low temperatures – days where its in the 20s here in Pennsylvania are challenging for heat pumps. So while heat pumps are great options in the south, here in the north they are not as great a solution.

Psychological And Generational Change

In order to reduce carbon emissions to zero we will need to electrify everything (possibly with some hydrogen systems for long-haul travel). But that alone won’t solve the issues. Increasingly I’ve realized that we need less. Less of everything. There was another NextDoor post arguing about the recently enacted plastic bag bans in parts of DelCo (one which Nether Providence still hasn’t passed). One comment highlighted the history though. Plastic bags became common only about 50 years ago. Televisions are about 75 years old. Cars, air conditioning and refrigeration are only a century old. People lived without all of these systems for most of human existence. And most of the early systems were repairable, meaning less waste. They were so expensive (and unreliable) they had to be repairable. The right to repair movement is critical to our using less.

While there remain technical challenges, I’m increasingly learning that solving environmental problems isn’t primarily an engineering challenge. It’s primarily a psychological one. Behaviors will have to change. And that is slowly happening. I’ve seen data recently that less and less young adults have driver’s licenses for instance. They’re increasingly moving to more efficient, more densely packed cities. But generational change is going to be too slow for the climate. If we have to wait for the boomers to pass for humanity to change, it will be too late to change the destructive course we’re on.

Categories: Ramblings