Widespread deployment of EVs, heat pumps, and other electric technologies could increase U.S. electricity consumption by nearly 40 percent by mid-century, according to a new government report.
The report, the second in the National Renewable Energy Laboratory’s Electrification Futures Study series, analyzes the demand-side impacts of a transition to electricity in transportation, residential and commercial buildings, and industry through 2050.
The report authors developed three scenarios to assess changes in electricity demand growth under varying levels of economy-wide electrification. The scenarios are based on cost and performance projections in the first EFS report, as well as the authors’ review of current trends, the academic literature and use of an updated version of the EnergyPATHWAYS bottom-up modeling tool.
The “reference” scenario anticipates only incremental change in electrification by mid-century. The “medium” scenario assumes “low-hanging fruit” opportunities are harvested but stop short of transformational change in electrification. The “high” scenario envisages a future in which a mix of technology advancements, policy support and consumer enthusiasm “enables transformational change in electrification.”
Sectoral electrification analysis
According to Trieu Mai, NREL senior researcher and lead author of the study, the sector with the most potential for transformational change by 2050 is transportation. Among the three sectors tracked in the study, transportation starts with the smallest electrification share. Transportation accounts for nearly 30 percent of U.S. primary energy consumption but less than 1 percent of electricity demand.
In an interview, Mai said there are ample opportunities for electrification in transportation, especially for the light-duty vehicle fleet. The medium scenario found opportunities for short-haul freight electrification. The high scenario found that “long-haul opportunities do exist but might be contingent on some advancement in battery technologies,” according to Mai.
Market penetration of plug-in electric light-duty vehicles reaches nearly 84 percent in the high scenario — compared to just 11 percent in the reference case. More than 240 million light-duty electric cars and trucks, 7 million medium- and heavy-duty electric trucks, and 80,000 electric buses are estimated to be on the road by 2050 under the same scenario. In all, under the high scenario, electric vehicles account for up to 76 percent of vehicle miles traveled by mid-century.
Buildings and industry start from a higher electrification share and, according to the study, “see less potential for transformational change nationwide.” Increased electrification in commercial and residential buildings could impact the timing of peak electricity demand, shifting some regional power systems from summer to winter peaks.
In the high scenario, electric devices provide up to 61 percent of space heating, 52 percent of water heating, and 94 percent of cooking services in commercial and residential buildings by 2050.
“We do find that heat pump technologies are key technologies in electrification,” said Mai. The high scenario foresees more than 170 million heat pumps providing water heating and space heating and cooling in homes by mid-century.
The extent of the use of heat pumps to provide space heating in the high electrification scenario “could cause a greater increase in winter electricity consumption, particularly in certain regions like the Northeast and Upper Midwest,” said Mai. Under such a scenario, utilities and grid operators will have to plan for both winter and summer peaks.
The report finds that deployment of heat pumps will be more difficult in existing homes compared to new construction.
“The high efficiency and multi-service potential of heat pumps can support their economic attractiveness,” the authors write. “However, barriers to heat pump adoption, such as buildings retrofits and consumer familiarity, might limit growth in sales.”
In industry, the report sees the most potential for electrification in applications that either boost productivity (i.e., those leading to product quality improvements, increased throughputs, reduced scrap, or lower labor costs) or require lower process heat temperatures.
In the high scenario, curing, drying and other low-temperature processes “are in some ways the best candidates for industrial electrification,” said Mai.
Final energy consumption patterns and future research
Economy-wide electrification could deliver utilities a jolt of sustained electricity demand growth after a decade of flat growth. The report found that U.S. electricity consumption could increase by 20 percent under the medium scenario and by 38 percent under the high scenario compared to the reference case.
Under the high scenario, the compound annual growth rate for electricity demand is 1.6 percent. This translates into an increase in electricity consumption of some 80 terawatt-hours annually through 2050 — “pretty unprecedented for a sustained period of time,” according to Mai.
Electricity’s share of total final energy in 2050 reaches 41 percent in the high scenario, up from 19 percent in 2016 and 23 percent in the reference scenario. The shift to electricity in the high scenario also found fuel use reductions of 74 percent for gasoline, 35 percent for diesel, and 37 percent for natural gas in 2050.
But “because electricity end-use technologies are typically more energy efficient to provide the same service per unit of final energy than other technologies,” noted Mai, “that leads to an overall final energy use reduction of about 21 percent by 2050 on annual basis.”
The authors conclude, “This higher overall efficiency of electric technologies is one reason that power demand does not grow even faster.”
Trieu Mai cautioned that electrification efficiency gains may not necessarily lead to an overall decline in fuel use. To answer that question, the EFS series will next investigate the power generation side of the ledger, he said.
Upcoming research will also address the implications of economywide electrification for power generation economics, natural gas usage, fuel exports, and greenhouse gas emissions.
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