Where can electrification do most to cut emissions? Transportation

(ACEEE blog, 8 Oct 2019) The transportation sector offers the greatest potential to slash greenhouse gas emissions through electrification— more even than buildings or industry, according to a recent ACEEE study and four other reports.

Research increasingly cites the electrification of vehicles, buildings, and factories as a key strategy for cutting greenhouse gas emissions and addressing climate change (e.g., see here). In a recent report, ACEEE found that electrification accounted for 35% of the emissions reductions that would come from halving US energy use with energy efficiency measures. Transportation delivered the lion’s share of electrification’s emissions cuts — a whopping 72%.

Other studies have also estimated the electrification opportunity in major sectors of the economy, identifying transportation as having the largest potential. This consensus finding underscores the need to emphasize transportation, notably electric vehicles, in electrification efforts.  

Three of the studies look at greenhouse gas emissions reductions from electrification, finding that transportation accounts for 44-72% of the total emissions reduction. Two other studies look at electrification in terms of increased electric load, with transportation accounting for 55-80% of the impact. Transportation electrification includes both electric passenger vehicles and electric medium and heavy trucks; in the ACEEE study, two-thirds of the transportation opportunity is in light vehicles and the other third is in medium and heavy vehicles.

Electrification opportunities in buildings and industry are also substantial and worth attention. Across the five studies, industry accounted for about one-fifth of the impact and the commercial and residential sectors for about one-tenth each. Results by study are illustrated in the figure below, with further details in a table below.

In considering these figures, bear in mind that these are all national averages, and in some local areas the relative opportunity between sectors will vary.

Efficiency and electrification

Energy efficiency and electrification can often happen in tandem, because electric vehicles, heat pumps and industrial electro-technologies (e.g., induction heating and ultraviolet curing) are often more efficient than conventional equipment. In addition, energy efficiency can and should be used to shrink loads, reducing needed investments at both the customer level (e.g., a smaller heat pump generally costs less than a large one) and the grid level (e.g., with lower loads, the need for transmission and distribution enhancements is reduced).

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ACEEE blog, 8 Oct 2019: Where can electrification do most to cut emissions? Transportation