THE FUTURE OF ELECTRICITY
Why electricity is green
A study finds that switching from other energy sources to electricity could slash greenhouse gas emissions
Reminders to use less electricity are everywhere. Turn off the lights. Unplug the coffee pot. Reset your thermostat.
Then along comes a study that says using more electricity could be a good thing.
It's not as crazy as it sounds.
The new study does not recommend wasting energy by using more than you need.
The study does say that using electricity instead of other forms of energy could reduce overall emissions of greenhouse gases. Using electricity for more work could be a winning strategy.
The report comes from the independent, nonprofit Electric Power Research Institute, or EPRI, whose 800 members work in all parts of the electric utility industry.
For decades, EPRI has been investigating and reporting on the latest developments in technology, while looking ahead to see how what electric utilities do today will affect the future.
For this study, EPRI asked whether substituting electricity for work now done by other kinds of energy could reduce substantial amounts of carbon dioxide emissions.
From the home to the yard
EPRI experts looked at energy use in the transportation sector, industrial and commercial processes, and in the residential sector. Changing from gasoline to plug-in electric cars and switching from an LP gas furnace to an electric heat pump system are just a few of the consumer examples investigated.
Other ideas include replacing gas kitchen appliances with electric stoves, switching from gas to electric water heaters, and changing gas clothes dryers to electric ones.
As plug-in and battery technology improves for yard equipment, replacing gas-powered items such as lawn movers and weed trimmers with electric tools could also make a difference.
Expanding the use of heat pump technology could also reduce emissions. The study examined both air- and ground-source heat pumps for a variety of applications, including normal household water heating as well as for swimming pools and spas, and predicted favorable results.
The study looks at the ways things are now, and compares those situations to what could be accomplished if certain activities used electricity instead of other kinds of energy. It reached two important conclusions:
* The potential for energy savings is highest in the South region, which includes Kentucky, followed by the Midwest, Northeast, and the West.
* The potential for reductions in carbon dioxide emissions is greatest in the Northeast, followed by the South, the Midwest, and the West.
What could happen varies by region due to different climates, industrial bases, and methods of generating electricity.
With so many different cases to look at--comparing one kind of furnace or water heater to another, and so forth--researchers decided to keep some things constant.
They figured that the mix of fuels used to generate electricity would stay about the same in each region. They figured the same technologies would be in place, with no drastic changes in the way power plants handle their emissions. They also figured that the same laws would be in effect between now and 2030.
Big potential, big questions
EPRI says that in terms of realistic potential (making just some of the changes but not everything), shifting to a bit more electricity could reduce carbon dioxide emissions by the year 2030 by 1,490 million metric tons.
However, if every activity in the study changed to electricity, the potential to reduce greenhouse gases is even greater. Between now and 2030, the study found, using more electricity instead of other forms of energy could prevent 4,400 million metric tons of greenhouse gases from entering the atmosphere.
Big questions remain. Will people want to switch to more electricity? If so, how quickly will the demand for electricity increase and how soon can new generating plants be ready?
The answers will depend on developments not covered in the study. New laws and tax incentives could make switching to electricity more appealing. New technology, such as carbon capture, could dramatically lower emissions from some kinds of plants.
East Kentucky Power Cooperative (EKPC) supplies electricity to 16 member co-ops. Since 1941, EKPC has regularly looked ahead to match construction plans with predictions about electrical demand. In 2009, EKPC began operating one new coal-based power plant and two new natural-gas power plants. Another coal plant should be ready by October 2013.
Jim Lamb, senior vice president of power supply at EKPC, says, "We are paying attention to EPRI's report and what it might mean to us as far as the demand for electricity from our 16 member co-ops. There are many uncertainties about how best to meet future demand for electricity during the next 20 years.
"Last April, EKPC filed its integrated resource plan with the Kentucky Public Service Commission that puts forth our resource expansion plan through 2030. It includes green power, such as landfill gas and biomass, as well as coal, natural gas, and purchases in the wholesale power market. So EKPC is looking far ahead at many different possibilities in order to be prepared."
MAKING POWER LINES SMARTER
Matching the supply of electricity to demand requires careful attention to detail.
East Kentucky Power Cooperative generates and transmits electricity to substations serving 511,000 homes, farms, and businesses.
EKPC's Jim Lamb says, "We've been hearing a lot lately about a 'smart grid,' where new technology can be used by utilities like East Kentucky and our members to better manage things." The smart grid uses computer technology to make electrical distribution more efficient.
"In the future," Lamb says, "we'll be able to utilize the smart grid in order to plan much more efficiently."