What is electrification and how clean and renewable power helps reducing global CO2 emissions?

Do you often hear about electrification, heat pumps, electric vehicles, solar panels or even renewable energies and wonder why they would be beneficial? If that’s the case, this article is for you.

A Definition for electrification

The Oxford Dictionary provides the clearest and most concise definition, describing electrification as "the process of changing something so that it works by electricity". Historically, when people used the word, it referred to the process of bringing electricity to places where it was not yet available. However, our current use of the word has shifted to mean a greater share of electricity in final energy demand, i.e. to replace the use of fossil fuels (in transport, heating/ cooling, industry) with clean electricity, which became prevalent in Europe and will become the only source of electricity before mid-century.

How are renewables integrated in electricity generation?

The decarbonisation of the power sector is set to massively accelerate over the next decade – in 2020, clean energy sources, including hydropower, solar, wind and nuclear, represented 65% of the energy generation mix. By 2030, as much as 85% of the EU’s electricity will be fossil free, matching a higher decarbonisation ambition put forward by the European Commission through the Fit For 55 % Package.  

With the publication of the “Fit for 55%” legislative package, the EU set itself a 40% target for renewable energy by 2030, The electricity sector is well on track to deliver on this: renewables already represent 39% of the power mix today.

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The link between electrification and emissions

What is the link between electrification and emissions reductions? To understand the link between electrification and emission reductions, one must understand that traditionally electricity has been produced from the rotation of a turbine connected to a magnet which attracts electrons. The rotation of the turbine is the result of steam produced from the combustion of fossil fuels. This as such releases carbon dioxide (CO2) in the atmosphere, a greenhouse gas which plays a significant role in rising global temperatures.

What are the benefits of electrification?

Why are most governments pushing to increase electrification? 

We are now increasingly using renewable energy sources as a means by which to generate electricity. It has proven to be a much cleaner and safer way to produce electricity and doesn’t require burning fossil fuels. It goes without saying that an electrification strategy is essential for climate action as it offers an alternative to polluting fossil fuels used in heating and cooling, transport and industrial applications. The growing share of renewable electricity in the European electricity generation matrix is making it easier and cheaper to source clean energy, hence making fossil fuels less attractive to all sectors. 

Electrification thus aims to transform highly polluting technologies used for transport (such as cars, trucks, and even airplanes), heating and cooling (like gas boilers), or industrial processes, (including the use of coking coal for steal production).

Further benefits of electrifying the European economy include:

  • Strong economic recovery and the creation of local jobs,
  • Savings on fossil fuels imports, which currently cost European citizens approximately €150 billion annually,
  • New business models, allowing Europe to become a global champion for innovative and digital demand-side management services and storage solutions
  • Fewer premature deaths caused by air pollution
  • Improved energy efficiency
  • Digitalisation, which empowers consumers by allowing them to take a more active role in managing their energy consumption

A few electrification examples 

So, let’s talk about a few examples of electrification. 

Why pursue the electrification of the transport sector?

It’s hard to imagine that in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, electric transportation ruled the world. Electricity used to power engines for transportation, such as cars and trams. Autonomy was not considered overly important then, as transport was mostly urban and local, making trams easy to charge and maintain. However, as we began to travel greater distances for work and holidays, internal combustion engines became the norm, leading to increased carbon emissions and air pollution.

Today, there is growing will to electrify the transport sector, as it accounts for 25% of EU emissions. Concerned with the growing CO2 emissions and pollutants, and their adverse effect on global warming and public health, governments around the globe consider the electrification of transport as a solution. That is why they have been increasing support for innovation, research and development related to the electrification of transportation, and development of batteries in the past decades.

The increasing automotive & vehicle electrification

You may have noticed walking around various cities that there is an increasingly large number of public transport services proudly displaying that they are powered by electricity. Perhaps you’ve noticed a hybrid sticker on the side of a freight truck, or maybe you’re considering buying an electric car...

These cases perfectly exemplify the role of electricity in reducing the usage of fossil fuel powered cars, which represent a quarter of EU CO2 emissions. Electric vehicle technologies have greatly improved over the past few years, gaining in long range autonomy and popularity, reaching an all-time 11.4% market share in 2020 across the EU, plus Norway, Switzerland, Iceland and the UK.

Key reasons for owning an EV: 

  • No emissions, air pollution or noise pollution in cities
  • Contributes to the decarbonisation of the European economy
  • Lower total cost of ownership than internal combustion engines (upfront cost is higher, but recharging and maintenance costs are lower)
  • No tolls in zero emissions cities

Electrification of buildings

Electrification is also set to play a role in our homes, from more efficient space heating and cooling energy solutions, such as heat pumps, to integrated home management systems. This empowers consumers by giving them the ability to interact with the power system, manage their consumption, and become prosumers - selling electricity to the grid.

Europe's buildings consume 40% of all the energy used across the continent. With three-quarters of the EU’s building stock being energy inefficient, the need for space heating and cooling is higher, and the bills paid by consumers are heftier. What’s more, by heavily relying on fossil fuels for heating our homes and water or for cooking, this sector is responsible for over one-third of the overall CO2 emissions.

The EC Energy System Integration strategy outlines that 40% of all residential buildings and 65% of all buildings in the services sector should use electricity for heating and cooling by 2030 – up from just 11% in residential buildings today.

Electrification of the industrial sector

Today, electrification of the industrial sector is also a high priority as industries still represent 18% of global CO2 emissions. Only 20% of industry’s energy consumption powered by renewable electricity, but this is likely to increase as the cost of renewable energy generation plummets, along with the cost of electric equipment and lower maintenance costs. Furthermore, industry is comprised of many hard to abate sectors which cannot be directly electrified yet. The current solution to this is to use hydrogen produced via electrolysis, known as clean hydrogen, as an alternative fuel.

Certain verticals have already made the switch, such as green steel and hydrogen production., The demand for electrification in industrial sectors will increase in the coming years. Eurelectric’s Decarbonisation Pathways study shows that 50%-60% of industrial processes can be directly electrified, and the majority of what remains can benefit from indirect electrification. Add to that, future innovation for electric power equipment, and we will have clean energy powered industrial applications!

Taking into account the power source generating electricity

We have briefly mentioned the production of renewable energies. However, to fully understand how the electrification program can support climate action and the economy, we should dive in a little deeper into the subject. So, let’s talk about solar energy, wind turbines and, hydroelectricity.

 Solar Energy

Solar energy is produced very differently from fossil fuelled energy. Instead of using the primary energy source to activate a mechanical action and convert the subsequential energy into electricity, solar panels directly transform solar energy into direct current (DC) electricity, which is then converted into usable alternating current (AC) electricity through an inverter.

So how exactly do solar panels work? Solar panels are composed of an array of solar cells, each producing around half a volt. Each solar cell is made of 6 layers, from top to bottom: glass, anti-reflection coating, metal grid, two types of silicon (N & P) and a metal plate. The transformation from solar energy to electricity happens at the silicon level. By using two types of silicon, one negatively charged thanks to boron and phosphorus positively charging the other, it gives the electrons contained in light the possibility to move, thus creating electricity. 

Theoretically, solar energy could be used to cleanly produce more electricity than we do today, and with the innovations that we’re seeing in the efficiency of solar cells, they will be able to represent a larger proportion of our renewable energy generation mix. With recent innovation in the field of batteries and storage, as well as optimal planning processes, it is possible to handle periods of limited sunlight, without impacting security of supply.

 Wind turbines

Another well-known source of renewable energy is wind turbines. While not a recent invention, as wind turbines have been used for over 2000 years for different applications such as windmills, they’ve only recently been used to create electricity.

So how do turbines convert wind energy into electricity? Just as fossil fuel technology recuperates the kinetic energy coming from the turning turbine and converts it, wind turbines use the kinetic force resulting from the turbine turning under the wind pressure on their blades. Those specifically designed curved blades are either vertical, which allow them to pick up wind coming from any direction but with less strength, or horizontal for higher efficiency that however require turning to face the wind, a process called yawing. 

While wind turbines can be a highly efficient source of renewable energy, as wind can be consistent in some windy areas and the turbines itself are made to last over 20 years. Mostly, the turbines need to be in a windy area. To palliate this issue, turbines are incredibly high, usually reaching 100 meters tall to face higher wind speed. With one spin, a turbine can produce sufficient electricity to power a home for 2 days. . Put 200 turbines together and you could power 300 000 European ones for a year. Another means by which to use wind as an energy source has been to install offshore wind turbines to capitalise on the stronger winds at sea. 

Hydroelectricity

Hydroelectricity is a renewable energy produced by using the kinetic energy from water to activate a turbine, which converts it into electricity. There are two means by which to find the force needed to produce this energy.

The first is using a hydroelectric system. This system converts the force from flowing water, from a stream or river, into electricity, by using the kinetic energy from the water flowing downhill and directing towards a wheel in a turbine that converts the rotational energy to electricity.

The second is dam hydroelectricity. A dam is built on a large river which has a large drop in elevation. The water from the river is then stored behind the dam in its reservoir. Near the bottom of the dam wall there are penstocks which have water running through them, which is forced through by gravity. At the end of the penstock there is a turbine propellor, which is turned by the moving water. Power lines are connected to the generator that carry electricity to our homes. This method of renewable energy production has the highest share worldwide.