A new National Science Foundation-funded study from a Rice University anthropologist will explore how two of the nation’s largest cities are embracing an electric future.
The 18-month research project will be the world’s first major anthropological study of the politics surrounding “electrify everything” movements.
Dominic Boyer, a professor at Rice and a University of Southern California Berggruen Institute fellow for 2021-22, is principal investigator on the project, which examines the growth of electrification initiatives in Houston and Los Angeles. Boyer is focusing on those cities because of their size, energy consumption and emergence as leaders in advancing electrification measures.
"Houston and Los Angeles represent 7.2% of the U.S. GDP and are the largest urban energy consumers in the two states, California and Texas, that themselves use the most energy in the country,” he said. “Los Angeles now leads the nation in installed solar photovoltaic capacity and, with the most electric vehicle chargers in the nation, has set ambitious targets for electric vehicle adoption — 80% of new car sales by 2028. Meanwhile, Houston, the nation’s largest municipal purchaser of renewable electricity since 2013, has pledged to power 100% of all municipal operations through renewables by 2025 and to electrify 8,000 city-owned vehicles by 2030.”
Weaning off fossil fuels remains the subject of intense attention in the U.S., with the Biden administration setting the ambitious goal of a carbon-neutral electricity grid by 2035.
“Virtually every scenario for the rapid decarbonization of the global economy involves a significantly expanded role for electricity in the future energy mix,” Boyer said. “Given new efficiencies and shorter supply chains, a recent study has calculated that an ‘electrify everything’ approach to energy, transportation and buildings could potentially save as much as 60% of the energy currently being consumed in the U.S. alone.”
The project will focus on three areas Boyer said are essential if Houston and Los Angeles hope to replace fossil fuels: urban electricity generation programs; vehicle electrification programs and charging options; and green building programs that seek to reduce carbon footprints through efficiency and electrification measures.
“It’s an incredibly exciting time to study the human dimension of rapid electrification because in just the past few years so many new projects have been rolling out,” he said. “The era of the internal combustion engine and gas appliances is rapidly coming to an end. Pretty soon rooftop solar and storage will become available to rental apartment buildings. … These changes will reshape the everyday life of Americans in ways we don’t yet fully understand.”
Boyer will examine the interactions of major stakeholder groups — including state and local governments, electrical utility administrators and engineers, energy transition entrepreneurs, electrification experts and environmental activists — to identify who is leading the public conversation about electrification. Ultimately, he hopes to uncover the political forces and dynamics influencing the design and implementation of electrification initiatives and determine how effective stakeholders are in communicating their vision to the public.
The project is funded by National Science Foundation Grant No. 2148673, “Multi-Level Negotiations in Electric Infrastructure Planning.”