Saul Griffith has written a book that highlights the role of electrification in achieving greenhouse gas emission reductions, and I agree with his basic premise. But he misses important aspects about two points. First, the need to reduce, reuse and recycle goes well beyond just energy consumption. And second, we have the ability to meet most if not all of our energy needs with the lowest impact renewable sources.
Reduce, reuse and recycle is not just about energy–it’s also about reducing consumption of natural resources such as minerals and biomass, as well as petroleum and methane used for plastics, and pollution caused by that consumption. In many situations, energy savings are only a byproduct. Even so, almost always the cheapest way to meet an energy need is to first reduce its use. That’s what energy efficiency is about. So we don’t want to just tell consumers to continue along their merry way, just switch it up with electricity. A quarter to a third our global GHG emissions are from resource consumption, not energy use.
In meeting our energy needs, we can largely rely on solar and wind supplemented with biofuels. Griffith asserts that the U.S. would need 2% of its land mass to supply the needed electricity, but his accounting makes three important errors. First, placing renewables doesn’t eliminate other uses of that land, particularly for wind. Acreage devoted to wind in particular can be used also for different types of farming and even open space. In comparison, fossil-fuel and nuclear plants completely displace any other land use. Turbine technology is evolving to limit avian mortality (and even then its tall buildings and household cats that cause most bird deaths). Second most of the solar supply can be met on rooftops and covering parking lots. These locations are cost effective compared to grid scale sources once we account for transmission costs. And third, our energy storage is literally driving down the road–in our new electric vehicles. A 100% EV fleet in California will have enough storage to meet 30 times the current peak load. A car owner will be able to devote less than 5% of their battery capacity to meet their home energy needs. All of this means that the real footprint can be much less than 1%.
Nuclear power has never lived up to its promise and is expensive compared to other low-emission options. While the direct costs of current-technology nuclear power is more than 12 cents a kilowatt-hour when adding transmission, grid-scale renewables are less than half of that, and distributed energy resources are at least comparable with almost no land-use footprint and able to provide better reliability and resilience. In addition, the potential of catastrophic events at nuclear plants adds another 1 to 3 cents per kilowatt-hour. Small modular reactors (SMR) have been promoted as a game changer, but we have been waiting for two decades. Nuclear or green hydrogen may emerge as economically-viable options, but we shouldn’t base our plans on that.