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Is ‘Going all Electric’ Killing the Planet?

Photo © bilanol/

Going all electric – in a hurry – is the solution to our climate challenge, according to both experts and pundits. It sounds reasonable, the goal and the arguments are convincing. They also ignore reality. The climate challenge is not just about energy.

You knew that already, but it’s so easy to lose sight of the full picture when the world is completely preoccupied with energy in general and electric in particular. ‘WWS (Wind, Water, Solar) is going to save us’ is the mantra – which is undeniably true, but not alone: It’s not the whole truth. Presenting it as such is not useful, it’s dangerous.

Stanford-professor Mark Z. Jacobson is a strong voice behind WWS these days. His book titled 100% Clean, Renewable Energy and Storage for Everything (2020, Cambridge University Press) does a great job at explaining the challenges and how WWS can solve them in a sustainable and even profitable way. It has – deservedly – become something like a ‘WWS Bible’, a very valuable contribution to the fastest and most critical shift in history. It is also flawed because it fails to put WWS into an overall pollution/climate/resource context.

David Roberts is another ‘big name’ in this important shift. In 2017 – 4 years before Mark Jacobson’s book – his post The key to tackling climate change: electrify everything on Vox received wide acclaim and is still frequently referred to. It is short, insightful and inspirational (and recommended) read. But like Jacobson’s book it either ignores or downplays the rest of the equation.

Roberts’ plan is simple:

  1. Clean up electricity
  2. Electrify everything

And ‘clean up electricity’ means WWS (Wind,Water, Solar) right? I sincerely hope not. By now we know a lot more than even 5 years ago about the real (climate) cost of these energy sources. It seems so easy from the outside: Get a shipload of solar panels, some smart hardware/software to regulate it all, install – and we’re good. Or – let’s find places with a lot of wind, build some wind turbines and off we go. Actually, we’ve been doing both for many years now, we have a lot of experience. That’s why it’s surprising to see the big picture being regularly ignored. Such as the climate footprint of making solar panels, of manufacturing, transportation and installation of wind turbines, of building the power grid to distribute the energy etc. Even water (hydroelectricity) has a huge climate footprint even before we start looking at distribution and power grids: Tunnels, dams, dried out rivers and lakes, destroyed or dramatically changed habitats etc. Not that nature shouldn’t be touched – it most definitely should, otherwise we’d still be in the stone age. But treated with care, respect, understanding and sustainability in focus. Which we had to begin with, but seem to have lost over the past few hundred years – or sacrificed willingly on the altar of ‘development’. 

One of the key problems with our current thinking is that ‘big is (always) good’. Huge wind turbines, huge dams, water tunnels and power plants, huge nuclear reactors, huge solar farms etc. The fact is that if sustainability (and survival) is the goal – and thus the metric to gauge by, big is bad. It always was, we just didn’t know (or pay sufficient attention) until it was too late. We’ve made the mistake over and over again, claiming profitability, efficiencies of scale, benefits of centralization etc. etc. – from farming to education, from heavy industries to cloud services.

So the general rule is – I call this the first rule of sustainability – that small is beautiful, big is bad. I know you’d like to ask ‘how big is ‘big’ and how small is ‘small’, but don’t. There is no scale, but there is common sense – when sustainability is the goal.

It’s a radical change of thinking – an entirely new mindset, but these are times for radical change. And for the record – I’m not a ‘doomer’. I think we can do this. For example – roof-top solar panels are far better than huge farms because they’re close to consumption, homes and business. USA’s recent focus on moving production ‘home’ is good for sustainability even though the goal is something else, less dependence on a business partner (surprisingly) turned adversary. 

Interestingly, this ‘think local’ attitude has been a thing in technical/digital/IT environments for quite some time. Not for sustainability but because it makes sense. Edge computing is just that: Keep things local as much as/for as long as possible. The exact opposite of the dominant thinking for a while, which touted ‘stupid edge, smart center’ and ‘centralize everything’. What happened wasn’t a change of heart about the environment, but a change in technology – and requirements: More data from more sensors from more places (check out Life at the Edge) handled by shrinking technology with incredible capacity to process and store lots of data locally. A change in architecture that turns out to be an enabler for the next step in digitalization. The centralized approach just would not work – an unsustainable path of development. 

I digress, and the point has been conveyed already. Survival is about more than energy and common sense is a big part of it. It doesn’t make sense to send fish – deep-frozen at sea – from the North Sea to China for processing and packaging, then back to Europe for consumption. For example. Just like it doesn’t make sense to destroy one part of the world in order to build or fix another. 

This is where it becomes obvious that we can all make a difference right now. Buy local, be local, act local. Not ‘local only’ but ‘local focus’. A hundred years ago industry was built close to the energy sources because that was the only way. Energy wasn’t yet transportable. Now we’re discovering that it’s still the only way: Huge scale, long distance transportation isn’t sustainable.

Christmas shopping in New York or London is not sustainable unless that’s where you live. I love avocados but accept that they are environmentally expensive and need too much transportation to get here. They have to go. Corona is my favorite beer, but transporting small bottles around the world doesn’t make sense anymore – and never really did. It was possible, even profitable, but never smart. And so on … Think local while keeping an eye on the big picture and sharing/caring for neighbours, be it next door, next town, next country, next continent. We’re in this together whether we like it or not.

Back to the issue at hand, energy: Going all electric is survival, but only if it’s done right. We need rightsized power plants close to the users – fast construction, short grids, low loss, high flexibility. How? Take a look at these posts: The New Energy Equation and Mars is closer, Survival is not…

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