Keeping the Lights on: a Look at an All Electric Future

As the nation charts a course away from carbon-based energy, MACo examines the state of power generation and what it will take to keep the lights on. 

Power generation is a policy area that touches all major parts of life. From the macroeconomic level to the very tangible conversations around housing and transportation, choosing how to generate power has significant consequences. This conversation becomes even more pressing when adding climate change to the mix.

As climate change has become more urgent, public and private actors have increasingly turned to zero-emission technologies. The news media is filled with stories such as California banning the sale of gas powered cars by 2035 or Amtrak pledging to have zero greenhouse gas emissions by 2045. The truth about many “climate-friendly” solutions is that most of these technologies use electricity as opposed to fossil fuels. Emissions once expelled from internal combustion engines are now replaced with buzzing electrons. However, the reality of the situation is not as simple as it may appear.

Where Does Power Come From?

EIA 2021 National Energy Generation

When you flip a switch,  electrons flow from power plants to your location, powering your light. While it is impossible to distinguish electrons generated from different power sources, the differences between those sources do matter. Broadly speaking, power generation can be grouped into four primary camps: fossil fuels, nuclear, renewables, and other. Each camp has some level of cost-benefit analysis.

According to the US Energy Information Agency (EIA), in 2021, fossil fuel consumption in the United States accounted for 61% of power generation, compared to 39% from nuclear and renewables. Natural gas comprised roughly 39% of power generation nationally, coal comprised just under 22%, renewables comprised roughly 20%, and nuclear comprised roughly 19%. These totals denote an increase in the use of renewables compared to prior years, but this is still nowhere near where it needs to be in order to lessen the impacts of climate change.

EIA 2020 Maryland Energy Generation

Compared to the national average, Maryland is less reliant on fossil fuels. In 2020, roughly 12% of power came from fossil fuels. Nuclear and renewables accounted for roughly 68% and 14%, respectively. Unique compared to the national trend, other accounted for roughly 6% of the power generated. The vast majority of this figure is power generated from waste and wood incineration. In total, 82% of power came from nuclear and renewables compared to 18% from fossil fuels and waste and wood incineration. The percentage of power generated by renewables is significantly lower than the national average, largely due to the state’s heavy reliance on nuclear.

 

The Challenge 

The Biden Administration is pushing to make the US carbon neutral by 2050, and under the Climate Solutions Now Act, Maryland must reach net-zero emissions by 2045. There is a national and state-level push to eliminate fossil fuel generated power by the middle of the century. This effort overlaps with the public and private adoption of technologies that heavily rely on electricity.

Neither the US nor Maryland has enough renewable energy generating capacity to simply switch off fossil fuels. This means that the electricity required for an ever-expanding universe of things must come from fossil fuels. Emissions are not being eliminated. We are simply replacing exhaust pipes with smokestacks. To further complicate matters, renewables are not as dependable as fossil fuels, as they heavily rely on optimal weather conditions. Nuclear provides a third option but is often seen as controversial due to its history of accidents and a looming question of how to dispose of nuclear waste.

Energy Information Agency Outlook Through 2050

While projected growth is limited, the report also forecasts that fossil fuels will remain the most-consumed energy source through 2050. Renewables are to become the fastest growing segment of power generation as costs for wind and solar continue to fall. Renewables will become extremely competitive with fossil fuels, and new capacity will largely come from this segment. Generation from coal and nuclear will decrease, putting more reliance on renewables and natural gas.

Policy

In many environmental circles, the push for electrification is at the top of everyone’s mind. The second half of that equation, where the electricity comes from, largely has been kicked down the road. Looking at current projections from the EIA, it is becoming ever more critical that public and private actors push the development of renewables outside of wind and solar and for utility-scale battery storage. There will never be a total elimination of fossil fuels unless these two issues have been resolved. That is not to say that we should take our foot off the gas when it comes to the rollout of renewables and electrification; instead, we should place just as much emphasis on the development of these new technologies.

Conclusion

Electrification is only half of the equation to beating climate change. Make no mistake- humanity can no longer afford to continue using fossil fuels. If electrification is to make a difference, then it is critical to develop either more versatile renewable technologies that can generate power in a wider range of weather conditions and/or develop utility-scale battery storage. This is the challenge of our age.

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