Electrification Nation?

Natural gas, once the darling to replace carbon-intensive coal in electricity production, is increasingly being recognized as a significant cause of greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions that are fueling climate change. The main component of natural gas is methane, which when leaked through power production or pipeline supply, is 84 times more potent than carbon dioxide (CO2) over a 20-year period, according to the United Nations Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change.

Natural gas has also contributed to the largest increase in U.S. CO2 emissions in recent times, accounting for over 50% of the growth in the past few years. Some policymakers with a focus on climate action are taking notice and advancing rules to limit natural gas use in the built environment, sparking new programs and policies favoring electrification. Two paths driving this trend relate to policy approaches and technology advancement.

Policies Driving Action

Momentum to “electrify everything” seems to have taken hold in California where policies are increasingly adopted. Greenhouse gas reductions are the impetus for action, but the benefits of electrification can go beyond GHG mitigation. New research shows that converting equipment and appliances from gas to electric delivers healthier air both inside and outside buildings by reducing the release of toxic particulates and gases.

Over 30 cities in California have adopted some form of electrification codes, but a number of other cities in states across the country have also moved forward since last fall on policies favoring electrification. Brookline (MA), Bellingham (WA), Park City (UT), Takoma Park (MD), and Ann Arbor (MI) are among a growing list of cities considering or proposing measures that would prevent natural gas supply to new projects and incentivize electrification of existing buildings. In response, lawmakers in states such as Arizona, Minnesota, and Tennessee are pushing legislation that would block municipal electrification mandates. For a complete list of states with fuel-neutral goals or fuel-switching prohibitions, see ACEEE’s policy briefing, “State Policies and Rules to Enable Beneficial Electrification in Buildings through Fuel Switching.”

Beneficial Electrification. To make sense of when electrification is the right policy decision, the Regulatory Assistance Project (RAP) developed a “beneficial electrification” standard that states electrification policies must meet one or more of the following conditions without adversely affecting the other two:

  • Saves consumers money over the long run:
  • Enables better grid management; and
  • Reduces negative environmental impacts.

There are six principles developed by RAP to help policymakers and regulators determine how electrification strategies “broadly secure the benefits” including: 1) putting efficiency first; 2) recognizing the value of flexible load for grid operations, 3) understanding the emissions effects of change in load; 4) using emissions efficiency to measure the air impacts of beneficial electrification; 5) accounting for the life of investments, and 6) designing rates to encourage beneficial electrification.

Electrification Adopted into the 2021 IECC. Whether states and cities locally are going all-in with electrification, nationally they signaled that they are ready to move in that direction with recent votes to adopt three of the first-ever electrification proposals in the 2021 International Energy Conservation Code (IECC). The IECC is a national model energy code and adopted by most states for new construction requirements for buildings.

The new IECC proposals address code changes in both the residential and commercial sectors and are intended to lower future costs of electrification on the home or building owner by installing the requisite wiring infrastructure at the time of construction. The 2021 IECC as voted on last December represents at least a 10% efficiency improvement over the previous version. However, the code update, which was officially accepted by the International Code Council Board of Directors in early April, is currently under an appeals process.

This water heater is 350% efficient: a feat achievable because the heat pump moves heat from air to water rather than generating heat through gas combustion or electric resistance elements. Photo Credit: Alexi Miller.

Growing Market Share of Critical Technologies

Electric versions of appliances that typically burn natural gas in buildings are available on the market today and efforts to increase the visibility and market share of the electric products are underway. The three critical end uses targeted for building electrification are cooking, water heating, and space heating. A new research study called the Building Electrification Technology Roadmap (BETR) is due out later this summer to provide information, data, and direction on residential and commercial electric technologies for multiple building types and ages that support efficiency programs and policymakers in their drive toward electrification.

The research, conducted by New Buildings Institute (NBI), the Building Decarbonization Coalition (BDC) and the Electric Power Research Institute (EPRI), will characterize the technical readiness, product availability, site barriers, and the GHG emissions reduction potential of a wide range of product options.

Heat Pump Water Heaters (HPWHs). HPWHs represent less than 2% market share currently, but manufacturers, installers, utilities and others are working to increase availability of products and installation in homes and multifamily buildings. In addition to their energy-saving capabilities, HPWHs help provide support to the grid as they use less power at peak times, deliver highly efficient thermal storage, and can interact with the grid through smart communications.

Induction Stoves. There is a genuine difference in terms of temperature control between cooking on gas ranges and traditional radiant electric ranges. However, electric induction ranges are found to be capable of heating food faster with better fine-tuning of cooking temperature than gas burners. These stovetops use an electromagnetic field to “induce” heat directly in ferrous metal pots and pans and since they heat only the pots and pans, advocates say induction cooking is safer than gas or electric resistance cooking with lower risk of fires and burns to cooks and kids. Induction ranges also put less heat into the kitchen sparking interest from the restaurant industry where a few leading chefs have already gone all-electric due to the controllability of temperature and improved comfort in their commercial kitchens.  Restaurant owners also are taking note due to significant energy savings from the reduced cooling and ventilation load compared with a gas kitchen.

Induction stoves heat only the cookware and offer best-in-class cook times, responsiveness, and energy efficiency.

Cold climate heat pumps can provide heat to the house even down to 17 degrees Fahrenheit in cold winter months. Photo Credit: Catamount Solar, Vermont

Space Heating Heat Pumps. Heat pumps are widely used for heating residential homes and commercial buildings but much less so than their counterparts of gas furnaces, roof top units and boilers. Continued advances in the efficiency of heat pumps, which deliver two to three times as much heat per unit of energy than gas technologies, combined with the policy trends toward decarbonization and meeting climate goals, are putting a spot light on this all-electric alternative, which provides both heating and cooling service.

A 2020 Vision for 2030 Goals

2030 looms as the deadline for many city and state commitments to achieve carbon emission reductions. Along with the growth in a clean grid driven by renewables and increased electric vehicles, building electrification trends are also likely to grow especially in new construction projects. However, states and cities will still face challenges including regional priorities, cost-tests of electrification, and the sheer number of existing buildings that require electrification retrofits.

by Stacey Hobart, Director of Communications