For 25 years, I mowed my yard with a gas-powered Toro lawn mower. A year ago, I switched to a battery-powered mower from Ego and I’m never going back. No more gas, oil, filters or spark plugs. Not only is it lighter, easier to use and quieter, but I feel more virtuous now that I don’t see that cloud of exhaust smoke every time I start mowing. It turns out that lawn mowers are a significant source of pollution and greenhouse gases. According to the California Air Resources Board, running a common gas-powered mower for an hour produces pollution equal to driving a typical Toyota Camry 270 miles. 
My string trimmer and leaf blower are electric as well. Improvements in battery technology over the past 10 years have made electric motors competitive with gas engines for all sorts of devices. Electric cars are an obvious example, with new models announced almost weekly and with Tesla now being the sixth most valuable company on the planet (and much more valuable than any other car manufacturer). Amazon recently announced that they will buy 100,000 electric delivery vans from Rivian – a Tesla competitor – and UPS and FedEx have similar initiatives. Ford received so many pre-orders for its upcoming electric pickup (the F150 Lightning) that it stopped taking them. Electric boats and even electric airplanes are also making headlines.
Amazon delivery vans by Rivian
And it is not just battery powered devices that are making news. New York City recently passed a law phasing out the use of natural gas for new buildings, starting in 2023. This essentially means that heating and cooking in new buildings will be all electric. This trend to ban fossil fuels in the building industry started just a few short years ago in Berkeley, California, but has now spread to dozens of communities (mostly on the west coast). 
So what is going on and what does this mean for the future of cities? In this third post in my series on future trends, I will do my best to sort it all out. Climate change was one of the “mega trends” that I identified in the first post in the series, and that is the principle impetus behind the shift toward electricity. But climate change is not the only driving force – user convenience and public health are also important factors – and the implications for our society and our cities are more complicated than you might think.
Reliability and Resilience
Fifty years ago, it was annoying to have your power go out but probably not debilitating. Homes in the midwest in particular, often had natural gas or propane for home heating, cooking and hot water. A small generator and a little ingenuity might be required to get the furnace fan to blow, but most people could get by for several hours or even several days. In all likelihood your phone still worked (landline), your gas powered car was unaffected, and many homes had wood-burning fireplaces.
Now outages are more serious and in ten years when many people will be living and working in an all electric environment, it might be really serious, especially for people who lose power for several days. Unfortunately, electric system reliability in the United States is toward the bottom in comparison with other advanced countries and it doesn’t seem to be improving. Generally speaking, utility companies are incentivized to provide decent reliability but not exceptional reliability. Just look at the chaos caused by a freak winter storm in Texas last year. Millions were left without power because (among other things) under-insulated equipment froze at power plants leaving about half the state’s generating capacity offline. State regulators had warned of this possibility several years earlier but no action was taken.
A recent report looked at five years of outage data (2015 - 2019) to determine which states were the most (and least) prone to problems. Maine, West Virginia, Louisiana, Alaska and Tennessee had the most outages (over 2 per customer per year) while the District of Columbia, Wisconsin, Utah, Massachusetts and Arizona had the fewest (1 outputage per customer per year or less). Florida, Maine, South Carolina, West Virginia and Georgia had the longest average outage duration (nearly 15 hours for Florida customers) while the District of Columbia, Massachusetts, Delaware, Iowa and Arizona had the shortest average outage duration (all less than 2 hours).  Weather events were the most common cause for outages, but equipment failures and accidents were also significant.
The statistics above are measures of reliability which is, of course, important to nearly everyone. Equally important is the concept of resiliency, however, which is the ability to recover from an extensive and extremely damaging event. Natural disasters such as the Katrina, Sandy or Harvey hurricanes would fall into that category but there is increasing concern about physical or cyber attacks from either criminals or terrorists. Although the typical power outage is measured in hours, catastrophic events can have outages measured in weeks. How would your community react to such an extended outage?
Severe weather is the most common cause of an extended outage, but wildfires or earthquakes can have similar results. Sometimes, simple equipment failure can have devastating effects. In 1965, a power line failure in Ontario caused a cascading sequence of failures throughout the northeast that eventually put 30 million people in the dark. PG&E’s pattern of deferred maintenance on old equipment – combined with high winds and drought – not only caused massive wildfires in California and the loss of power for days, but also caused rolling blackouts throughout much of the state.
If the general consensus of climate scientists is correct, we have considerable cause to be worried about resiliency. The current working theory is that warmer oceans, a warmer atmosphere, and a warmer arctic will lead to a wide variety of more erratic and more severe weather events. Not just heat waves and droughts, but stronger hurricanes, torrential rainstorms, unexpected blizzards, and high winds are all expected results. In short, weather events severe enough to cause major outages may become more common. As we continue to become more dependent on electricity, both reliability and resiliency need to improve.
How “Green” is Electricity?
The issue of climate change is pushing our society toward electrification because of the general perception that it is an environmentally friendly source of power. After all, when I turn on my electric mower no greenhouse gases are spewing from the exhaust. Unfortunately, reality is a little more complicated. Electricity is only as “green” as the power plants that produce it and currently our country is still heavily reliant on fossil fuels for power generation. In 2020, approximately 60 percent of electrical generation was from fossil fuels (coal, natural gas, petroleum, etc.), 19 percent was from nuclear power plants, 20 percent was from utility-scale renewable sources (hydro, wind, solar, biomass and geothermal), and the final one percent was from small-scale solar systems.
The good news is that the vast majority of new generating capacity planned over the next several years is coming from renewable sources (primarily solar and wind). Fossil fuels (mostly natural gas) should account for less than 20 percent of the new capacity. Still, it will be a long time before electricity in the US is predominantly from renewable sources because existing fossil fuel power plants are likely to stay in operation for decades unless there is a financial penalty (e.g. a carbon tax) that changes the current financial equation.
Despite the fact that electrical generating capacity in most parts of the country is at least 50 percent fossil fuel based, switching to electrical devices is still an environmentally friendly decision. My old gas mower, after all, was powered by 100 percent fossil fuel and was never going to produce less greenhouse gas than it did the year before. As the mix for electrical generation becomes more biased toward renewable sources, my electric mower will become greener and greener over time.
The Rise of Renewables
One of the most remarkable stories in the power industry has been the rapid rise of renewable energy – principally wind turbines and solar panels – over the past 15 years or so. Starting from a base of virtually nothing, wind and solar facilities have exploded to now account for over 10 percent of generating capacity in a conservative industry where change typically happens slowly. Additionally, wind and solar facilities are slated to account for roughly 70 percent of the new capacity built in the next few years. This rise in capacity has largely come at the expense of coal-fired power plants which now produce only 40 percent of what they did just 10 years ago.
Generous government subsidies played a significant role in jump-starting this growth, but it has remained strong because technical innovations and economies of scale have resulted in a steep decline in the cost per kilowatt hour (kWh). Wind and solar are now cost competitive with other forms of electrical generation even without subsidies, and in many situations are the lowest cost solution. Interestingly – and contrary to what some conservative politicians might lead you to believe – subsidies for wind and solar are arguably lower than the early subsidies given to coal, oil and gas producers (some of which are still in place). 
Levelized Cost of Electricity Over the Past Decade
Source: Lazard and Popular Science
Different forms of power production are compared by what is known as the “levelized cost of electricity” (LCOE) which is the average net present cost of electricity generated by a plant over its lifetime. There are lots of assumptions that go into this type of calculation (e.g. the cost of capital, the future cost of fuel, or the assumed level of utilization), but even calculations done by different organizations have come to similar conclusions. Looking at the LCOE over the past decade or so shows why wind and solar have become so popular.
Based on the chart above, it would be easy to assume that every new power generation project should be either solar or wind. Unfortunately, LCOE is concerned only with costs which ignores the fact that not all electricity is of equal value to the electrical grid. Electricity generated now provides a different value than electricity generated several hours from now because demand for electricity varies throughout the day and electrical storage is expensive. Electricity generated farther from demand centers is less valuable than nearby generation because transmission is expensive. Generation that is easy to predict is more valuable than unpredictable generation because it helps system operators balance supply and demand. 
Finally, LCOE does not include costs that are external to the power generating process such as the cost to the public health from polluted air or the potential cost of adapting to climate change. This is particularly important to activists intent on saving the planet from greenhouse gases. It is also important to CEOs concerned with what is known as ESG investing. Shareholder concerns over “environmental, social and governance issues” (ESG) are pushing corporations toward renewable energy regardless of its cost.
Dispatchable versus Intermittent
The primary disadvantage of both solar and wind is that they can only produce power when the sun is shining or the wind is blowing. Since electric utilities must constantly adjust supply to meet fluctuating demand, it is unlikely that “intermittent” forms of power generation like wind and solar will ever provide 100 percent of our power needs on their own. What is particularly valuable to a utility company is a power source that can be started quickly and which has an output that can be easily and economically ramped up or down to meet peak demands. This characteristic, known as a “dispatchable” power source, has historically been met primarily by hydroelectric and natural gas powered plants. Natural gas has risen dramatically in popularity over the past 20 years partly because of its dispatchable nature, and partly because (a) costs have been dropping, (b) it is a much cleaner burning fuel than coal, and (c) gas generating plants can be built quickly in a wide variety of locations.
Despite its popularity, natural gas is still a fossil fuel and using it to generate electricity is not popular among climate change activists. What seems likely to rise up to take its place as the primary dispatchable power source are new forms of energy storage (e.g. batteries). Storing electricity when supply exceeds demand and then releasing it when demand exceeds supply is the ultimate dispatchable source of energy. Until recently, this type of storage has been too expensive to be widely used, but plummeting costs for lithium-ion batteries have made utility-scale storage more economical. Battery packs which cost $1,200 per kilowatt-hour in 2010 have fallen to less than $150. The U.S. had less than a gigawatt of large battery installations in 2020 but is on pace to add six gigawatts in 2021 and nine gigawatts in 2022.  What’s more, electrical storage pairs up almost ideally with intermittent power supplies such as wind and solar. It is at least conceivable that renewable energy sources combined with storage technologies could supply 100 percent of our electricity needs at some point in the future.
Lithium-ion batteries, of course, have their own environmental issues to deal with such as a mining process for lithium that creates toxic byproducts and is extremely water intensive. Fortunately, there is a broad array of storage technologies that may well replace lithium-ion batteries for utility scale storage in the next 5 to 10 years.  Some surplus electricity may even be used to create “green hydrogen” which, in turn, may end up powering trucks, trains, cargo ships and commercial airplanes that currently burn petroleum products and which may not be a great fit for battery power.
Utility scale storage
So what does the future hold and how will cities be affected? I’m going to start with seven predictions about our society’s energy future and then propose five steps that cities should take to get ready for that future. As always, you should bear in mind that I could be completely wrong (but I don’t think so).
Renewables (especially solar) will dominate new energy projects. There is an enormous amount of investment and innovation in solar technology and solar energy projects (and to a lesser extent, wind and other renewables). Consequently, I think that the cost per kilowatt-hour – which is already compelling – will become even more attractive over time to the point where developers and utilities will be scrambling to find suitable sites. It is possible that community-scale solar projects in urban settings will be the next real estate boom. Wind, hydro and geothermal are hardly ever located in cities at any significant scale, so solar installations are what cities need to be ready for.
Fossil fuels won’t go away any time soon. Coal may dwindle to insignificance in the next 20 years (aside from third world countries), but natural gas will be relevant for the foreseeable future. It is simply too economical and too useful. In addition, many existing plants can continue to produce power at a cost that is lower than the cost of building a new renewable facility and decommissioning the old gas facility.
The push to electrify your life will continue. One by one, the devices in your life that used to run on fossil fuels will be replaced with devices that are powered by electricity (or perhaps hydrogen created by electricity). This will be an uneven process and there will always be holdouts, but it is more a matter of when then if. Devices such as a heat pump (for heating and cooling), an induction range (for cooking), and a tankless electric water heater are likely to become the norm in place of their natural gas equivalents. In addition, advances in automation and artificial intelligence will be creating new devices (e.g. mobile robots for home, work and delivery purposes) that will almost all be powered by electricity.
Utility scale electrical storage will be commonplace. As the cost of electrical storage continues to drop, it will become the preferred technique for providing dispatchable power. In addition, the ability for storage to be distributed throughout a service area has significant advantages for grid reliability and resilience. Finally, storage pairs well with intermittent power sources such as wind and solar.
Microgrids will become a popular way to increase resiliency. Currently, electrical grids generally cover all or much of each utility company's service area as a unified entity. A relatively new option, however, is to create a smaller sub-grid that normally operates in unison with the main grid but which can operate independently with its own control systems and its own generating and/or storage capacity when the primary grid is experiencing outages. This approach could be used, for example, by a college campus, large industrial facility or government complex to boost both reliability and resiliency, and possibly reduce energy costs as well. Even upscale residential projects may want their own microgrid so that they can offer a high level of energy reliability to potential residents.
Artificial intelligence will become essential for managing complexity. Utility companies are used to working with predictable power supplies such as coal or nuclear power plants. The unpredictability of solar and wind make balancing power supply with power demand much more complicated. Add in new technologies associated with storage devices and microgrids, and complexity ratchets up even further. Fortunately, system controls powered by artificial intelligence will provide a way to deal with the added complexity and provide additional reliability as well. 
Electricity demand and price will both rise in the short run. During the last half of the 20th century, demand for electricity grew rapidly. The past 20 years has seen that growth slow to a crawl due mainly to improvements in energy efficiency, but total demand is expected to continue to increase slowly as more devices are powered with electricity, particularly electric vehicles.
|U.S. City Average Price of Electricity - 1980 to 2020
Source: Federal Reserve of St Louis
Despite the relatively low cost of wind and solar power, the average price of electricity per kilowatt hour is likely to continue historical trends and go up slightly in the near term. Transmission costs, storage costs and grid control costs are likely to outweigh improvements in generation costs. In addition, utility companies are learning from PG&E’s experience in California that deferred maintenance can cost them millions if something goes wrong. In the long term, the greater efficiency of wind and solar should lead to a decline in prices. But even though fuel costs are zero for most renewable power sources, the cost of the power generation and distribution infrastructure will never go away. This means that electrical power costs may decline but will not approach zero in the foreseeable future.
Given these predictions, what should cities do to prepare for the changes that are coming? Aside from the few cities that run their own electric utility, most cities have historically stayed away from direct involvement with issues related to the generation or distribution of electricity. Most utility companies have someone who acts as a liaison with local governments, but utility companies are more concerned about state regulators than city officials. That “arm's length” relationship, in my opinion, needs to change. The following suggestions may not be able to be implemented immediately, but they should at least be considered and implemented as opportunities arise.
Include the electrical grid in planning efforts. Most cities have a comprehensive plan that addresses the physical form of the city in the future, but few of them look seriously at the electrical grid. Cities need to discuss how committed they are to renewable power generation and under what circumstances they would allow a community- or utility-scale facility within their jurisdiction. Lower power costs and better reliability are attractive benefits, but opposition because of aesthetics or environmental impacts may be surprisingly strong. The American Planning Association has an excellent resource called the Solar@Scale Guidebook that can help get things started.
Improve your city’s relationship with the local electric utility. At a minimum, the city planning department should have regular meetings with planners from the local utilities. Explain that you want to help facilitate changes that will increase the reliability and resilience of the local grid, and diversify their power generation sources to include renewable energy. Ask for their input on local codes. There will probably be disagreements from time to time, but there may be more common ground than you expect and a cooperative relationship is better than an antagonistic one.
Review zoning regulations for unnecessary obstacles. Most cities have regulations in place that deal with small scale renewable energy generators like solar panels on residential or commercial rooftops. But what about a high school or community college that wants to cover 10 or 20 acres of parking lot with solar panels that double as shade structures? Or an airport authority that wants to place 200 acres of solar panels on the open space that is required around airport runways? Or a utility company request to place distributed electrical storage at 30 locations across the community? As the demand for green energy increases and the costs decline, these types of requests are likely to become common. Cities should have reasonable procedures and requirements already defined in their zoning ordinance rather than have to make something up on the fly.
Review building codes in light of electrification trends. Should new residences be required to have a roof structure strong enough to support solar panels, or a 200 amp electrical service capable of supporting Level 2 charging for an EV? Should natural gas ranges be prohibited as a potential health risk or environmental hazard? My guess is that conservative midwestern cities will avoid taking these stands, but they should at least be explored with community leaders. Even if there are no mandates in the building code, cities should also discuss these issues with their local builders so that they are considered as construction decisions are made. Adding capacity during construction is far less expensive than retrofitting five years later.
Plan for the unexpected. Virtually every city has an emergency preparedness plan that accounts for the possibility of severe weather, such as a tornado or ice storm. What may be needed, however, is a plan that accounts for both an increased frequency of events and a broader range of events. The suburban communities north of Denver probably did not have a plan in place for wildfires fueled by severe drought and wind gusts over 100 miles per hour at a time when the ground normally would be covered in snow.
To the degree that electrification trends are viewed as being about convenience or cost savings, they are not likely to be controversial. But it will be a different story for changes that are associated with climate activists, particularly if they are perceived as increasing costs or reducing lifestyle choices. Conservative politicians may frame them as actions designed by liberals to control how ordinary citizens live their lives, and many ordinary citizens will agree. Fostering community discussions that are focused on the advantages and disadvantages of each aspect of change will help local politicians make reasonable decisions and stay in office at the same time.
Thoughts? As always, share your thoughts and ideas by leaving a comment below or sending me an email at firstname.lastname@example.org. Want to be notified whenever I add a new posting? Send me an email with your name and email address.
Brooke Sutherland; “The Next Electric Frontier is Your Backyard”; Bloomberg Opinion; May, 2021; https://www.bloomberg.com/opinion/articles/2021-05-21/lawn-mowers-are-the-next-electric-frontier
Rebecca Leber; “Is this the beginning of the end of gas stoves and dirty heat in buildings?”; Vox; December, 2021; https://www.vox.com/2021/12/16/22834653/new-york-gas-ban-buildings-climate-change-gas-stoves
Joe Kaminski; “The Most and Least Power Outages by U.S. State”; MRO Electric, Inc.; March 2021; https://www.mroelectric.com/blog/most-least-power-outages/
Nancy Pfund and Ben Healey; “Should the government subsidize alternative energy?”; Yale Insights, Yale School of Management; December, 2011; https://insights.som.yale.edu/insights/should-the-government-subsidize-alternative-energy
Laura Valeri; “Not All Electricity is Equal - Uses and Misuses of Levelized Cost of Electricity”; World Resources Institute; August, 2019; https://www.wri.org/insights/insider-not-all-electricity-equal-uses-and-misuses-levelized-cost-electricity-lcoe
Jennifer Hiller and Katherine Blunt; “Electric Grid Cranks Up Batteries”; The Wall Street Journal; December 22, 2021.
David Roberts; “Getting to 100 percent renewables requires cheap energy storage. But how cheap?”; Vox; September, 2019; https://www.vox.com/energy-and-environment/2019/8/9/20767886/renewable-energy-storage-cost-electricity
Jim Magill; “As It Undergoes Transformation, U.S. Power Grid Embraces AI”; Forbes; March, 2021; https://www.forbes.com/sites/jimmagill/2021/03/29/as-it-undergoes-transformation-us-power-grid-embraces-ai/?sh=16af686e7a52