Recently, word leaked out that Norway may ban the sale of diesel- and gasoline-powered vehicles by 2025. The move toward electric vehicles is part of a dream shared by those concerned about climate change and about fossil fuel depletion (especially oil depletion), namely, to turn the world into one big all-electric paradise by running everything we can on electricity.
Theoretically, this is possible, but getting there won't be easy. First, such a transition will take time. In the Norwegian example cited above, the transition to an all-electric private car fleet would take about 15 years based on Norwegian new private car registrations in 2015 and the current total number of registered private cars.
But the ban wouldn't take effect until 2025. While Norwegian electric car registrations are rising, so are total car registrations. Even if we generously assume that the rise in electric car registrations between now and 2025 will shave five years off the transition, that still means Norway won't achieve an all-electric private automobile fleet until 2035. And, Norway is already a leader in the move toward all-electric transportation. Other countries lag far behind.
The Norwegian example points out a second difficulty in the transition to an all-electric world. Norway gets 95.9 percent of its electricity from hydroelectric dams. It gets another 1.6 percent from wind turbines. Only 2.5 percent of its electricity comes from thermal power plants, the kind that burn fossil fuels such as coal and natural gas and that provide 66 percent of the world's electricity.
Transitioning to electric transportation in places that primarily burn coal, natural gas and/or diesel fuel to produce electricity would undermine the goal of lowering greenhouse gas emissions. In thermal power plants, the ones that burn fossil fuels, two-thirds of the energy produced is lost in the form of heat. Only one-third is turned into electricity.
Electric automobile manufacturers claiming that their cars get the equivalent of 100 miles per gallon aren't factoring in the fossil fuel portion of the electricity used to power such cars. And, while electric automobiles reduce emissions to zero at the site where you use them, if they are powered exclusively by electricity generated from fossil fuels, the actual miles per gallon equivalent may drop to between 30 and 40. That would make such electric cars no more climate-friendly than high-mileage gasoline-powered cars and less climate-friendly than some hybrid-electric cars.
The Union of Concerned Scientists in a 2014 update of an earlier survey outlines the best regions in the United States for electric vehicles based on the fuel mix of utilities. Where nuclear and renewable power are highest, emissions are, of course, lowest. That's why electric transportation only really addresses climate change when it is powered primarily by electricity from nuclear and renewable energy.
Of course, transportation is not the only area that we could electrify. While most industrial processes are powered by electricity, many industries require process heat to melt metals, foster chemical reactions, and cook and bake foods. These industries usually burn fossil fuels for that heat, mostly natural gas. Using electric heat would be extremely inefficient and injurious to the climate in this case unless, of course, the electricity comes from nuclear and/or renewables.
Let's not forget that homes, stores and offices need heat in colder climates, most often supplied by heating oil and natural gas. The same tradeoffs exist for these users as for industrial firms needing heat for their various processes.
While renewable energy is growing rapidly, a full transition to a renewable energy economy is still decades away. Projections from the U.S. Energy Information Administration (EIA) suggest continued heavy dependence on fossil fuel energy as late as 2040. That is a recipe for climate disaster if we are supposed to reduce carbon emissions worldwide by 80 percent by 2050 in order to maintain a livable planet.
In addition, the EIA projection for oil (lumped under "liquids" in the EIA's chart) may not be realistic given what we know about the cost of extracting much of the remaining oil from tar sands, the Arctic and the deep ocean. A considerable amount of oil touted as available to us in the future may simply not be cost-effective to extract.
So, we are faced with twin limits: the amount of carbon dioxide we can safely dispose of in the atmosphere and the amount of cheap oil left to extract.
The seemingly obvious solution is a very rapid transition to low-carbon or no-carbon energy in the form of renewables and nuclear power. The pace of the renewable energy build-out is impressive. But it is doubtful that such a build-out can proceed at a rate that will not only add to current electric generating capacity in order to meet new demand from transportation and growing demand from residential, commercial and industrial users, but also replace enough existing fossil-fueled plants in time for our rendezvous with 2050. Nuclear power is unlikely to expand much given public opposition due to safety concerns and given the decommissioning of older plants. Both renewable and nuclear power require some fossil fuel energy to build and service since 84 percent of the the world's energy currently comes from fossil fuels.
This brings us to a less risky, but nevertheless challenging strategy for addressing our twin crises. We could reduce dramatically the amount of energy we require. While we need to continue the renewable energy build-out and quicken its pace, we also need to meet that build-out halfway by reducing our energy use. The trouble with our current system is that if one group of people, say, the European Union, reduces its energy use overall, another group, say, fast-growing Asian nations, may be glad to buy the unused energy resources (mostly fossil fuels) now available at prices made lower by reduced EU demand.
This is called the Jevons Paradox in which increased energy efficiency actually creates more demand. To reach our goal of drastically cutting emissions and still have enough renewable energy to meet the needs of a modern technical society, we would actually need to put limits on fossil fuel energy use in order to short-circuit Jevons Paradox which could lead to increased rather than reduced burning of fossil fuels. As long as energy demand continues to grow and as long as we depend so heavily on fossil fuels for that energy, we run the risk of destroying our habitable climate, finding ourselves without the necessary energy to run our economies and/or paying a price for energy that our economies cannot bear without sinking into stagnation.
What this suggests is that economic growth itself might have to slow or even stop altogether. That could spell widespread economic and social problems in a society that has been designed only for continuous economic growth.
The methods for drastically cutting energy use are already available. We don't require new technology (though new technology will likely make energy use even more efficient). So-called passive house methods (which can and are being used for commercial and industrial buildings) can reduce heating and cooling needs by 80 to 90 percent. Widely available LED lighting offers deep reductions in energy use while providing that same level of light. Simply changing the way we do things can have a dramatic effect on energy use. Such nonprofits as the Rocky Mountain Institute have been showing government and industry how to reduce energy consumption dramatically by changing processes using existing technology.
Going all-electric or mostly electric has clear advantages. Electricity is an extremely flexible form of energy that can be applied to widely disparate tasks. Lighting rooms, heating water, and refrigerating food are typical household examples. A major argument for moving toward electricity derives from the simple fact that the most cost-effective form of renewable energy is electricity.
In order to make a climate-friendly transition that electrifies those areas of our economy that are not already powered by electricity, we would have to transition our electric generation simultaneously to renewable energy. Success would depend on government policies and an alert public willing to pay the costs of such a transition and willing to change the way it lives in order to accommodate that transition.
One example of a possible accommodation comes from the fact that renewable electricity sources such as wind and solar are intermittent. We get them only when the wind blows and the sun shines. For this reason, cheap electric energy storage has been considered a prerequisite before wind and solar could dominate electricity generation.
But one alternative would be to manage the intermittent nature of such sources by managing when we perform certain tasks. Those that are more critical might be scheduled during daylight hours when sun and possibly wind are both available. This is the kind of change that may very well be necessary as part of an electric transition, a transition that would require a revolution both in policy and in expectations concerning our daily life and work.
UPDATED June 14, 2016
Kurt Cobb is an author, speaker, and columnist focusing on energy and the environment. He is a regular contributor to the Energy Voices section of The Christian Science Monitor and author of the peak-oil-themed novel Prelude. In addition, he has written columns for the Paris-based science news site Scitizen, and his work has been featured on Energy Bulletin (now Resilience.org), The Oil Drum, OilPrice.com, Econ Matters, Peak Oil Review, 321energy, Common Dreams, Le Monde Diplomatique and many other sites. He maintains a blog called Resource Insights and can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org.