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Climate change and energy

How electricity could clean up transportation, steel, and even fertilizer

More industries are joining the charge to electrify everything in order to cut emissions.

September 21, 2023
landscape image of glowing electrical wires against a starry night sky
Artur Nichiporenko/Getty Images

This article is from The Spark, MIT Technology Review's weekly climate newsletter. To receive it in your inbox every Wednesday, sign up here.

Have you ever repeated a word so many times it started to sound like gibberish? Try saying “peanut butter,” “roughhousing,” or “warbler” about 50 times, and you’ll be wondering whether the words meant anything to begin with. 

I’m starting to feel that way about “Electrify everything,” a common refrain in climate circles. The basic concept is a simple one: there are some parts of our world that are largely powered directly by fossil fuels, like vehicles or home heating. Meanwhile, renewables power an increasing fraction of the electrical grid every year. So if we can find ways to hook these fossil-fuel-powered systems up to electricity instead, we’ll be well on our way to real climate action. 

People shouting “Electrify everything” often focus on familiar examples like vehicles and homes. But just how far does “everything” go? Can we electrify steel production? What about fertilizer? 

We’re taking on that question in a session at the second annual ClimateTech conference, taking place at MIT on October 4 and 5. I’ll be speaking with folks in different industries to see how much potential electricity has to transform our world, from vehicles to food and agriculture to heavy industry. So as a sneak preview of ClimateTech, let’s take a look at what it might mean to actually electrify everything. 

The state of electrification

The vast majority of the energy we use comes from directly burning some sort of fossil fuel. In 2022, electricity made up just 20% of the world’s total energy use. And that’s actually up from 50 years ago, when it was around 10%. 

These numbers always surprise me when I see them, since I associate energy with plugging something in or flipping on a light switch. But coal provides a huge fraction of energy used in heavy industry for processes like making steel or mining. The vehicles we drive around in are still largely powered by internal-combustion engines that burn gasoline. And many buildings rely on natural gas for heating. 

We need to bump up the fraction of energy we’re getting from electricity to about 27% by 2030 to be on track for net-zero greenhouse-gas emissions, according to the International Energy Agency. 

The good news is that there are major signs of progress in the path to electrification. Electric heat pumps outsold fossil-fuel-based heating systems in the US in 2022 for the first time. In China, electric vehicles made up 29% of new-car sales in 2022

But just how far can electrification go? In a ClimateTech session we’re (of course) calling “Electrify Everything,” I’ll be asking a variety of experts to talk about how electricity and climate tech go hand in hand. 

First up, I’ll be chatting about all things fertilizer with Nico Pinkowski, CEO and cofounder of Nitricity. Nitrogen fertilizer is largely produced using fossil fuels like coal and natural gas today, but Nitricity aims to change that with a reactor that Pinkowski compares to “lightning in a bottle.” Basically, by zapping air in its reactor with electricity, the company can transform nitrogen in the air into a form that the agricultural industry can use to grow bigger, healthier plants. 

Substituting electricity directly might work for some industrial processes, but there’s an alternative vision for some special cases: hydrogen. This fuel can be generated via renewable electricity, and then burned like fossil fuels (without the greenhouse-gas emissions). So using hydrogen is basically a workaround for systems that are difficult to electrify. 

To talk about the potential role of hydrogen generated with electricity, I’ll be chatting with Maria Persson Gulda, CTO of H2 Green Steel. The company just raised about $1.6 billion to build a facility in Sweden that would make steel in a process that cuts emissions 95% relative to traditional manufacturing, and I’m really excited to hear more from her about how that’s going and what’s next for the company. 

And of course we can’t leave out batteries and energy storage in a session about electricity, so I’ll also be speaking with Celina Mikolajczak, chief battery technology officer at Lyten. She’s worked with all the industry leaders in batteries, from Tesla and Quantumscape to Panasonic, so she knows the ins and outs of what it takes to bring new technology into the world. 

If I’ve sparked your interest, register to join us at ClimateTech on MIT’s campus or online. Hope to see you there! 

Related Reading

Cheap renewables could help make green hydrogen a reality. 

While hydrogen is one potential approach to cleaning up steel, Boston Metal is trying to directly electrify the process.

The world of batteries is always changing. Here’s what’s coming next.

Keeping up with climate  

Experts say that in the US, EVs are close to a tipping point, where sales gain enough momentum to take off. Will driver preferences slow that down? (Washington Post)

The United Auto Workers union initiated a strike targeting Ford, GM, and Stellantis last week. EVs are a major issue on the table during negotiations. (Grist)

Upside Foods started selling its lab-grown chicken at a restaurant in California earlier this year. But the company seems to be having some trouble scaling up its manufacturing, according to a new Wired investigation. (Wired)

Upside Foods and Good Meat are both working to make lab-grown chicken and received regulatory approval this year. But scaling production is a massive challenge for both. (Washington Post)

→ Here’s what we know about lab-grown meat and climate change (MIT Technology Review)

Two dams collapsed in Libya after torrential storms, killing thousands and displacing tens of thousands more. The causes of these failures are far from unique. (Scientific American)

The US is building new power lines, but progress still isn’t fast enough to support all the new wind and solar power coming online. (Canary Media)

Deep Dive

Climate change and energy

The problem with plug-in hybrids? Their drivers.

Plug-in hybrids are often sold as a transition to EVs, but new data from Europe shows we’re still underestimating the emissions they produce.

Harvard has halted its long-planned atmospheric geoengineering experiment

The decision follows years of controversy and the departure of one of the program’s key researchers.

Why hydrogen is losing the race to power cleaner cars

Batteries are dominating zero-emissions vehicles, and the fuel has better uses elsewhere.

Decarbonizing production of energy is a quick win 

Clean technologies, including carbon management platforms, enable the global energy industry to play a crucial role in the transition to net zero.

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