Over the next two decades, Australia will race to achieve net zero emissions.
There are different theories on how to get there, but one of the most prominent is the idea known as “Electrifying Everything.”
This idea may determine how you stay warm, how you heat your water, and how you drive from one place to another.
So, here’s what it’s about — and what it’s about.
Nationwide Home Improvement Program
Sol Griffiths is a rising star in the field of energy and climate policy.
The Australian entrepreneur and inventor has founded companies, received MacArthur “genius” grants, mapped the incredibly complex U.S. energy system, advised the president and is now celebrating the passage of landmark U.S. climate legislation.
He’s also an advocate for electrifying everything – recently launching a not-for-profit organisation Rewiring Australia to push this.
Dr Griffith believes that decarbonisation is largely due to the use of the wrong machinery.
He calculates that there are about 101 million people in Australia.
If it can simply swap them out, it will be heading towards net zero by 2050.
It makes the seemingly complicated process of decarbonization sound like something you could accomplish at a suburban hardware store.
To work, most of these 101 million machines will need to be replaced with electric versions at the end of their useful lives.
Among other things, Net Zero is the equivalent of a nationwide collective home improvement program.
What are these machines?
They are usually the cars and appliances that most Australians use every day.
Things like gas heaters and gas drinkers. Small everyday machines owned by homes and small businesses that burn fossil fuels.
Then there are the larger, often company-owned machines used in industries such as manufacturing, construction and mining.
Some of these generate or supply energy for domestic and commercial purposes – they are machines such as coal-fired power plants or diesel-electric trains.
According to Dr. Griffiths, there are about 1 million of these large machines and about 100 million of the small machines.
We focus on smaller machines because they are easier to electrify.
Below is the total number of machines of each type.
There are many different types of “miscellaneous” machines (i.e. lawn mower icons). Don’t worry about them just yet.
Let’s focus on the machines at the top: gas space heaters, gas hot water systems, gas cooktops and light vehicles.
If six million gas heaters were lined up, they would stretch from Sydney to Wagga Wagga all the way to Adelaide.
If 2.6 million gas stoves were stacked on St Kilda Beach, the tower would soar into space.
If the gas distribution lines that power these devices were unraveled and connected, a single pipe could circle the globe twice.
You get the idea: there are a lot of machines to replace.
These meandering gas heaters and leaning-tower gas stoves are a legacy of decades of cheap fossil fuels and unlimited emissions.
But, of course, we’re not really interested in the physical size of the machines, but in the emissions associated with each type.
Here’s where it gets interesting: Three types of machines are responsible for most of the emissions.
What machine emits the most?
If we ignore electricity-related emissions, home machines that typically emit the most are gasoline or diesel cars, gas hot water systems, and gas space heaters.
Together, they account for about 95 per cent of the average household’s emissions, said Professor Andrew Blakers from the Australian National University.
The amount of gas used for cooking and other purposes is negligible, he added.
Gas-fired water heaters emit relatively few emissions compared to electric water heaters that use fossil fuels to generate electricity.
But when the electricity is generated by renewable energy, they are even dirtier.
“Getting rid of your gas water heater and gas space heater is equivalent to buying an electric car in terms of emissions impact,” Professor Blacks said.
(Note: it depends on how much you drive and how cold you live.)
If we only compare gas heating and land transportation, cars are by far the main contributor to household emissions across the country.
One reason transportation emissions are so high is that not all households use gasoline, but nearly all have cars (1.8 cars per household on average).
For homes with gas hot water and space heating, the ratio of blue flames to gasoline droplets will be closer to uniform.
What is the situation with electric vehicles?
There are about 20 million cars registered in Australia, the vast majority of which use fossil fuels.
Only about 60,000 of these registered vehicles are electric vehicles.
So there is still a long way to go.
By 2030, that number will reach 3.8 million, according to government models.
In general, phasing out 3.8 million gasoline and diesel vehicles is equivalent to replacing about 11 million gas water heaters.
how much time is required?
To replace all these machines in 25 years, Australia would need to replace them every 10 seconds or six per minute.
So, like any home renovation, it has to be done as quickly as possible.
Fortunately, all machines that need to be replaced will have to be replaced anyway – most of them won’t last another decade.
The average age of an Australian car is about 10 years, and gas water heaters and gas water heaters tend to be replaced every 10-15 years.
The trick, says Professor Black, is to replace them with suitable machines.
That means buying an electric car when you get your next car, or buying an electric heat pump (i.e. reverse cycle air conditioner) when the gas heater dies.
“It’s easy. We just need to stop like-for-like replacements,” he said.
Dr. Griffith agreed.
“The next time you have a problem with your gas water heater, we need to replace it with an electric one. That’s the reality.”
What about emissions from electricity generation?
Replacing fossil fuels with electricity raises other issues, such as intensifying renewable energy generation and storage.
The National Electricity Market (NEM) generates approximately one-third of the electricity generated each year from renewable sources.
The federal government’s goal is to use 82 percent renewable energy in the NEM by 2030.
As part of the transition to renewable energy, Dr. Griffith advocates the massive adoption of rooftop solar and batteries.
About 3 million households currently have rooftop solar, and 7 million do not.
If each of those 7 million households had a standard 5kW system, the total output would be an additional 35GW – that’s a lot.
In terms of power generation capacity, that would be roughly equivalent to giving each contestant their own coal-fired power plant at this year’s AFL Finals.
Dr Griffith said electrification would cost money up front, but money could be saved in the long run by improving energy efficiency.
He added that for now this is still the cheapest way to reduce emissions.
In the ACT, there are no gas pipelines in newly built suburbs. The region also bans the sale of gasoline-engined cars after 2035.
This month, Victoria released a roadmap for phasing out natural gas.
In the U.S., the Reducing Inflation Act, which President Biden signed into law last month, includes billions of dollars in funding for home electrification.
Those are encouraging signs for advocates, but it’s too early.
Dr Griffith said the biggest challenge was politics rather than technology.
“Unless we figure out how to get everyone involved, political projects will fail,” he said.
“You can’t half solve climate change.”