Smart Cities

The electrification of everything will reshape how cities get energy

Here are the subtle and obvious ways electrification will change cities.
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Illustration: Morning Brew, Photo: Future Publishing/Getty Images

· 6 min read

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Washington, DC, by 2050. Ithaca, New York, by 2030. Copenhagen by 2025.

These are the carbon-neutral goals for a handful of cities, reflective of the broader push to decarbonize and create smarter, more reliable energy systems. Cities generate more than 70% of global CO2 emissions, and the main sources of energy use in cities are transportation and buildings.

“What municipalities and various subnational levels of government are trying to solve for is decarbonization, as opposed to electrification,” Duncan Rotherham, vice president of beneficial electrification at global advisory firm ICF, told Emerging Tech Brew. “Electrification is a contributor. It’s a means to an end. Our goal isn’t to electrify everything for the heck of it.”

But in 10 or 20 years, largely as a result of these pushes, life and work in cities could be powered differently in both explicit and subtle ways.

New and noticeable

One obvious difference by 2030—if the Biden administration’s push succeeds—will be the presence of EVs and charging infrastructure that will enable much city transportation to run on electricity rather than fossil fuels.

“Not for every mode of transportation, and maybe not equally fast,” Rotherham said. “But it looks like 90% of a municipality’s footprint should [be solved] through electrification.”

Decarbonizing electricity itself will mean increasing the capacity of clean energy sources, like wind and solar. While renewable energy will come from utility-scale generation in some cases, more residential and commercial buildings will need to be outfitted with solar panels and energy storage systems in the near future, Rotherham said.

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“Definitely, we will require more electric energy and it will be more intermittent because it’ll be more renewable-centric, and so we’ll need storage. And so we’ll see a proliferation of storage in homes—the equivalent of the [Tesla] Powerwall solar to create that energy,” he said. “And the ability to not only take energy but also push energy out, depending on whether you’re long or short energy in your home that day.”

Beyond vehicle-to-grid capabilities and energy storage for individual buildings, there will also be a need for neighborhood-level storage infrastructure that can support the use of intermittent renewables on a larger scale, he said.

The energy sources powering buildings will need to change as well. While lighting and cooling already use electricity, more buildings will transition away from natural-gas furnaces for heating. There’s also a serious push to switch gas stoves to induction.

And while Rotherham believes electric air-source heat pumps will eventually displace gas furnaces, he added that the switch will be trickier than electrifying transportation.

“That technology is already, and will continue to be, a great enabler of electrifying building heat. Until it’s not,” he said. “When temperatures outside get very cold, the efficacy of the air-source heat pump declines.”

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Some heat-pump models work “in almost any climate,” performing well even in below-freezing temps, per Consumer Reports, but other models don’t.

This means that the days where cities will need the most power to heat buildings could also be the days that heat pumps are less effective, he said. The electric systems of the future should be built to meet the energy needs on those few coldest days as well as the hottest days.

Behind the scenes

Less obvious infrastructure could be used to provide backup or supplementary power for the times when a city experiences the highest demand for energy, such as the hottest or coldest periods of the year.

Most CO2 reduction plans acknowledge that there will continue to be a need for some fossil fuels as cities transition to cleaner energy, he said, particularly renewable natural gas.

While electric air-source heat pumps could potentially warm buildings 90% of the time, for example, a renewable natural-gas backup system could generate heat on days when there isn’t enough electricity available to meet demand, he said.

Generating enough electricity from low-carbon or zero-carbon sources of electricity in areas that aren’t able to access hydroelectric energy will likely require some nuclear power, Rotherham said.

Increased reliance on electricity will likely require underlying changes to how cities consume energy as well.

“You’re also going to see a proliferation of time-of-use rates for electric energy that incentivize the use of energy when it’s cheap—for cheap—and make it prohibitively expensive when the system is short on electric energy,” he said.

Educating end users, especially residential consumers, will be a necessary part of this shift, Rotherham said.

Technologies like smart meters, smart thermostats, and managed EV charging already exist and can automate the optimization of energy use, as long as distributors have transparency into demand. Dynamic pricing for electricity as well as payments for demand-response events could also help strike a supply-demand balance without major disruptions to city life, he said.

“Commercial and industrial energy end users already have an appreciation for this issue. But for residential energy end users—the literacy related to these different rates will need to be communicated. There’s an education component of it,” he said.

Ultimately, Rotherham said the decarbonization timelines for the most ambitious cities are rapid, relatively speaking.

The energy transition “will seem slow to a [company like] Google. But it will be fast for energy companies, who have to request permission from a commission to deploy infrastructure on behalf of ratepayers. There’s a process that’s very, very important to ensure reliability, affordability, and sustainability,” he said. “There’s probably a little bit too much ambition on velocity, from my perspective, on how quickly this whole thing will change. But it will change. Every day we take longer, it costs us time.”


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