The Five Things Keeping Us From Going All-Electric | Kanebridge News
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The Five Things Keeping Us From Going All-Electric

The ‘electrification of everything’ gets talked about a lot these days. But it isn’t going to happen soon. Nor should we want it to.

Mon, Jul 24, 2023 9:10amGrey Clock 7 min

Electrification is all the buzz.

As more governments, corporations, investors and consumers commit to reducing the world’s reliance on carbon-intensive fossil fuels, they are frequently turning to electricity as the power of choice. The International Renewable Energy Agency, an intergovernmental organisation, projects that close to half of world energy consumption could be in the form of electricity by 2050, up from about 20% today.

It makes sense: Electrification is often the fastest and cheapest way to decarbonise our energy consumption. The technologies to decarbonise electricity already exist and are, for the most part, readily deployable at a large scale by the private sector.

But here’s a sobering fact about all the talk of the “electrification of everything”: It isn’t likely to happen. At least, not soon. We can’t go all the way down the electrification road for a host of reasons—nor should we want to. For one thing, it would place unnecessary limitations on other viable solutions to rising greenhouse-gas emissions. It also ignores existing technical, regulatory and strategic constraints on electrification.

None of this is to say the world shouldn’t be shifting to new—and cleaner—electricity. And not just because of its role in fighting climate change. Among other things, electrification via renewable energy is playing a pivotal role in energy security for a variety of countries where oil and gas is scarce and expensive, and where volatile fuel prices threaten economic growth and fiscal stability. Clean energy helped Germany and other European countries cope with the loss of natural-gas imports from Russia last year. New clean energy is also helping key economies like China and India reduce air pollution.

But even with its environmental and strategic benefits, electrification won’t be the be-all and end-all for the foreseeable future.

Here are five reasons why:

1. Some things can’t be electrified

There are a lot of industries that are too difficult or expensive to be electrified for the foreseeable future. Do you want to know why there is no major commercial airline currently operating electric long-distance flights? It’s because the battery weight needed to hold enough energy for a trans-Atlantic flight would be greater than that of the airliner itself.

The weight of the battery and driving range is also a barrier for electrifying 18-wheeler trucks, though that electrification technology is further along than that for large jets. Freightliner has a big rig called eCascadia, but its range is only 250 miles, recharging takes over 90 minutes, and the e-truck is two to three times more expensive than its diesel-fuel version.

That may change as the battery and charging-station technology develops. A new study by the Environmental Defense Fund says that long-distance battery electric trucks could be cost effective by 2030, but other solutions are also possible by then, such as hydrogen, waste-to-energy, biofuels and tailpipe capture. (More on that in a moment.)

High-heat industrial processes, such as those for blast furnaces, cement kilns and petrochemical plants, are another commercial activity that will be hard to electrify, because electric high heat can be challenging and expensive for some industrial applications.

One key problem is that any unplanned downtime or fluctuation in temperature levels—caused by electrical fluctuations or disruptions from weather, accidents or a failed circuit breaker—not only can ruin the end product but also possibly damage billions of dollars of industrial equipment. While that scenario can be averted with automated backup energy systems, as is done routinely for nuclear plants to prevent a meltdown, it’s still an expensive add-on cost.

Protecting against disruptions in electricity supply could be expensive for some heavy industries that currently use coal or natural gas to fuel their heat processes. PHOTO: MASON TRINCA FOR THE THE WALL STREET JOURNAL
2. Cheaper alternatives may be coming for the most difficult-to-electrify areas

Electric power doesn’t have a monopoly on innovation. As a result, it could be risky for some industries to invest in some electrical solutions at the moment, knowing there might be a superior, cheaper technical solution down the road. Alternatives such as biofuels, hydrogen or biogas and fossil fuels with carbon sequestration offer the potential to be superior sources of power.

For instance, Remora, a startup based in Wixom, Mich., is designing a device that can collect tailpipe CO2 directly while a truck is in operation, compressing it for later sequestration or sale. Several airlines have started to use jet fuel made from purified biogenic waste that can be mixed with oil-based diesel fuel—so-called drop-in fuels that don’t require special or new fuel-transport infrastructure. Hydrogen made from renewable energy also could eventually be a solution for fueling planes and trucks.

Heidelberg Materials, a global manufacturer of building materials, is studying carbon capture and storage for its Mitchell, Ind., operations that would allow it to continue to use a fossil-fuel energy source while adding equipment that would separate CO2 emissions from other waste gases before, during and/or after combustion activities. Heidelberg would then transport its waste CO2 to be permanently injected into deep geological storage or to be reused making other products in a way that it doesn’t wind up back in the atmosphere.

These examples have the advantage of using existing energy infrastructure rather than retiring it before its end-of-life service.

3. Access to land, a surfeit of complaints

Yes, there is plenty of uninhabited land in many countries, and especially in the U.S. But uninhabited doesn’t always spell accessibility.

For one thing, in highly urbanised regions or densely populated countries, it can be difficult to find sufficient empty land to support alternative-fuel installations. Around the world, in places as diverse as India and Africa, renewable-energy developers often have trouble getting permits to buy or lease the necessary acreage. And in many areas, including the U.S., local populations can object to living near wind and solar farms, or near the power transmission and distribution lines that they require.

Consider this: It would take a wind farm on about 100,000 acres to generate the same amount of electricity as a one-gigawatt nuclear plant that typically occupies less than 1 square mile, or 640 acres. Princeton University estimates in a high-renewable-energy scenario, where solar and wind would account for virtually all electricity generation for the U.S. in 2050, the number of wind turbines would require roughly 244 million acres of uninhabited land—even assuming efficiency improvements. The current U.S. electrical system only uses about 20 million acres for the power generation business, including fuel-source production (e.g., coal, natural gas, solar, wind, nuclear and hydro), and power plants. Today’s power lines take up 4.8 million acres in the U.S., but that could increase sharply the more renewables that are added.

For a small country like Japan, that renewables-footprint requirement seems insurmountable, even if its nascent offshore wind business gets off the ground. But even for a large nation like the U.S., construction of wind and solar farms often gets held up by groups who want to use the land (or sea) for something else. In the entire U.S., there are two small offshore wind platforms currently in operation, with a third, larger one, nearing completion. The Biden administration is trying to change that at the federal level, but local factors are often hard to sort out.

Moreover, all that uninhabited U.S. land isn’t necessarily contiguous with large energy-using metropolitan regions or located where the most commercial-scale resource of renewable energy is available. For instance, many large U.S. cities aren’t contiguous with Midwest or offshore wind resources or Southwest solar.

4. Difficulty getting the necessary permits

Since the energy resource used for electricity generation often isn’t located in populated areas, that means more transmission lines will be needed, and more lines means more permitting, which can be a time-consuming, multiyear process.

In addition to potentially requiring new transmission lines, new renewable projects also have to receive technical approval to be allowed to connect into existing grids to prove that adding more electricity won’t destabilise existing service. Again, that can take years for regulators to study and approve. The U.S. Congress has talked about permitting reform, but a solution to the problem isn’t currently on the horizon.

The U.S. isn’t the only place with transmission-construction and grid-connection obstacles. In India, land permitting for solar energy can be a bureaucratic nightmare and remains a barrier. In Germany, local opposition to new high-tension transmission lines to carry offshore wind energy from the country’s northern shores to its southern factories blocked projects for years before the Ukraine crisis. In Africa, governments that can access foreign aid for construction of wind and solar installations have had more difficulty financing the transmission lines to carry the power generated to populations and industry. All of this will continue to slow down electrification.

5. Electricity grids are highly interruptible

It isn’t just the occasional squirrel that’s the problem. In recent years, we have witnessed weather systems that knocked out power for huge swaths of the U.S. at once. The war in Ukraine is a reminder that cyberattacks against the grid could be catastrophic if too many aspects of daily life are tied to a singular infrastructure. Already, there are many vital services that cannot be conducted without access to electricity, like lighting, telecommunications, data centres and financial services. Broadening that to our entire fuel system and industrial operations seems risky, if not downright irresponsible.

There will be technical solutions to the risks of electricity disruptions, but it will take time and money to implement them. Households, governments and regional grids will all have to invest in backup systems that can be turned on seamlessly using automation when the larger grid goes down. That could take decades—and an enormous amount of money. BloombergNEF estimates that it could take as much as $17.3 trillion to expand the grid and $4.1 trillion to maintain what is there now, for a total of $21.4 trillion.

Ultimately, there is little doubt that the world is heading for the electrification of a lot more things. And that’s good—for energy security, stable economic growth and reduced greenhouse-gas emissions.

But it’s also clear that a goal of electrifying everything is neither possible nor desired, and putting all our power eggs in one basket would be a fool’s errand. Innovation is by no means isolated to the electric domain. Many forward-looking businesses are experimenting with new ways to squeeze emissions out of industrial processes, and to replace fossil fuels in transport and building applications, in some cases with assistance from governments. Power to them. Rather than naysay what’s not electricity, let’s hope they unlock superior solutions.


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At the World Plogging Championship, contestants have lugged in tires, TVs and at least one Neapolitan coffee maker

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GENOA, Italy—Renato Zanelli crossed the finish line with a rusty iron hanging from his neck while pulling 140 pounds of trash on an improvised sled fashioned from a slab of plastic waste.

Zanelli, a retired IT specialist, flashed a tired smile, but he suspected his garbage haul wouldn’t be enough to defend his title as world champion of plogging—a sport that combines running with trash collecting.

A rival had just finished the race with a chair around his neck and dragging three tires, a television and four sacks of trash. Another crossed the line with muscles bulging, towing a large refrigerator. But the strongest challenger was Manuel Jesus Ortega Garcia, a Spanish plumber who arrived at the finish pulling a fridge, a dishwasher, a propane gas tank, a fire extinguisher and a host of other odds and ends.

“The competition is intense this year,” said Zanelli. Now 71, he used his fitness and knack for finding trash to compete against athletes half his age. “I’m here to help the environment, but I also want to win.”

Italy, a land of beauty, is also a land of uncollected trash. The country struggles with chronic littering, inefficient garbage collection in many cities, and illegal dumping in the countryside of everything from washing machines to construction waste. Rome has become an emblem of Italy’s inability to fix its trash problem.

So it was fitting that at the recent World Plogging Championship more than 70 athletes from 16 countries tested their talents in this northern Italian city. During the six hours of the race, contestants collect points by racking up miles and vertical distance, and by carrying as much trash across the finish line as they can. Trash gets scored based on its weight and environmental impact. Batteries and electronic equipment earn the most points.

A mobile app ensures runners stay within the race’s permitted area, approximately 12 square miles. Athletes have to pass through checkpoints in the rugged, hilly park. They are issued gloves and four plastic bags to fill with garbage, and are also allowed to carry up to three bulky finds, such as tires or TVs.

Genoa, a gritty industrial port city in the country’s mountainous northwest, has a trash problem that gets worse the further one gets away from its relatively clean historic core. The park that hosted the plogging championship has long been plagued by garbage big and small.

“It’s ironic to have the World Plogging Championship in a country that’s not always as clean as it could be. But maybe it will help bring awareness and things will improve,” said Francesco Carcioffo, chief executive of Acea Pinerolese Industriale, an energy and recycling company that’s been involved in sponsoring and organizing the race since its first edition in 2021. All three world championships so far have been held in Italy.

Events that combine running and trash-collecting go back to at least 2010. The sport gained traction about seven years ago when a Swede, Erik Ahlström, coined the name plogging, a mashup of plocka upp, Swedish for “pick up,” and jogging.

“If you don’t have a catchy name you might as well not exist,” said Roberto Cavallo, an Italian environmental consultant and longtime plogger, who is on the world championship organizing committee together with Ahlström.

Saturday’s event brought together a mix of wiry trail runners and environmental activists, some of whom looked less like elite athletes.

“We like plogging because it makes us feel a little less guilty about the way things are going with the environment,” said Elena Canuto, 29, as she warmed up before the start. She came in first in the women’s ranking two years ago. “This year I’m taking it a bit easier because I’m three months pregnant.”

Around two-thirds of the contestants were Italians. The rest came from other European countries, as well as Japan, Argentina, Uruguay, Mexico, Algeria, Ghana and Senegal.

“I hope to win so people in Senegal get enthusiastic about plogging,” said Issa Ba, a 30-year-old Senegalese-born factory worker who has lived in Italy for eight years.

“Three, two, one, go,” Cavallo shouted over a loudspeaker, and the athletes sprinted off in different directions. Some stopped 20 yards from the starting line to collect their first trash. Others took off to be the first to exploit richer pickings on wooded hilltops, where batteries and home appliances lay waiting.

As the hours went by, the athletes crisscrossed trails and roads, their bags became heavier. They tagged their bulky items and left them at roadsides for later collection. Contestants gathered at refreshment points, discussing what they had found as they fueled up on cookies and juice. Some contestants had brought their own reusable cups.

With 30 minutes left in the race, athletes were gathering so much trash that the organisers decided to tweak the rules: in addition to their four plastic bags, contestants could carry six bulky objects over the finish line rather than three.

“I know it’s like changing the rules halfway through a game of Monopoly, but I know I can rely on your comprehension,” Cavallo announced over the PA as the athletes braced for their final push to the finish line.

The rule change meant some contestants could almost double the weight of their trash, but others smelled a rat.

“That’s fantastic that people found so much stuff, but it’s not really fair to change the rules at the last minute,” said Paul Waye, a Dutch plogging evangelist who had passed up on some bulky trash because of the three-item rule.

Senegal will have to wait at least a year to have a plogging champion. Two hours after the end of Saturday’s race, Ba still hadn’t arrived at the finish line.

“My phone ran out of battery and I got lost,” Ba said later at the awards ceremony. “I’ll be back next year, but with a better phone.”

The race went better for Canuto. She used an abandoned shopping cart to wheel in her loot. It included a baby stroller, which the mother-to-be took as a good omen. Her total haul weighed a relatively modest 100 pounds, but was heavy on electronic equipment, which was enough for her to score her second triumph.

“I don’t know if I’ll be back next year to defend my title. The baby will be six or seven months old,” she said.

In the men’s ranking, Ortega, the Spanish plumber, brought in 310 pounds of waste, racked up more than 16 miles and climbed 7,300 feet to run away with the title.

Zanelli, the defending champion, didn’t make it onto the podium. He said he would take solace from the nearly new Neapolitan coffee maker he found during the first championship two years ago. “I’ll always have my victory and the coffee maker, which I polished and now display in my home,” he said.

Contestants collected more than 6,600 pounds of trash. The haul included fridges, bikes, dozens of tires, baby seats, mattresses, lead pipes, stoves, chairs, TVs, 1980s-era boomboxes with cassettes still inside, motorcycle helmets, electric fans, traffic cones, air rifles, a toilet and a soccer goal.

“This park hasn’t been this clean since the 15 century,” said Genoa’s ambassador for sport, Roberto Giordano.


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