The perfectly green electricity grid sought by Joe Biden isn’t the end of the fight against global warming. It’s the beginning.

Today, 40% of America’s electricity comes from carbon-free sources. The Democratic presidential candidate has made getting that to 100% by 2035 a centerpiece of his $2 trillion plan to address climate change and create jobs. Getting there would take an enormous expansion of solar and wind capacity in the U.S., backed by mass adoption of energy-storage technologies and hanging onto existing hydroelectric and nuclear plants.

Policy experts question the 15-year timetable for eliminating emissions from the electrical system, which would indeed be an immense challenge. About a quarter of all U.S. emissions today come from electricity production, according to the U.S. Energy Information Administration. Even California, which launched an all-out push to decarbonize its grid in 2002, set 2045 as its goal. The state also has some of the nation’s highest electricity prices, although renewables are only one reason why. Sweden and Austria both set all-renewables goals to be met within the next 20 years, but they’re also both small and have grids that are already plenty green.

However, many of those same policy experts also agree that a clean grid is an initial leap that will make many other necessary steps possible, helping reduce emissions from transportation, industry, and buildings.

“I call it the first linchpin,” says Leah Stokes, an assistant professor of political science at the University of California, Santa Barbara who researches electric utilities. “As the electricity system cleans up, it unlocks other sectors more easily.”

Not everything could run on clean electricity, at least not immediately. Solar and wind alone may never be able to generate enough energy consistently to power a steel furnace or cement plant, for example, and neither passenger jets nor container ships are ready to be electrified. But the availability of cheap, emissions-free electricity would set off ripple effects throughout the economy, bringing within reach other solutions that once seemed impracticable.

Take the promise of hydrogen. As a fuel, it burns hot and clean, making it an ideal energy source for heavy industry. Right now, hydrogen is produced mainly by splitting hydrogen atoms from natural gas—an emissions-heavy process. If it were its own country, the global hydrogen industry would rank sixth in greenhouse gas emissions, according to 2017 data from energy research firm Wood Mackenzie. “It’s like the size of Germany,” says Merrian Borgeson, staff scientist at the Natural Resources Defense Council environmental group. “Just cleaning that up would be tremendously powerful.”

If those fossil-fuel-powered plants were replaced by ones that use cheap, abundant solar energy to extract hydrogen from water, clean hydrogen could be used to run factories or power plants that now rely on gas, oil or coal. This so-called “green hydrogen” currently supplies less than 1% of the world’s energy needs, according to a report by BloombergNEF. But by 2050, hydrogen from all sources could meet 24% of the world’s energy needs, while the price of green hydrogen could fall to just $1 per kilogram in some of the world’s largest markets, making it competitive against even fossil fuels.

Then there are all the things that can be powered by electricity but usually aren’t. Cars and trucks are the most familiar examples, but work-arounds for gas in stoves and building-wide heating systems are already available, practical, and affordable. Electrifying these things is a start, but to hold warming below the 2° Celsius threshold prescribed by the Paris climate agreement, that electricity also has to come from a carbon-neutral source.

With a cheap, green grid it might even become possible to suck CO₂ straight out of the atmosphere using a nascent technology called direct air capture. Future scenarios modeled by climate scientists in which warming is limited 2° C almost always rely on these negative-emissions technologies. Early versions of direct air capture available today need vast amounts of energy—and using fossil fuel only releases more emissions, defeating the purpose.

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