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The Role of the Electric Utility in Powering Deep Decarbonization

Aug. 28, 2019
Electrification of transportation, heating, and industrial processes present novel questions about the role of the power company as the foundation on which the transition from fossil fuels can be built.

From the halls of Congress to the hearing rooms of state legislatures, policymakers are debating a range of actions to reduce U.S. carbon emis­sions. All plans to sufficiently reduce emissions to avoid the worst climate impacts rely on two prongs: deep de­carbonization of electric generation and widespread electrification of remaining fossil-fuel uses.

As to the first prong, methods for decarbonizing the generation fleet are well understood; the challenging ques­tions are what policy tools are best and what rate of change is most cost-effective for customers. And electrification of transportation, heating, and indus­trial processes present novel questions about the role of the power company as the foundation on which the transition from fossil fuels can be built.

The questions raised by both prongs are no less daunting than the call in the 20th century to bring electricity to all Amer­icans once the benefits were widely under­stood. Society treated that as the moral obligation it was and it was done. We need the same level of national attention to the current challenge.

Our nation’s utilities are well posi­tioned to support the “electrify every­thing” charge. Electric service already reaches the vast majority of homes, businesses, and people. No other en­ergy source does that. We can build on the ambitious legacies of the New Deal, including rural electrification, to expand service to replace high-emitting fossil fuels.

Transportation presents the great­est opportunities in the near term. Widespread adoption of electric ve­hicles (EVs) will require an infrastructure build-out akin to that needed to create the current petroleum distribution net­work. But because of the vast reach of the electric system, this new network can be built around humans, not cars. While drivers must travel to specific locations to fill up with gasoline, EVs offer the opportunity to charge where drivers actually want to be: at home, work, or shopping.

Being tied to a few dedicated loca­tions for recharging hinders the spread of EVs. While technological advances will surely help reduce the long “refill” times that cause “range anxiety,” we can also make charging infrastructure ubiq­uitous, taking advantage of the fact that there are few destinations that are not already served by an electric utility.

In fact, not only can power compa­nies facilitate the availability of charg­ing stations where people actually are, but utilities can also align this build-out with the development of the grid of the future by incorporating additional technolo­gies like storage to en­sure that as we increas­ingly rely on electricity for more energy needs, the grid remains reli­able and resilient.

Electrifying mass transit also brings clean energy advancements directly to traditionally underserved populations by offering clean, quiet, and reliable transportation while eliminating signif­icant sources of localized air pollution, such as bus depots, which are frequent­ly located in environmental justice and other overburdened communities.

Admittedly, electrification of heavy-truck fleets is less technologically ripe now, but innovation in this space is moving quickly. Seemingly every week, companies are bringing new trucks and modular work vehicles to market. Power companies can support the com­mercialization of these technologies by integrating them into the fleets we use to serve our communities. This is more than a showpiece given the far lower maintenance requirements of EVs and better reliability, they are attractive to utilities.

Power companies also can support electrification in the building sector. Technology has made important leaps recently in heat pumps and cooking, offering customers not just cleaner but better performing and more efficient appliances. Several utilities, particu­larly in California, offer significant in­centives to build or retrofit all-electric homes with the latest comforts and safety, including induction cooktops.

At the other end of the supply chain, sources of electric generation are being similarly transformed. Distributed gen­eration, storage, and microgrids require a fundamentally different overall grid than the poles and wires designed for a world powered by fossil fuels. Elec­tric utilities must modernize the grid to support these innovations while hard­ening our infrastructure to withstand weather and cybersecurity threats.

Decarbonization presents oppor­tunities to create a national electricity system that connects our communities in ways that drive down greenhouse gas emissions while improving reliability and affordability. All of these opportu­nities have one common thread — the electric utility, which may soon be more appropriately termed the energy utility, as it serves the complete power needs of customers. Thus, the electric company, which was the indispensable economic development tool of the 20th century, has now become the indispensable cli­mate tool of the 21st.

This article was previously published by the Environmental Law Institute.

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