Winning the Electrification Race
If governments adopt bold policies to help accelerate the production of clean electricity, the world could build a zero-carbon economy fast enough to limit climate change to a manageable degree. But without such measures, a zero-carbon economy will come much too late.
LONDON – There is no doubt that by the year 2100, the world will enjoy abundant cheap zero-carbon energy. Coal will be confined to museums, and oil and gas use will be dramatically reduced. Technological progress makes that inevitable, even if unassisted by government policy. But to prevent potentially catastrophic climate change, a zero-carbon global economy must be achieved by mid-century. That, too, is possible, but only with strategic vision and strong policy support.
Electricity will dominate the future global energy system. Currently, it accounts for only 20% of final energy demand, with direct fossil-fuel use still dominant in transport, heating, and heavy industry. But most economic activities can be powered by electricity, and many will be far more efficient once electrified.
For example, internal-combustion engines typically turn 60-80% of all the energy they use into wasted heat, and only 20-40% into kinetic energy to drive the vehicle. Electric engines, by contrast, are over 90% efficient. Moreover, they are so much simpler to produce that within five years the cost savings on engines will offset the cost of batteries, making electric vehicles cheaper than diesel or gasoline cars. Similarly, electric heat pumps can deliver more than three kilowatt-hours of residential heating for only one kilowatt of energy input; no gas boiler could deliver more than 0.9 kWh for the same input.