Our modern societies would not function for a day without electricity. However, almost all of the carbon dioxide released by humans is a consequence of energy production, and out of this about 25% is in the form of electricity. Luckily for us and the climate, electricity is fairly easy to produce emission-free – which is why electrifying our societies is a possible route to carbon neutrality.
Today, electricity powers pretty much everything we do: from our computers and kitchen appliances at home to medical equipment in the nearest hospital — and soon also the cars we drive. Electrifying as much of society as possible is the only way to reach carbon neutrality fast enough. That's why in the future, even more of the services we need will be powered by electricity. But how can electricity be the solution, when it is already responsible for a significant share of global emissions?
A majority of the carbon dioxide released by us humans is a consequence of energy ( i.e. heat, electricity and fuel for transport) production — and out of this about 25% is in the form of electricity. The main reason electricity generation causes emissions is our use of fossil fuels: by burning fossilised plants, we release the carbon dioxide captured over millions of years back into the atmosphere where it prevents heat from reflecting back to space and heats the planet.
65% of all electricity is produced by burning fossil fuels, i.e. coal, natural gas, or oil (IEA, 2020). Of these, coal is the most common fuel, and is used to generate electricity in what is called a combustion process: hot steam obtained from the burning of coal propels a turbine that spins a generator to generate electricity. As the coal burns, carbon dioxide is formed. The same general principles apply to all electricity generated by different fossil fuels.
The trick is, that there are other ways of producing electricity than through the emission-producing combustion process. Out of the three forms in which humanity uses energy — electricity, heat and fuel for transport — electricity is the easiest to produce without causing emissions, i.e. without burning anything. This is the reason why electrification of society is the most viable path to carbon neutrality. Think of it like this: whatever fuel you fill up your car with, the combustion engine will burn it, which causes emissions. If your car is equipped with an electric motor instead, there’s no burning involved when you step on the gas — and almost no emissions at all if the electricity you’ve loaded your battery with was produced emission-fee.
Emission-free electricity can be produced in a variety of ways:
In addition to renewable electricity, nuclear power and any power production using carbon capture, utilisation and storage technology is emission-free.
Renewable energy in particular has had a reputation of being very expensive, but as a matter of fact, it is often cheaper than using fossil fuels these days, as you can see in the chart below. As the technologies develop and become more common, the costs drop. Especially for solar and wind power, the prices have dropped dramatically over the last decade.
There are a few significant reasons for it:
Rome wasn’t built in a day, and neither is an emission-free electricity system. Electricity needs to be consumed immediately after it has been generated (unless you store it in for example a battery — more on that in a minute), which means that the supply and demand in the electricity grids always have to be in balance. Some renewable energy sources such as wind and power are variable, meaning we can’t entirely control the generation. When the sun goes down, so does solar generation, and when the wind dies down, wind generation follows. Though both solar and wind power are vital parts of the solution, investing in these are not enough.
To make sure we have enough electricity to power our needs, we also need to invest in:
The technology enabling 100% emission free power systems already exists, but in some cases it is still quite expensive. It is also a question of time: today, we use a massive amount of electricity that is produced by coal, oil or gas. It will take a while before we have replaced most of it with renewable or emission-free sources, added carbon capture solutions to the rest, and strengthened the grid so that it can handle all the variable electricity generation.
There are encouraging examples where the share of renewables in electricity production is already very high: in the Nordics, for example, 70% of electricity is renewable (IEA, 2020). In Sweden and Norway, most of the electricity is produced with hydro power, while Iceland has both hydro and geothermal resources.
In addition to renewable electricity, nuclear power and any power production using carbon capture, utilisation and storage technology is emission-free. The share of emission-free electricity globally is 35% and in the Nordics it is 93% (IEA, 2020).
Since it will take some time to replace all conventional power plants with emission-free ones, reducing electricity consumption — and consequently the burning of fossil fuel — is a huge climate action. And by selecting certified renewable electricity (or nuclear power) to your home, you support the production of emission-free electricity.
But how can you be sure that the electricity you pay for is actually renewable? Technically, when looking at physical electricity or moving electrons, you can’t. All electricity produced within the national borders or imported is fed into the same power grid, from where it finds its way into our homes. Yet, selecting a renewable electricity contract has an impact on how big a share of the Finnish electricity mix comes from renewable energy sources. If for example 60% of Finns pay for certified renewable electricity, the same amount of electricity that this 60% consumes has to be produced using renewables.
Check our other top tips on how to reduce emissions from electricity below.
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Linda holds a Master’s in Media and Communication and is passionate about science communication, dogs and vegan food.