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A Pragmatic Approach to Climate Change: Part 4—Invest in Rebuilding the Electricity Infrastructure

The views expressed are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of ASPA as an organization.

By Erik Devereux
December 19, 2021

This is the fourth in a series of columns I will write for PA Times about the role of government in managing climate change. The first column argued for a strategy that begins with concerted efforts to cool the earth immediately instead of waiting for the possible benefits of long-term reductions in carbon emissions. The second column discussed why a new global governance framework is necessary to ensure climate interventions do not lead to war. The third column explained that gross reduction in CO2 emissions should be the only metric for progress. This column advocates for a massive investment in the electricity infrastructure of the United States as the keystone for achieving CO2 emissions targets by mid-century.

I must admit to considerable skepticism about current efforts worldwide to shift the climate trajectory away from some worst-case scenarios. As my previous column pointed out, the fossil fuel industry has tremendous financial incentives (and commensurate political resources) to deflect climate policies that might make worldwide reserves of petroleum, natural gas and coal much less valuable. Into the shadow of my skepticism a ray of real hope recently shown: the advocacy of MacArthur Foundation Genius Grant recipient Saul Griffith for completely electrifying the economy (here is one summary). Griffith’s analysis shows that the United States successfully can achieve aggressive CO2 targets if it pursues a strategy of converting all vehicles, building heating/cooling systems and many other systems solely to using electrical power.

There are two direct implications, one personal and one governmental. On the personal front, Griffith shows how each household can make a valuable contribution by converting as much as possible to using electricity as its sole energy source. My household already has replaced one automobile with an electric vehicle and we will do the same with our rarely driven pickup truck. Our kitchen already had an electric stove and oven. We eventually will replace our natural gas water heater with an electric model. On the day I begin writing this column I dropped our gasoline lawn mower and weed wacker off at a recycling center; I will replace them with battery-powered devices next spring. The trickiest replacement will be heating for the winter; the current all-electric alternatives do not perform that well if you live in colder climates. By the time our current natural gas furnace must be replaced we will find an acceptable all-electric substitute. At that point, our household will no longer consume natural gas. We could have the natural gas line turned off, and our household will produce zero direct CO2 emissions.

On the governmental side, the move toward using electricity as the sole power and heating source will require focused, consistent investments in rebuilding the electricity infrastructure at all levels—cities, counties, states and nationwide. This rebuilding effort is a vital matter of national security as much as anything else; the current condition of the United States electrical grid has been the subject of much criticism for being old, uncoordinated and vulnerable to natural disasters and human-caused disasters such as cyber attacks. Rather than get into fights with local utility companies about their need to divert potential profits into infrastructure, the pragmatic approach would be for governments to partner with utilities on comprehensive plans for making these improvements. Without them, only a small percentage of households can make the transition to using only electric power before the local grid is overwhelmed by the increased demand.

There is another important aspect to electrifying America: affordable carbon capture and sequestration. While Griffith and others emphasizing shifting electrical power generation even more toward renewables such as wind and solar, in the near-term I believe that it will remain necessary to use natural gas (use of coal, on the other hand, simply must cease). When “point sources” such as larger electrical power plants are the only places where natural gas is burned, it becomes economical to capture and store the emitted CO2. Dr. Howard Herzog of the MIT Energy Initiative estimates that capturing and sequestering CO2 in the smokestack of an electrical generation plant costs in the range of $50 per ton while removing CO2 directly from the atmosphere currently costs in the range of $1,100 per ton. Governments must insist both on the transition to electricity as the sole power source and on carbon capture and sequestration for those electrical generators burning natural gas.

Following this strategy rapidly will eliminate hundreds of millions of “non-point” emitters of CO2 (mostly homes and vehicles) and control the emission of CO2 by power plants and factories. There are several other important co-benefits such as the reduction of dangerous particulates in the air and atmospheric deposition of pollutants into the water. Public administrators at all levels of government need to get behind this effort and do everything possible to rebuild the electricity infrastructure and shift Americans toward using electricity as the sole source of energy. This strategy is pragmatic, necessary and feasible. We can, in fact, have the United States lead on climate change and prevent those worst-case scenarios from happening.


Author: Erik Devereux is a consultant to nonprofits and higher education and teaches at Georgetown University. He has a B.S. from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (Political Science, 1985) and a Ph.D. from the University of Texas at Austin (Government, 1993). He is the author of Methods of Policy Analysis: Creating, Deploying, and Assessing Theories of Change (Amazon Kindle Direct). Email: [email protected]. Twitter: @eadevereux

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