Last year the ClimateWorks Foundation initiated a project to explore priorities for climate action and philanthropy in light of the need to achieve net-zero emissions by mid-century. Among the five priorities we identified was pursuit of clean electricity—that is, simultaneous power generation decarbonization and end-use electrification. As the former accelerates, attention is turning to the latter, which will require a nuanced approach, one that recognizes that some sectors will remain hard or even impossible to electrify and thus in need of low-carbon alternatives.
Switching from direct fossil fuel use in end-use sectors (buildings, industry, and transport) to electricity allows those end-use sectors to benefit from a decarbonizing power sector. Emissions intensity can determine when this switching is advantageous for a particular activity (Figure 1).
Because the crossover point varies, it makes sense to group activities according to their current amenability to electrification.
- Electrify now those activities that can effectively and affordably benefit from electrification with available technologies at current or expected levels of emissions intensity.
- Electrify later those activities that (1) will benefit from electrification at future expected emissions intensity levels or (2) rely on technologies still under development.
- Hard to electrify activities require alternative approaches because at present they face insurmountable electrification barriers and those that (1) might never benefit from electrification in terms of emissions reductions or (2) lack a counterpart technology or application that is electrifiable.
According to this framework, certain end uses would be prioritized for electrification now, other end uses would be pursued as developments warrant, and yet other end uses would require alternative low-carbon strategies (Table 1).
Climate philanthropy has multiple strategies to promote electrification, most notably in the transport sector, where progress is already taking advantage of decreasing emissions intensities in the power sector. The relatively high vehicle efficiency of electric vehicles will only improve as grid decarbonization continues.
End uses in the buildings and industry sectors are less straightforward cases for electrification now.
In the buildings sector, emphasis has been on new construction, where it is relatively easy to leapfrog to electrified devices while avoiding the buildout of additional natural gas infrastructure.
In the industry sector, the bulk of fossil fuel use is for heat, and electrified counterparts come with technological and cost barriers. However, low-heat (<100⁰C) processes used in production of food and beverages, textiles, and some pharmaceuticals and some medium-heat (<400⁰C) processes are already being electrified with efficient heat pumps.
Some end uses have path dependencies that can be addressed by waiting until emissions intensities of generation reach the crossover point or by overcoming geographic, structural, cultural, financial, and technological barriers.
Take, for example, space heating in buildings. A switch from natural gas to electricity for heating might already make sense in terms of emissions reductions. Because energy use for space heating is also dependent on the building envelop, it may be more cost-effective, and result in fewer emissions in the short term, to retrofit the envelop. In short, the optimal path is not as simple as switching out an individual technology.
The transport sector offers clearer electrification-later cases. In the freight and public transport subsectors, the challenge is lack of commercially deployable technology. Electrified freight is in the pilot testing stage, and already we are seeing factors that might make a straightforward electrify-later case for some kinds of freight.
Stock turnover plays a large role in the industry sector. Assumptions about progress in the coming decades and about technological availability affect the timing of a fuel switch. Conceptually, it might be better to wait to benefit later from maturing technologies that also deliver emission reductions at a lower cost.
Hard to Electrify
Finally, some end-use technologies—from an emissions, technological, or cost standpoint—are difficult to electrify; barriers are too great to overcome or these end uses might be better addressed through other means such as alternative fuels and carbon capture and storage (CCS) deployment.
In the transport sector, shipping and aviation are hard, if not impossible, to electrify. These modes are better suited to energy carriers such as advanced biofuels and hydrogen. In addition to alternative fuels, these sectors benefit from other mitigation opportunities like additive manufacturing and materials efficiency.
Some subsectors of industry are better decarbonized through a combination of alternative fuels and CCS deployment. For industries with high-heat (>400⁰C) processes, electrification applications are limited.
Climate philanthropy has many opportunities to support decarbonization and electrification. To take advantage of them, the following actions are priorities:
- Shift emphasis from renewables deployment to grid integration. The rapid pace of renewables deployment in the power sector in many geographies suggests that resources could be redirected to integrating clean electrons onto the grid in China, India, the EU, and the United States.
- Advocate for innovation. Electrification of end uses depends in large part on technological innovation, yet public (and philanthropic) innovation spending is relatively low. Promotion of such spending is critical to move technologies to commercial scale.
- Support carbon removal strategies. To meet 2050 emissions mitigation targets, carbon removal must accompany other mitigation strategies. Resources are needed to study the tradeoffs associated with removal approaches and to advocate for market developments and finance. Better understanding tradeoffs will show when pursuit of CCS is advantageous in hard to electrify, high-heat sectors.
- Avoid natural gas lock-in. Cheap natural gas threatens to displace zero-carbon power generation, requiring examination of the role of accelerated depreciation of old natural gas units. Beyond the power sector, natural gas is a feedstock to the chemicals industry and a source of energy in the buildings and industry sectors, creating cost barriers for a transition to electrified technologies or use of advanced bio-fuels.
- Continue building philanthropic support for transportation electrification. Dramatically moving the transport sector onto a climate-safe path is within reach. Support should go to expanding regional programs where government ambition outpaces local capacity and to building politically powerful coalitions among governments, labor, consumers, corporations, utility companies, and groups working on equity and social justice.
- Focus investment on hard to and impossible-to electrify sectors. Many large, energy-intensive, high-heat industries require support for alternatives to electrification for decarbonization. In the context of aviation and other hard to decarbonize transportation applications, support is needed for low-carbon liquid fuels in efficiency and carbon dioxide standards.