The global economy needs to go electric. Most economists agree that the quickest, lowest-cost way to eliminate greenhouse gas emissions is to plug everything that now burns fossil fuels—vehicles, buildings, factories—into a clean electricity grid.
How much strain will that put on the grid? By 2050, the US will demand nearly 90% more power than it did in 2018, in a scenario in which all new passenger vehicles sold by 2030 are electric and buildings and factories also aggressively electrify, according to an analysis by Nikit Abhyankar, a senior scientist at the Goldman School of Public Policy at the University of California, Berkeley. That analysis was part of a comprehensive 2020 study of what it would take to make the grid 90% carbon-free by 2035. In a more conservative scenario, where electric vehicle adoption picks up just a little bit and buildings and industry rely mostly on fossil fuels, total demand will rise just 35% by 2050.
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Either scenario will require a buildout of solar and wind farms, nuclear power plants, batteries, transmission lines, and other infrastructure that will be a defining challenge of the next few decades, Abhyankar says—but not beyond rates of expansion that the grid has seen before.
“The good news is that it’s not going to break the grid,” says Abhyankar. “Is it achievable? Yes. We’ve done it in the past.”
In a breakdown of the aggressive scenario in the study, electric vehicles are the main driver of demand growth, followed by buildings and heavy industry.
Between 1975 and 2005, electricity demand in the US increased about 2.6% annually, according to Abhyankar. It leveled off in the mid-2000s both because economy-wide efficiency improvements meant less energy was necessary per dollar of GDP, and because of the long recovery from the 2008 recession.
To meet the climate challenge, the country will need to return to a serious grid-growth mentality. A separate Princeton study in 2020 projected that grid transmission lines will need to expand by 60% by 2030 to connect all the new decentralized sources of supply (solar and wind, in particular) and demand (EVs, electric heat pumps, and other appliances). Given that today’s grid was built gradually over the last century, and a decentralized system will be more difficult to manage, there’s little time to waste. US president Joe Biden’s climate plan hinges on the $2 trillion infrastructure bill his administration is currently hammering out with Congress, which aims to pour money into grid upgrades.
Fortunately, the rate of growth for electricity demand (in terawatt-hours per year) in the aggressive scenario is 2.2%, a hair less than historical rates according to Abhyankar. And the next phase in the growth of the grid could happen more quickly and at a lower cost than in the past. With the costs of wind turbines, batteries, and other clean energy technologies falling rapidly, utilities are developing new business models to profit from the transition.
But the shift still requires a commitment from policymakers: The Berkeley study calls for a federal clean energy mandate, government financing for early coal plant retirements, longer-lasting renewable energy tax credits, and other measures. Fortunately, the infrastructure is already being put in place. “The concept of a smart, responsive grid didn’t exist back then, and it does now,” Abhyankar said.