Why electrifying our personal infrastructure is absolutely necessary

By Saul Griffith | October 25, 2021

solar panels on roofPhoto by Giorgio Trovato/Unsplash

Editor’s note: This story was originally published by Yale Environment 360. It appears here as part of the Climate Desk collaboration.

For too long, the climate solutions conversation has been dominated by the supply-side view of the energy system: What will replace coal plants? Will natural gas be a bridge fuel? Can hydrogen power industry? These are all important questions, but, crucially, they miss half the equation. We must bring the demand side of our energy system to the heart of our climate debate.

The demand side is where humans, households, and voters live. It is where we use machines on a daily basis, and where the choices about what kind of machines we use—whether powered by fossil fuels or electricity—make our climate actions and climate solutions personal. We don’t have a lot of choice on the supply side, but we have all of the choice on the demand side. For the most part, we decide what we drive, how we heat our water, what heats our homes, what cooks our food, what dries our laundry, and even what cuts our grass. This constitutes our “personal infrastructure,” and it is swapping out that infrastructure that will be a key driver of the global transition from fossil fuels to green energy.

According to an analysis by Rewiring America, a nonprofit think tank I co-founded that focuses on electrifying our lives, if we redraw our emissions map around the activities of our households, we see that about 42 percent stem from the decisions we make around our kitchen tables. It gets close to 65 percent if we include the offices, buildings, and vehicles that are connected to the commercial sector and the decisions we make from our office desks.

The supply-side climate challenge is a question of a relatively small number of giant machines, including coal mines, LNG terminals, pipelines, refineries, and natural gas- and coal-fired power plants, all of which are owned by corporations. The demand-side climate challenge involves a very large number of relatively small machines. In the United States, it’s our 280 million cars and trucks, our 70 million fossil-fueled furnaces, 60 million fossil-fueled water heaters, 20 million gas dryers, and 50 million gas stoves, ovens, and cooktops.

The traditional storyline for what we can do in our own lives has been an “efficiency-first” narrative that was born of the 1970s oil crisis. During that time, we needed to adjust to a reduction in foreign oil supplies, which led to more efficient cars with better gas mileage and more efficient appliances. That gave us efficiency as policy, such as federally mandated vehicle fuel standards, and led to Energy Star appliances.

But now we’re facing a completely different kind of energy crisis. To address global warming in time to keep the Earth livable, we need to get to zero emissions as soon as possible. It should be obvious that we can’t “efficiency” our way to zero and that we need to transform our way to no emissions. Starting on the demand side, this leads to a clear conclusion: We must electrify everything. And quickly. And we must supply all those new electric machines on the demand side with cleanly generated electricity on the supply side.

How quickly? At roughly the rate at which we replace these things. Cars often last around 20 years. Water heaters average 12 to 15 years; furnaces and home heating solutions, around 20; kitchen and laundry appliances, 10 to 15 years. The best climate outcome we can achieve is to upgrade all of these demand-side machines to higher performing electric machines at their next retirement. This needs to be in combination with increasing the electricity supply to power these machines, and to do so with clean renewables, while also retiring coal plants and other heavy emitters ahead of schedule.

I have been talking publicly about climate change and what solutions need to look like for nearly 20 years. It’s been a learning journey about how to tell a story that can motivate people in the face of what seems insurmountable. I worry that nihilism will soon grip us on this issue, unless we can paint a picture of what success looks like. And that picture needs to be simple, the actionable steps achievable. People want to see themselves in the solution, but not at the expense of sacrificing the things they love and the conveniences of modern life.

Introduction: What you can do to turn back the hands of the Doomsday Clock

We still have a slim chance of keeping global warming under 2 degrees Celsius (3.6 degrees Fahrenheit), without changing entirely the fabric of everyday living. It may not be everyone’s version of climate success, but it is possible to help avoid extreme warming with a substitution of the machines in our lives. To do so, we need to achieve a close to 100 percent adoption rate of the right technologies as we replace the fossil-fueled machines we use today.

Fortunately, technologies now exist for the majority of these things. Electric cars currently have sufficient range, and are close enough to cost parity at the dealership, that we can imagine that transition. The cost per mile drops significantly, too. Air-source heat pumps have such high performance now that they beat traditional furnaces and boilers in many climates. The modern induction cooking experience is better than cooking with gas. It is not yet true in the United States that rooftop solar is the cheapest energy source, but it is true in Australia, and the difference has to do with regulations.

Solar modules themselves are incredibly cheap, around 30 cents a watt. Australia ran a certification and training program for building a workforce that also certified the installers as inspectors. This made the process of purchasing and installing solar in Australia simple and doable in a matter of days. The installed cost ends up being around $1 per watt. In the United States, the process takes 60 days and includes complicated permitting and inspection requirements. The result is that the installed cost winds up being $3 per watt. We need to look around the world for the best practices and implement them everywhere; Norway’s rapid adoption of electric vehicles is another example.

If you could cover the average United States rooftop in solar at the Australian installed price, put two electric vehicles in your driveway as easily as you can in California or Norway, install the best Japanese heat pumps, and cook on the best German induction cooktops—and then back it all up with a household battery tied to a smart main panel connected to an enlightened grid that encourages consumers to self-generate power and to store and shift loads—we’d be a long way toward the success we need.

In the United States, there are a billion of these machines that need to be replaced and installed across the nation’s 121 million households. This creates an enormous economic opportunity to manufacture all or most of these machines in America. And because the cost of all these things is falling further, and the performance is increasing with every passing year, by around 2025 people will be saving money by making these choices about the infrastructure of their daily lives.

It isn’t the entire solution to climate change, but it is the solution to much of it, and it is a solution we can start deploying everywhere today. Yes, for a few more years we’ll need government subsidies and incentives, like those proposed by Senator Martin Heinrich, Democrat of New Mexico, in his Zero-Emission Homes Act that is currently included in President Biden’s “Build Back Better” plan being debated in Washington—and that needs to be fully funded. Heinrich’s bill, and a House companion, would offer point-of-sale rebates for heat-pump hot water heaters, heat pump HVAC systems, electric cooking appliances, and electric clothes dryers. The goal is to remove the upfront barrier for homeowners to replace a fossil-fueled appliance with a cleaner alternative.

In the long run, electrifying our lives will save everyone a lot of money on energy bills—up to $2,500 per household, according to Rewiring America’s Household Savings Report. But these clean energy appliances come with higher up-front costs to deliver the savings over time. That means we will need low-cost financing.

Low interest “climate loans” would allow everyone to afford the up-front costs of these clean technologies. Diverse households have different financing needs, so we need to pull every policy lever at the federal and state levels, as well as engage in public-private partnerships to enable this. If banks step in, the role of governments will be to make sure that all families can afford it. For many families it will be simple enough to make these investments alongside their household mortgage. For other families, federal policies already exist that enable people to pay as they go as part of their utility bill and own the upgraded appliances in the long run. These incentives and mechanisms need to be available when people purchase new electric appliances and machines.

Why a mindset of stubborn optimism about the climate crisis is needed, now more than ever

Critics will argue that this will hit political hurdles. And it will. But if we remain constrained by what we think is politically possible, then we’ll never have a sufficiently ambitious climate agenda. We must change the politics, and the politics will only change and become bipartisan when the economic benefits are felt in every household. Rooftop solar is no longer political in Australia because families of all political stripes have felt the positive effect on cash flow of having cheaper electricity. It can’t be understated how important it is that the Ford F-150, a cultural icon and the most produced vehicle ever, is going electric. Once households red, blue, and purple are enjoying the lower cost of ownership of an electric F-150, the politics of this whole issue will change. Norwegians of all stripes support the rapid adoption of electric vehicles in that country, and it is no-longer a political issue. Politicians are still able to sell a story of fear of change and loss around this transition in 2021. Increasingly, that won’t be possible because the economics will shift.

This needed electrification will halve the total amount of energy required in the economy but triple the amount of electricity that needs to be delivered. It is critical, obviously, that this electricity be cleanly generated. Ten percent to 30 percent can be generated locally on rooftops and over commercial buildings and parking lots. The rest will need to be produced by wind farms, utility-scale solar farms, and geothermal, hydroelectric, and nuclear facilities. All of those facilities will need to be connected by long-distance transmission lines.

Of course, none of this is simple, nor politically easy, but with each passing year the inevitability of this solution becomes more so and the cost competitiveness higher, and our motivations to fight climate will increase with each season of climate disruption. The only question is if our sense of urgency will grow fast enough to mitigate the climate disaster before it is too late. My optimism stems from the fact that the scale of the transition lowers the cost enough to make the transition an economic slam dunk, which will change the politics markedly.

The long-term economic benefits of household electrification are not only in energy savings, but in creating jobs. Mass electrification in the United States would create up to 25 million new jobs—across every ZIP code—as the national energy infrastructure is modernized, according to a Rewiring America analysis. Most of these jobs—installing solar panels and wind turbines, upgrading the grid, and replacing dirty heaters with clean ones—would necessarily be local. You can’t outsource clean energy. You can’t offshore the installation of an induction stovetop. Those jobs would have a multiplying effect, as the woman who gets a good job as a solar installer is going to spend money in her local community.

Meantime, we should stop pretending there are going to be other miracle technologies that will change the game. Most of the solution will be electrification. Hydrogen and nuclear are both electric technologies at the end of the day, too.

The electrify everything drive will need the type of focus that the United States had in World War II when the wartime production board prioritized Liberty ships, Liberator bombers, Jeeps, and munitions. This time around it will be batteries instead of bullets, wind turbines instead of aircraft, and electric vehicles instead of tanks.

Once we make the trade to clean energy, we’ll find that we’ll be able to enjoy all the comforts of home we’re used to—warmth and cooling, zippy cars, hot water, radiant heat—but with lower costs and cleaner air.

This is a critical moment, but it can also be a great one for the economy, our families, and the environment if we take smart action. We have one last chance to address climate change: Electrify everything.

Together, we make the world safer.

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Rachel Findley
Rachel Findley
2 years ago

This approach has merit; demand is the product of choice by decision-makers. But individuals and households vary widely in the social, economic, and electrical power of their decisions. It is only true for about two-thirds of American households that “for the most part, we decide what we drive, how we heat our water, what heats our homes, what cooks our food, what dries our laundry, and even what cuts our grass.” The other third of US households are renters, and have little control over their energy sources.* Typically, the landlord installs the equipment and the renters pay the monthly bills.… Read more »

Thomas Raymond Prince
2 years ago

Decentralized electrical grids are the answer. Of course we would still need wind farms, solar farms (real farms with solar panels as shade for crops), and other mass electrical generation but these would only come into play in emergency situations or for powering factories. ALL electrical generation that isn’t decentralized should be a public utility. Costs are less and infrastructure maintenance is better. (Think California wildfires and PG&E or ConEd and New York Black outs.)