On our way to the electrification of everything


By Jeremy Cook

Our society is seeing a concerted push for the electrification of everything, within a wider goal of shifting from fossil fuels to renewable energy sources. Electrification ranges from battery-powered cars to replacing gas ranges with electric cooktops, supported by updates to infrastructure and smart grid technologies. Of special note are devices like silicon carbide (SiC)-based transistors that allow for efficient switching, along with measurement devices that enable smart energy grids.

Electrification applications


Broadly speaking, the electrification of everything began decades ago, more for the inherent benefits than environmental concerns. Lawn care, for example, was once a fundamentally gas-powered or human-powered endeavor. Today, consumers can purchase an electric lawn mower that they never have to gas up and that is much quieter than its combustion equivalent. This same tech allows us to use power tools without plugging them in, as well as even more advanced robotic lawnmowers that take care of the lawn for us.

In the case of the smartphone, one might posit that the electrification of everything enables a unification of, if not everything, many things. This all-in-one package includes a still camera, video recorder, calculator, GPS locator, and a library, unlike anything the world has seen. Smartphones and miniaturized computing, in general, affect nearly every aspect of our electrified lives.

Consider these areas where electrification is set to expand its influence:

Application #1: Personal transportation

There are roughly 4 million electric vehicles (EVs) on the road in the US today, a number that’s projected to reach 33 million by 2030. We’ve also seen the widespread proliferation of electric bicycles (e-bikes), providing an efficient personal transportation option in many circumstances. The US Energy Information Administration reports that, as of 2022, 27% of US primary energy consumption was for transportation. Further electrification in this field could represent a major shift in fossil fuel consumption.

One can see electrification playing out in the public sector as well, from electrified buses to high-speed trains that run on electricity. This, along with the proliferation of e-bikes, could help alleviate traffic and consume less overall power per person-mile than traditional automobiles. As a current electrification-related win, our increased reliance on telecommuting means a reduced need to “be there” in person. This might not be classified as “electrified transportation” strictly, but it does eliminate much of the need for personal movement, resulting in the same effect.

Application #2: Building management

Building management is slated to become more electrified in the coming years, most notably building heating. Traditionally, heat comes in the form of burning fossil fuels on-site to directly or indirectly heat an area. This can be a chimney and fireplace, a home heating system powered by natural gas, or a whole-building radiator setup using steam.

Electric heat input is an efficient alternative. The basic electrical heating process is to apply electricity to a resistor, which sheds excess energy via heat. What is typically an inefficiency and nuisance (heat in electronics like a computer that requires cooling) is the desired result. At the same time, using electricity for direct resistance heating is typically more expensive than burning gas or other fossil fuels.

As discussed in detail here, a more efficient electrical heating option is to instead use a heat pump. This indirectly transfers heat into a home via a compression cycle and works in the opposite manner as an air conditioner. While this heating method isn’t ideal for extremely low outdoor temperatures, it can work well for building heating in most climates.

Of course, temperature management isn’t the only aspect of keeping a building in its optimum state. Fire and security systems are also important, and overall maintenance may be assisted by machine learning and predictive techniques. User interface functionality can typically be accessed by a standard computer or smartphone, efficiently taking advantage of multi-purpose devices for everything, rather than using dedicated terminals.

Application #3: Industrial processes

Industrial heating is a notable application where electrification faces the same fundamental challenges as building management scenarios. New technologies tailored towards industry are being developed, such as retrofit kits that can efficiently swap out gas burners for electric heating elements. Along with switching from fossil fuels to electric heating, efforts are underway to make existing heating setups more efficient, potentially alleviating some energy needs altogether.

Beyond heating, industries can look at other process energy inefficiencies, such as reducing compressed air use or switching to LED lighting from less efficient incandescent bulbs. Such projects can have an immediate and easily measurable return on investment—a win on both a corporate and overall environmental level.

Enabling tech #1: Smart grid technologies

While electrification of everything seems like a noble goal, the elephant in the room is the fact that our infrastructure is built for today’s needs. Further electrification means increased electrical demand and necessitates supply robustness and flexibility. One innovative concept is a “virtual power plant” where renewable resources and grid storage entities are amalgamated and carefully managed to properly utilize disparate power sources. This concept requires capabilities like two-way metering and a sophisticated control structure to allow smart energy grid concepts to function optimally.

Smart grid components like silicon carbide-based transistors, high-quality IGBTs, and more traditional silicon MOSFETs can allow for power management with minimal losses between energy sources and energy consumers (either of which may change roles as the situation dictates). Current sensing technologies will be critical for knowing when to provide electricity to or consume electricity from resources in a smart power grid and how to bill for these changing situations.

Enabling tech #2: Advances in portable battery technology

While process heating is a decidedly plugged-in affair, many electrified “things” are portable and, therefore, need self-contained power supplies (batteries). Relatively recent battery advances—most notably, lithium-ion (Li-ion) and lithium-polymer (Li-Po) technologies—make portable devices like electric cars and smartphones possible.

From a portable device standpoint, look for further development in Li-Po/Li-ion battery technology, along with associated manufacturing infrastructure to enable more cell production. At the same time, current battery technology has limitations. It’s possible we will see a fundamentally new battery paradigm take over in the not-too-distant future. As explored here, researchers are experimenting with graphene for electrical energy storage, which could allow for much faster electrical charge and discharge cycles than what is currently possible.

Future advancements, further electrification

The pace and methodology of electrification is an open question. Barring some massive unforeseen circumstances, the trend is certainly more electrification. Further computing power at the edge and in the cloud via IoT devices will help push this forward from an infrastructure standpoint, along with advances in SiC and other related technologies.

However electrification shakes out over the coming decades, it may, like the proliferation of smartphones, go unnoticed without conscious consideration. At some point, these electric cars, e-bikes, and other newly electrified technologies will be upon us, tacitly accepted, and (hopefully) make our world a better place. On the other hand, more work is needed to make these technologies viable and to implement the smart grid infrastructure upgrades that will power our further electrified world.

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