Electricity is particles in motion—a flow of electrons from one place to another that keeps air conditioners cooling, heaters heating, lights illuminating, computers computing, and all manner of motors humming. For much of the world, electricity powers the realities of daily life, yet 840 million people still lack access to electricity.
Since the emergence of electrical systems in the late 1800s, society has created most of its electricity by using fossil fuels. The process? Burn coal, oil, or gas. Heat water to create steam. Steam turns a turbine. Turbine rotates a generator to get electrons moving. The locked-up energy of long-buried plants and animals is transmuted into electricity, as carbon dioxide spills into the atmosphere as a byproduct. Today, electricity production gives rise to 25% of heat-trapping emissions globally.
How can we generate electricity for the whole world without burning fossil fuels? How do the means of transmitting, storing, and using electricity need to evolve?
These questions are critical for addressing emissions, especially given the current push to “electrify everything,” from cars to home heating, needing clean power on which to run. A mosaic of solutions is required, centered around electricity efficiency, production, and a more robust electrical system.
Electricity efficiency solutions include technologies and practices that reduce demand for electricity generation, literally lightening the load. The two biggest end-users of electricity are buildings and industry, in roughly equal measure. While a home or factory may be the location of efficiency measures, these emissions get counted at the power plant where they are created or avoided, as part of the electricity sector. (See further exploration of buildings and industry below.)
Production of electricity must move away from fossil fuels, as quickly as possible. A spectrum of solutions can help, from small-scale/distributed to large-scale/centralized. Some solutions harvest photons from the sun. Others tap nature’s generous kinetic energy—the movement of wind and water. Still others use an alternate source of heat, such as geothermal or nuclear, for the same basic steam-turbine process.
Improve the System
To enable the transition to renewable electricity production and use, the broader electricity system also needs to evolve and upgrade. Flexible grids for transmission and effective energy storage make it possible to better balance electricity supply with demand.
As we look forward, an electricity transformation is undeniably possible. Already, economics favor wind and sun over fossil fuels in many places. A shift away from coal-powered electricity is underway in the United States, the United Kingdom, and much of Europe, albeit not fast or widespread enough. The speed of transformation is the issue at hand. We must curtail and supplant 19th and 20th-century forms of production more rapidly—including the large pipeline of proposed new coal plants—while ensuring that the future of clean electricity is equitable and empowering for all.