Subscribe to our newsletters & stay updated
For a long time, environmentalism was a polarized, partisan conversation in North America. As freak occurrences such as incredibly intense storms, fires, floods and heatwaves in the north and south poles have increased in frequency, more and more people have been showing an interest in technology that does not require fossil fuels to operate. The COVID-19 pandemic has given us pause to re-evaluate many of the assumptions about how we do things and the aggregate impacts of our actions.
More people are listening to what scientists have to say, and policy planners are looking to another group of experts — engineers. They want to know what works and what can be scaled up. One of the critical questions is: Can we truly electrify all our buildings and vehicles? What impact will it have on our electricity infrastructure?
Not surprisingly, the gas industry in North America has been advancing the argument that if we replaced every fossil-fueled heating appliance and gas-powered car with heat pumps and electric vehicles, the extra electricity would overwhelm the power grid. Is this true?
Will Heat Pumps Overpower the Grid?
This was the crux of some rate case arguments that have taken place in New York state in the past few years as utilities have sought to build more pipelines and community gas infrastructure there. Geothermal and other clean energy organizations provided case examples and study data that challenges this assumption.
Bob Wyman, a consultant specializing in beneficial electrification, argued that because air-source heat pumps are generally two or three times more efficient than a gas furnace and ground-source heat pumps three to five times more efficient, they could provide the needed BTUs more quickly than expected.
When it comes to air-source heat pumps in the northern areas where they provide heating as well as cooling, even the newest cold-weather models are usually accompanied by improvements to the building envelope to ensure comfort during the coldest seasons. It would seem to be an advantage for the gas industry position, except for certifications such as passive house and net-zero that require tight envelopes and more insulation. These methods are sweeping through the new build construction market as cities seek ways to meet emissions reduction targets, and builders try a variety of cleaner heating devices.
With geothermal, there is no heat pump penalty. Ground-source performance is equal to or better than gas furnace performance in every application I’ve seen.
In Canada, where there is no shortage of cold-weather building designers, similar discussions about gas vs. heat pumps are now taking place with the federal government.
Wyman joined a Canadian policy webinar in June with some of these technical experts. They told officials from five ministries the New York policy story: Five years ago, if builders, homeowners and business owners wanted to move away from fossil fuels, they would be penalized under energy conservation programs. Now, many court cases and research studies later, fuel switching is a primary focus for government policy.
The New York State Energy Research and Development Authority is providing multi-pronged support to quickly ramp up a wholesale move into cleaner buildings, both new and retrofit. It includes incentive grants, low-interest loans and training boosts for installers, designers and inspectors.
Sweden Adds Geothermal, Reduces Power Use
During the Canadian federal government exploratory, Martin Luymes, vice president of government and stakeholder relations for the Heating Refrigeration and Air Conditioning Institute of Canada, reviewed a useful case study about how Sweden chose to move from fossil fuels to encouraging and supporting widespread adoption of ground-source systems.
User incentive programs and training were beefed up and, since 1994, sales of heat pumps have totaled about 40 percent to 70 percent of the HVAC system sales each year. Currently, more than half the homes in the country are heated and cooled by heat pumps, mostly ground source. Luymes presented a map of Swedish neighborhoods with numerous boreholes to dispel the myth that the ground cannot support widespread adoption.
In 1975, the country was using more than 9,000,000 cubic meters of heating oil; by 2014, this had dropped to about 500,000, with corresponding reductions in greenhouse gas emissions. Nevertheless, electricity use did not increase. It went down nearly 30 percent, helped partly by improving heat pump efficiencies. Power grid managers were able to adapt, the country eliminated its dependence on imported oil, and homes and businesses saved a lot of energy cost. You can read more about Sweden’s energy program at https://bit.ly/3gOF8bq.
A Whole New Grid
Electric vehicles could use up to one trillion kilowatts of power in America, or about 20 percent of the available electricity. On the face of it, this is a massive load, but again it might be too soon to see it as an insurmountable challenge. There are many complexities, variables and innovative new approaches. Three trendlines, in particular, are dramatically changing electricity generation and distribution in the world as we know it.
1. Rooftop and distributed generation. When we think about people planning for power grid capacities, we imagine public utility analysts; however, they will be much less significant in the future. The cost of solar and batteries continues to drop significantly. World events such as the pandemic, forest fires, massive storms, oil price volatility and civil unrest in the streets are all driving humanity towards off-grid or optionally off-grid solutions.
Our traditional electrical transmission and distribution infrastructure is strained, and planners are welcoming more localized, newly built networks. Rooftop and private microgrid power generation are expanding quickly worldwide. Solar PV itself is increasing efficiencies and evolving into smaller, sleeker, integrated building products. It goes beyond a Tesla roof to power-generating windows and coatings that can transform any surface into an energy creator. “Self-contained” and “energy positive” could become the new normal for buildings.
Interest in distributed generation also is driven by anyone concerned about terrorist attacks on public power infrastructure or cybercrime because mission-critical government or corporate campuses, facilities or gated residential communities can be easier to isolate, secure and protect.
2. Microgrid software and batteries. Usually categorized under the catchall “microgrid software,” a high level of development of a wide variety of load optimization functionalities will soon prove this term is too narrow. It represents only a subset of the myriad new tools that will be helping global energy planners adapt to an astonishing new electricity landscape. There are so many stories of smart systems optimizing energy efficiency, I don’t know where to start. HVAC professionals, however, can relate to one reported earlier in these pages out of Austin, Texas.
At Whisper Valley — where thousands of ultra-modern, high-tech homes are selling quickly — the local energy company calculated the loads for several models averaging about 1,700 square feet. It concluded that for cooling and heating, roughly 2.5 boreholes would be needed per house. However, in communities of several hundred homes optimized with microgrid software, this would drop by 60 percent to one borehole, so that’s what they install.
These calculations were completed without considering the impact of home batteries, which are a homeowner option and may soon be a requirement of the same community model. Given that rooftop solar is already a requirement at Whisper Valley, home batteries will reduce the load a great deal further— basically to zero or better. Each garage is equipped with an electric car charger.
3. Vehicle-to-grid. In places such as Germany and Australia, the electrification of our worldwide vehicle fleet has moved beyond the stage of theoretical opportunity to actual working models of vehicle-to-grid power-sharing. It should be called vehicle-to/from-grid because it’s based on smart load management.
Under the early pilots, homeowners with electric vehicles agree to act as part of an emergency source of backup power to the public grid a few times each month when peak load can’t be entirely satisfied, often for 15 minutes at a time. Over a given period, payments are about three times as much as it costs to charge the same vehicle, so participants drive for free plus make a profit. There’s no real effect on their lives.
It’s simply a case of unused power being shifted temporarily to where it’s needed by artificial intelligence. It’s cheaper for the utility to pay homeowners for temporarily renting their batteries than to build and operate a multi-million-dollar gas peaker plant.
Doesn’t wind and solar power cost more than coal, nuclear and gas generation? Don’t rooftop solar and batteries cost more than their utility-scale equivalents? The cost of heat pumps is reported as higher than gas heating. Electric cars still cost a little more than fuel-driven cars; governments are providing cash incentives to drive adoption. Even if our electricity system can evolve and adapt, will our state budgets be able to handle all the extra cost?
The answer is yes because, as it turns out, there is no extra cost. Although governments don’t like fossil-fuel emissions, almost all new power generation is now renewables because investors have given up on coal and nuclear due to high comparative cost. Gas peaker plants will soon all be replaced by intelligent utility load management software/large-scale electricity storage because of remarkable returns and very fast paybacks on these investments.
Rooftop solar/home batteries are still relatively expensive, but it’s changing quickly at scale and off-grid benefits provide value. The lifecycle costs of an electric vehicle are less than a fossil-fuel car. The lifecycle costs of a heat pump are the same or less than fossil-fuel heating systems, as we shall see.
In the past, we reported the mass market ambitions of Dandelion, a Google ground-source retrofit company that raised capital and began selling systems a couple of years ago in New York’s Westchester and other counties.
In January, before COVID-19 kept me home, I visited some Dandelion projects and learned the company has been incredibly successful. It has installed between 200 and 300 ground-source retrofit systems and has 300 to 500 more orders already on the books. Plans are underway to expand into other states, which admire the New York model.
As for the cost of geothermal, policy battles in the United States and Canada reveal other interesting discoveries. It seems that ground-source heat pumps, air-source heat pumps and gas furnaces are all available in the same general cost category for the appliances themselves. However, building owners have traditionally shied away from the geothermal concept because of the additional cost of the “loop assets,” which can hit about $10,000 for a typical home.
During rate case arguments in New York, Wyman’s team questioned gas industry officials and learned that building owners generally are not charged for connecting to gas infrastructure, thus creating a hidden cost ultimately borne indirectly by ratepayers. Not only does this mean efficient heat pumps are subsidizing less-efficient gas furnaces, but planners also learned that it costs the state between $5,000 and $30,000 to service each property.
During a court case in Ontario, a lawyer pressed an expert from Enbridge Energy, who estimated the Canadian value to be $26,500 on average.
Wyman points out that gas utilities in New York and Canada don’t make much margin on the gas itself. Most of the ROI comes from the pipes-in-the-ground assets, which they are continuously increasing and maintaining for their government clients. Geothermal is a pipes-in-the-ground business, too, so the shift to ground-source heating shouldn’t threaten these utilities.
Gas companies in New York state are now working with the government on community geothermal loop pilots. Something like this has been operating for several years in Richmond, British Columbia, near Vancouver. The results have been very positive. They started with one community, and are now building phase 5.
As mentioned previously, gas heating proponents might still wish to create modeled scenarios under which air-source heat pumps are widely adopted in a community and electricity demand zooms out of control. However, the reality is that most of the air-source projects I’ve seen in the past five years have been combined with energy recovery ventilators and better building envelopes.
Passive House Concept Expanding
Second & Delaware is a 278-unit, 321,000-square-foot, seven-story apartment building in Kansas City, Mo. It is equipped with a Daikin VRF heat pump system for heating and cooling; two Systemaire energy recovery ventilators on each tower floor; a Capstone C65 microturbine combined heat and power unit for domestic hot water, which uses its waste heat to generate power; a passive house envelope; and a 92 kW solar photovoltaic system to provide some renewable electricity.
Prudence Ferreira, a hygrothermal specialist and passive house practice lead at engineering firm Morrison Hershfield, explains that the company crunched the numbers for air-cooled VRF, geothermal VRF, combined heat and power with four-pipe fan coil units, and hydronic district heating. It has done the same for tight-envelope, low-carbon buildings all over North America. Lately, the pattern has been that VRF heat pumps have the best coefficient of performance, and that’s what was used in Kansas City.
I met Prudence one Wednesday at Happy Hour; no, wasn’t at a public bar. Happy Hour is a weekly online Zoom meeting of between 200 and 300 top passive house specialists from all over the United States, Canada, Europe and beyond. They have to meet weekly because they all want to share PowerPoint screens about their latest passive house projects, and less often simply wouldn’t be enough.
Recently, a favorite of mine, the 709-unit Sendero Verde project in New York City’s East Harlem, was featured by Lois Arena, director of passive house services at Steven Winter Associates. Passive house just keeps growing. It is moving into city and state standards all over North America.
In addition to the new single-family homes in Austin and retrofit single-family homes in Westchester County, geothermal is being used at Boston University, Michigan University and the University of Notre Dame, as well as in condo projects such as the 544-unit Lillian Park project in downtown Toronto. All these projects are working technically, economically and in harmony with the grid.
Electric vehicle sales are exploding worldwide, while gas and diesel vehicle sales have dropped to historic lows.
Are we making the clean energy shift even in the middle of a pandemic and recession? Can we really electrify our buildings and vehicles? The answer is a resounding, “yes.”