Electricity is particles in motion—a flow of electrons from one place to another that keeps air conditioners cooling, heaters heating, lights illuminating, computers computing, and all manner of motors humming. For much of the world, electricity powers the realities of daily life, and the electricity sector contributes 25 percent of total anthropogenic greenhouse gas emissions. Yet 770 million people still lack access to electricity.
Since the emergence of electrical systems in the late 1800s, society has met most of its electricity generation needs with fossil fuels. The process? Burn coal, oil, or gas. Heat water to create steam. Use the steam to turn a turbine that rotates a generator to get electrons moving. Today, electricity production gives rise to 25 percent of heat-trapping emissions globally.
How can we generate electricity for the whole world without burning fossil fuels? How do the means of transmitting, storing, and efficiently using electricity need to evolve?
These questions are critical for addressing emissions, especially given the current push to “electrify everything,” from cars to home heating. We need a mosaic of solutions, centered around electricity efficiency, production, and a more robust electrical system.
Electricity efficiency solutions include technologies and practices that reduce demand for electricity generation, literally lightening the load. The two biggest end users of electricity are buildings and industry, in roughly equal measure. While a home or factory may be the location of efficiency measures, these emissions get counted at the power plant where they are created or avoided as part of the electricity sector.
Production of electricity must move away from fossil fuels as quickly as possible. A spectrum of solutions can help, from small-scale/distributed to large-scale/centralized. Some solutions harvest photons from the sun. Others tap nature’s generous kinetic energy—the movement of wind and water. Still others use an alternate source of heat, such as geothermal or nuclear, for the same basic steam-turbine process.
Improve the System
To enable the transition to renewable electricity production and use, the broader electricity system also needs to evolve and upgrade. Flexible grids for transmission and effective energy storage make it possible to better balance electricity supply with demand.
As we look forward, an electricity transformation is undeniably possible. Already, a shift away from coal-powered electricity is underway in the U.S., the United Kingdom, and much of Europe. The price is dropping, and economics favor wind and sun over fossil fuels in many places—further accelerating the transition. The speed of transformation is the issue at hand. We must start with renewable sources in places where electricity is just being installed. And we must curtail and supplant 19th- and 20th-century forms of production more rapidly—including the large pipeline of proposed new coal plants—while ensuring that the future of clean electricity is equitable and empowering for all.