In my last blog, I talked about the issue of air pollution and mentioned that fossil fuels are a source of many different types of air pollution. So it should come as no surprise that the best way to get rid of air pollution is to cut out fossil fuels. The way to do this is to electrify society and decarbonize the grid. While, unlike previous blogs which focused on one to a few different technologies, this one will focus on these two broad topics. Electrification simply means taking something that was powered by one fuel source and replacing that source with electricity. Decarbonization refers to replacing something that emits carbon, with a source that does not. When paired with electrification, decarbonization tends to refer to making it so that the electrical grid does not emit carbon.
The most well-known example of electrification is electric cars, but literally, anything can be powered by electricity. But electric cars are not the only electric vehicles. Even larger vehicles such as buses can be powered by electricity. Some models have at least 300 miles of range. More recently electrification has even reached the aviation industry. They already are a few small electric planes flying around. However, the range is limited. Industry giants such as Boeing estimate it will take several decades before long-range, large electric aircraft are a reality. But small short-haul electric planes may be flying around as soon as 2030. Another way electrification can be applied is through heating, which is typically done by gas boilers and can be replaced by electric-powered heat pumps. Heat pumps do not generate heat like a boiler, they simply move it around. In the winter they pump in hot air (heating), and in the summer they pump that hot air out(cooling)
These are only 2 of many examples of electrification, if you want to see its role in more sectors check out this link. Earlier on I mentioned that everything could be electrified and that is true, in theory. In reality, there are limitations and challenges, such as for electric planes, the batteries needed to support long-range commercial flight would be too large. In such cases, alternatives will have to be pursued in the goal of decarbonization, such as in the case of long-range flight hydrogen-powered air-craft seem much more feasible(but even that has its challenges).
Nonetheless, electrification can be quite promising in many areas. But for it to make a big impact, the global electric grid will have to be decarbonized. As of now, renewables power up a quarter of the global electricity supply with the rest coming from polluting sources. But it doesn’t have to be that way according to the world economic forum, numerous studies have concluded that it is feasible to switch to a sustainable energy system mostly powered by renewable energy – mainly solar, wind, and water by 2050. The thing is solar and wind are both variable energy sources (they’re not available all the time), so the ability to store energy(in times of overproduction) as well as a more consistent form of energy are also needed. Most of these forms, even hydro have some emissions associated with them. Thus the further development of carbon capture technologies will be needed, to ensure that emissions are not released. Another thing that is needed for the grid to be decarbonized is grid flexibility.
As of now, carbon capture has a long way to go before it is capturing sufficient carbon to be useful in decarbonization. This means the grid is flexible in both supply and demand. Supply flexibility can involve using consistent sources(hydro, geothermal, biomass, etc..), as well as having energy stored (for use in times of peak demand) or even the use of long-distance transmission lines to draw energy from places that have an abundance of renewables(think somewhere windy for wind power, sunny for solar, etc..). Demand flexibility can involve either policy that disincentivizes energy use during times of peak demand or technology (like a smart thermostat that will turn down during times of peak demand.) The point of grid flexibility is that it can accommodate the variable nature of some sources of renewable energy. Another thing to consider is that an electrified world is going to require a lot more electricity to meet its demand.
While electrification and decarbonization will not be easy, they will drastically cut down on air pollution. But not only that, but it also will help fight climate change, which subsequently fights ocean acidification (less CO2), biodiversity loss (more stable climate), and more. So while the challenges may be great, the opportunity this presents is too big to pass.