Book Review — All-Electric America

Book Review — All-Electric America

This is my first book review! I look forward to writing about books that have taught and inspired me. In this post, I review All-Electric America: A Climate Solution and the Hopeful Future by S. David Freeman and Leah Y Parks (2015, Solar Flare Press).

All-Electric America provides a glimpse of a future that is possible if we fully embrace renewable energy. Authors S. David Freeman and Leah Y Parks explain how energy efficiency, electrification and renewable energy can help avoid the worst effects of climate change while improving our energy security, health and economy. In an easy to understand language, All-Electric America introduces the reader to the potential that renewable energy already has to meet our energy needs, how technologies such as storage and hydrogen can complement renewable energy sources, and the types of energy policies that will accelerate our move away from fossil fuels. The book debunks common myths about renewable energy: that we do not have enough of it, that it costs too much, that its intermittency is an insurmountable problem, and that we need bridge fuels such as natural gas before going fully renewable. Below are my favorite lessons from All-Electric America.

Electrifying all energy uses is not only necessary but highly desirable

The best way to take advantage of energy in the wind, water and sun is to generate electricity from them. To fully rely on renewable energy, we need to electrify all forms of energy use; that is why Freeman and Parks called their book All-Electric America! Here is some good news about electrification: by switching from combustion to electric engines, the amount of energy required to meet our needs drops significantly as electric engines are significantly more efficient than ones burning fossil fuels. That sounds pretty good, right? There is even more good news! Electricity is a lot cheaper fuel than oil or gas. As Freeman and Parks state:

“Yet the greatest cost saving to consumers will be in substituting electricity for oil in transportation and for natural gas, propane, and heating oil for heating homes, office buildings, and factories. Here we can substitute the equivalent of one-dollar-a-gallon electricity for two-or three-dollar-a-gallon gasoline.”

By switching to already available technologies such as electric vehicles in transportation and electric heat pumps in heating & cooling, we can help our planet AND our pocket books.

We can do much better than nuclear energy

Last year, 20% of the electricity generated in the U.S. came from nuclear power. Nuclear plants generate electricity without producing CO2 emissions (if you exclude emissions from fossil fuels used for plant construction and for mining & transporting uranium). In our urgent need to reduce and eventually eliminate all carbon dioxide emissions, should we consider nuclear energy as part of the solution and look to expand its use as we replace coal, oil and gas? Freeman and Parks offer a convincing case AGAINST nuclear energy. If you want an energy source that is expensive, does not improve over time (has a negative learning curve), requires large government subsidies, can help terrorists develop nuclear weapons and has a small but non-zero chance of catastrophic accidents, nuclear energy is for you! If you still want to develop more nuclear versus renewable energy, is your community interested in “hosting” spent nuclear fuel for the next several thousand years? Currently no such community exists in the U.S. (nuclear plants are forced to store their fuel on-site). If you lost your appetite for more nuclear energy, you are not alone. As Freeman and Parks state:

“[Nuclear energy has] Failed so miserably in the marketplace that no nuclear plants have come online in the US for fifteen years, and only two have been built in thirty years.”

Even if we could address nuclear energy’s unappealing aspects (big if), the time it takes to build a new nuclear plant (10-20 years) is too long given we only have a few decades left in our carbon budget.  Investing in solar and wind and other renewable technologies is our best bet if we want to limit climate change to 2 degrees Celsius.

Electric utility industry needs to become part of the solution

Imagine being the CEO of a company selling a product that is critical to the functioning of the modern economy but that also creates disastrous damage to the planet. As the CEO, what would you do? You know how to help your customers lower their demand for your product, by using it more efficiently, but you have little financial incentive to offer such help since any efficiency gains would lower your sales. Alternatively, you could lower the environmental damage by adopting non-polluting technologies for making your product. However, these technologies involve a more complex supply chain that you are less likely to adopt quickly unless the government creates incentives or mandates for doing so. These scenarios describe the situation faced by the electric utility industry. In response to the utilities’ dilemma, Freeman and Parks call for a transformation of the utility industry to turn utilities into supporters of energy efficiency, electrification and renewable energy. The traditional utility business model focused on selling more electricity, generated with little regard for the environmental impact, is unsustainable both for the utilities and the planet. As an example of an innovative new business model, the authors propose that electric utilities become owners of electric car batteries. A car owner would rent the battery which creates a rental income for the utility while lowering the car’s upfront cost. As part of the rental, utilities could make attractive charging rates available at night when demand for electricity is lower. Utilities could deploy old batteries no longer suitable for cars as grid-level electricity storage. Given their geographical reach, utilities would also be well positioned to offer a network of charging stations for rental customers who need access to vehicle charging away from home.

All-Electric America shows us a hopeful path forward

Whether you are simply curious about renewable energy, a consumer or a business owner looking to save money, a citizen concerned about climate change, or a political leader worried about your local economy, All-Electric America is an invaluable guide to the benefits and opportunities that come with fully adopting renewable energy. For more information on the book including links to buy it, please visit the All-Electric America website.

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