The coming electrification of everything

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Stored electricity, increasingly derived from renewable sources, will entirely replace fossil fuels as the preferred method to power everything in our lives.

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At Obvious Ventures, we believe stored electricity, increasingly derived from renewable sources, will entirely replace fossil fuels as the preferred method to power everything in our lives. From cars to scooters to boats to locomotives to industrial equipment, we are in the midst of a transition that will electrify everything previously driven by combustion.

There are two simple reasons we’ll make this change sooner than most people think. First, electrically powered things just work better. And people want things that work better. The second reason is really just a piece of the first. “Better” increasingly means “better forever.” That is, not just better in the moment for that use, but also better for our surroundings, our health, and the health of our planet.

But, at least for the short term, our climate will be served not simply by environmental motivations, but by the same relentless human force that created it: the desire for more, faster, better. Ever-better technology will lead consumers, rather than idealists, to drive this electricity evolution.

Why now? Key trends emerging only in recent years have created the foundation for this evolution.

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Electric solutions are finally better

Cutting-edge electric cars today are better than their gas-powered counterparts. They are both safer and easier to maintain than conventional cars. No trips to the gas station, no oil changes; the bulk of upkeep lies in tires and windshield wiper fluid. They also perform on the road, with better acceleration, torque and responsiveness than their conventional counterparts. The big downside (and it’s a big one) of range vs. cost will be overcome by multiple car companies in the coming years.

These benefits cross over to other categories as well. Companies like Proterra are developing in-city electric buses that are virtually silent, with zero emissions and the same simplified maintenance requirements that electric-car owners have come to appreciate. Adoption is relatively easy; defined routes, low speeds and designated charging stations are resulting in programs in an increasing number of U.S. cities.

Electric garbage trucksskateboardsbikes and scooters will soon dominate the streetscape. These products are a big improvement over their predecessors. They are silent, clean, fast and low-maintenance.

We’re seeing a big shift at home too. Hybrid hot water heatersheat exchangersthat handle both AC and heat, and induction cooktops are widely considered to be better performing, more durable, and easier to maintain than gas-powered options.

What’s to come? Well-funded startups and R&D efforts are underway for battery-powered boatselectric long-haul trucking and even airplanes — and of course, we will see home and commercial battery systems for backup proliferate as costs drop.

Battery costs plummeting and performance is ramping

The key catalyst to allowing for the electrification of everything is improved battery technology. To move into widespread use, we need both lower costs and better density. As I wrote in my piece on lithium-ion batteries, we expect the cost curve for batteries over the next decade to mimic what we’ve seen in solar over the same time frame. If we’re right, we’re on the cusp of an order-of-magnitude reduction in the costs of energy storage in almost all shapes and sizes.

Although not tracking at the same rate as costs, energy storage density is increasing as well. Smaller batteries that last longer will power transport for longer range and less cost, pave the way for widespread home storage systems, and make the profound environmental hazards of two-stroke engines (lawn mowers, blowers, outboard motors, etc.) a thing of the past.

The distributed grid is on the rise

Homeowners around the world, particularly in the U.S., Europe and Japan, have decided not to wait for governments and utilities when it comes to clean energy. In ever-increasing numbers, they have used rooftop solar to become their own power producers and HAVE gone green in myriad distributed ways.

The companies that serve them have also taken notice. From Facebook to Googleto Apple to Amazon, the world’s largest companies are moving toward 100 percent renewable power.

Homes and businesses making their own power have the means and the opportunity to put it to good use, further fueling motivation to invest in electrically driven systems.

Finally, we’re seeing entire countries and states commit to moving closer to carbon-neutral — and of course others will follow. With these commitments comes a clear line of sight to a carbon-free environment in both the creation of energy and the ways in which we use it. The idea of burning anything to move ourselves, power our homes or drive our supply chains will be a thing of the past.

The clean electron era

Hospitals, transport, homes and businesses will increasingly generate and store power on-site. This will in turn grow the functionality of the grid and ensure full resilience after natural disasters like Hurricane Katrina. The insanity and shortsightedness of destroying a finite supply of fossil fuels by burning (rather than leaving them in the ground to minimize carbon release or maximizing their value for plastics, fertilizers, etc.) will be the predominant cultural view. Today’s first graders will get to college and shake their heads when we talk about the good old days of using repeated explosions under the hood of the car to get around.

Most of all, we will serve the greater good by aligning with, instead of opposing, the forces that sustain and define us: wind, water, solar and our own human nature to seek abundance for all.

Andrew Beebe is a managing director at Obvious Ventures. This article was first published at Greentech Media. Reproduced with permission.

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13 Comments
  1. Doug Cutler 3 years ago

    “Live better electrically!” That was the TV slogan I remember as a kid.

  2. Radbug 3 years ago

    Implication from Paris: Electrowinning, good, pyrometallurgy, bad.

  3. Tim Forcey 3 years ago

    The second great electrification.

  4. Radbug 3 years ago

    Electricity generation is only half the issue. The system that created Agbogbloshie is the other half.

  5. trackdaze 3 years ago

    Time to diversify or die coal and gas companies. For those
    Companies that don’t see themselves as a energy company first and go with the electric flow you will go the way of the dodo!

  6. Rob 3 years ago

    The Great Energy Transition gathers momentum!

  7. Phil 3 years ago

    I agree with the statement that electricity works better. As a long term gas cooktop user i believe induction cooktops are finally a valid replacement for gas as you can now have a wok shaped version. And steam ovens overcome the dry heat issue of electric ovens (compared to gas.) Any chef’s out there like to comment on their findings ?

    For heating , underfloor and hydronic heating seems to have a better quality and more pervasive heat .Both of these technologies work well with the now very efficient electric heat pumps combined with solar collectors where practical.

    Wood heating and cooking is 100% carbon neutral , albeit a slow replenishment cycle , but is only practical in low population density or rural areas with ample dead wood or mill waste offcuts due the particulate and smoke problems.

    Perhaps heating , cooling and cooking using pure electric means as the prime energy source should NOW be considered and mandated for NEW BUILD building codes as it is likely to be the new standard within 5-10 years regardless of on and off grid options.

    This is already happening to a large extent in N.S.W Australia with the BASIX codes of building promoting passive solar building design combined with solar and heat pump hot water and better insulation.

    Whatever happens it appears VERY likely the GAS connections to homes will become a stranded asset in the near future.

    • John P 3 years ago

      The “all electric” proposition is perfectly reasonable. We have been doing it for years – off grid as well.The kitchen has a gas cooker which has never been used (and never needed cleaning – think about that!). We were careful to build a very thermally efficient house so no heater or air con was needed.
      You sometimes hear people claim that “you can only cook on gas”. That sounds like a cultural problem, not an engineering one.
      The gas era is over, as well as the coal era.

  8. Nick Sharp 3 years ago

    Andrew, I agree with nearly everything you wrote …except some of “battery-powered boats, electric long-haul trucking and even airplanes”.

    I think runabout tinnies might manage a few nautical miles on a bit of lithium, but probably not QE2 type liners, even if they are COVERED in PV panels and only proceed in the day. Ditto long haul trucks. Perhaps sailing ships will make a comeback, using sophisticated new materials and computer controlled sails.

    But planes? Sure, there are experimental ultra light huge wingspan single occupant trials, but it’s really hard to envisage that technology ramped up to 747 size. It will take AGES (if ever) before any battery has the energy density of kerosene, and how do you deliver electrical power in the air – back to propellers? Maybe there’s a case for aviation use of renewably made DMF (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Dimethylformamide) but there’s still the issue of CO2 injection in exactly the wrong place by contrails (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Contrail#Contrails_and_climate).

    Perhaps we will have to alter our ways and take the new sailing ships instead of planes, but who has the patience these days? And what fate lies in wait that way for tourism? With excellent video-conferencing we might be willing to travel less for work.

    And then there’s the lithium. Perhaps that will be superseded by yet another battery technology using much more plentiful materials. I’d like to see some arithmetic on predicted use vs remaining Li resources. Probably half of it is in Bolivia (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Salar_de_Uyuni#Economic_influence) and given that country’s history of being ravaged by foreigners for their metals, they are going to be Very Careful with its extraction and sale. And I doubt it will any time soon be economical to extract it from seawater.

    • Jens Stubbe 3 years ago

      I voted you up but there is actually a battery that has a power density that is adequate for transcontinental flight with planes of any size. Look it up at http://www.phinergy.com

      As for shipping going electric that is also about to happen and a far easier challenge than getting air transportation electrified. The trick is that you can harvest wind power very effectively at sea and it can be virtually free relative to much more pollutive bunker oil. Look it up http://www.treehugger.com/clean-technology/innovative-mega-ship-uses-its-own-hull-sail-faster-cut-fuel-use.html and you can position a more or less classic wind turbine on the deck for a very small cost and use a tiny amount of freed up space below to store the battery capacity needed when the wind does not blow enough.

      There is not and will never be a Lithium shortage. Large parts of Europe and the entire bottom of the middleterranean is covered by huge salt deposit containing all the minerals from the oceans that evaporated and besides sea mining is making huge strides forward.

      I have a friend that has build a truck with 100 km range, which carries a 1600 kilo battery, so better power density is direly needed. This is however also in the making. Look it up at http://sakti3.com that boast three times the power density of the lithium ion batteries currently dominating the marketplace.

      While a lot of nice developments will benefit everybody with better batteries there is still reasons to doubt the “unavoidability” of a battery driven future. First and foremost ICE motors can and will improve tremendously and we will begin to produce Synfuel that can be drop in substations for natural gas, gasoline and Diesel, which means that the enormous fleet of ICE’s and installations based upon fossil fuels can get a lifetime extension and become 100% renewable energy driven. EV’s can also be powered by a range extender and if this range extender uses Synfuel you will get the best of two worlds.

  9. Matt 3 years ago

    If say 50% of the cars on Australia’s roads are replaced with electric vehicles within the next 25 years, what is the required daily kW Hr generation capacity that will have to be installed to charge them up? Presumably this will not be overnight coal fired electricity, so would have to be wind or solar. In the case of solar the charging will have to occur during the day. What would the required solar installation in MW be to be able to reliably charge this fleet even in winter?
    This scenario does not take population growth into account, nor the possibility of a greater percentage of the population using public transport (perhaps electric rail)

  10. BsrKr11 3 years ago

    With the better than expected dealing coming out of COP 21 there is now no excuse for those with the resources to move quickly to enact a 2 year plan that includes: solar and storage, veggie/aquaponics food growing system, water tanks, increased thermal performance of your home.

    As individuals we all have to take personal responsibility for our own footprints – the technology is now here that allows us to do it.

    By doing this we will not only save a shite load of money over time, we will be healthier, more relaxed and have more resilience to absorb any bumps on the road (IE: debt bubble bursting globally) that is now inevitable…

    Don’t wait, get someone who can walk you though the in’s and out intelligently and develop a plan and then take action

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