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As we ‘electrify everything,’ an opportunity for deeper, faster decarbonization

 February 13, 2019 

The last quarter of 2018 saw the release of several major climate change reports that all came to similarly dire conclusions, reinforcing the call to action to decarbonize the global economy as deeply and rapidly as possible. One major lever for doing so comes down to two words: “electrify everything.”

The punchline is this: As the percentage of renewables powering our grid continues to grow, electricity generation becomes cleaner and, by default, so does everything that uses electricity, from transportation to buildings.

In a 2018 analysis, The Economics of Electrifying Buildings, nonprofit think-and-do tank Rocky Mountain Institute (RMI) took a closer look at the “electricity everything” concept, exploring the financial and carbon impacts of electrifying commonly fossil-fueled residential energy loads such as space and water heating. (Disclosure: WattTime is an RMI subsidiary.)

RMI’s deep dive accounts for several factors when weighing the potential economic and carbon impacts of electrification: the degree of demand flexibility, electrification’s applicability for new homes versus retrofits, differing utility rate structures across the country, the wide variability in seasonal temperatures and grid mix, for a few examples.

The report, which is worth the full read, ultimately concludes that electrification is the most cost-effective option for many, but not all, home space and water heating use cases. For example, in the most coal-heavy regions of the country, the switch is not yet beneficial. RMI expects that the outlook for many scenarios explored will improve in the near future, as more renewables come online and electric appliances become more cost-competitive.

Marginal emissions are the key to overall emissions reductions through electrification, especially for achieving deeper reductions sooner

Those coal-heavy dark shadows in the report serve as a reminder of the important practice of looking at marginal emissions when considering the effects of electrification: As we electrify more and more energy loads, we’re also, in theory, increasing demand on the grid and asking more power plants to “turn on” in response. These “marginal” plants — whether powered by solar, wind, natural gas, or coal — can produce wildly different levels of carbon emissions, which we refer to as “marginal emissions.” And it’s those emissions that must be considered as we analyze the impact of electrification in various regions and scenarios.

This topic sits at the center of WattTime’s expertise. Through our research, we’ve successfully illuminated where and how the grid sources electricity for marginal electricity demand at any moment of the day, and then quantified the resulting emissions. This data became the key underpinning to RMI’s electrification report.

Moreover, this understanding of marginal emissions is also the foundation of WattTime’s core technology, which makes smart devices even smarter. Our software sends a signal to grid-connected devices like smart thermostats and electric vehicles (EVs) to tell them exactly when to kick into gear to effortlessly choose times of cleaner over dirtier energy. This simple-yet-effective solution has become known as “Automated Emissions Reduction” (AER).

Electrification, demand flexibility, and AER can unlock a lower-carbon future

As investment in renewables advances at record pace and clean sources of energy function alongside dirtier options, the power of this duality is revealing itself. Thanks to solutions like WattTime’s and the growth of smart device alternatives, the option to “electrify everything” is more enticing by the day. With thermostats, EV chargers, refrigerators, and more, the argument that more electricity demand must equal more emissions becomes invalid if and when a solution like AER is used. 

While it’s true that widespread energy efficiency upgrades will also play an important role in our progress toward emissions reductions, we cannot afford to ignore the opportunity presented by electrification, demand flexibility, and AER technology. These three pieces of the puzzle can work hand in hand to effortlessly, seamlessly, and automatically reduce emissions and move us closer to our decarbonization goals.

WattTime is proud to support important research in the cleantech space that will further enable our electricity grid’s monumental transition away from fossil-fueled energy. Every day we strive to give power to people and businesses that want the option to use cleaner energy. By partnering with innovators at like-minded organizations like Rocky Mountain Institute, we can work together to allow energy users worldwide to make a complicated choice much simpler.