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The electrification of heating, cooling and domestic hot water mechanical systems is a growing topic of conversation in the PHCP industry. However, this is not the first time electrification has been an important topic. In 1936, Congress passed the Rural Electrification Act. How does this policy compare to current electrification trends?
In 1861, President Abraham Lincoln encouraged citizens to head west. Later formalized in the Homestead Act of 1862, free land was offered to individuals over 21 years old who were the head of their household. Up to 160 acres of land across the western states could be claimed by homesteaders, including immigrants, aspiring farmers, single women and formerly enslaved people.
Pieces of this act remained in effect until 1986 in areas of Alaska, according to the National Park Service.
Homesteading was not easy work. Establishing cities like the ones on the East Coast in the middle of prairie land required many resources. Over time, several homesteaders felt they were not being followed with the infrastructure and amenities they knew in the east (such as electricity), as if they had been marooned on their homestead parcels.
In the 1930s, Sen. George Norris of Nebraska made it clear that his constituency was being left behind after being encouraged west decades prior. He believed his voters were not given a fair chance, noting they were “growing old prematurely; dying before their time; conscious of the great gap between their lives and the lives of those whom the accident of birth or choice placed in towns and cities.”
Eventually, this rural state coalition grew and passed the Rural Electrification Act of 1936 (https://bit.ly/3nOiI0h). The policy intended to bring electricity to the 90 percent of farms without power at the time. It provided loans to install distribution lines and connect more homes to a grid. As a result, the rural infrastructure was established, power lines were strung, and many homesteaders turned the lights on for the first time. The legislation succeeded in getting power to almost 80 percent of U.S. farms by 1950, notes the U.S. Department of Agriculture (https://bit.ly/3hHQUqp).
In Beatrice, Neb., you can find the Homestead National Historical Park, the site of one of the first Rural Electrification Districts, a hub for rural infrastructure (https://bit.ly/2Z2pNzL). According to the National Park Service, the park was created to be a “memorial emblematic of the hardships of the pioneer life through which the early settlers passed in settlement, cultivation and civilization of the Great West.”
The electrification of rural America is seen as a significant achievement. Do we want to do something similar in 2021?
Modern electrification is a slightly different concept. Today, we consider electrification as the substitution of electricity for direct combustion of nonelectricity-based fuels. Essentially, electrification entails moving from fossil-fuel burning at the point of use to the off-site generation of electricity to power our mechanical rooms, appliances, equipment and vehicles.
Electrification is not inherently clean energy, but it can be when coupled with renewable energy power generation. Solely switching from propane or natural gas to electricity in a mechanical room would mean you do not have byproducts of combustion coming out the top of your building. Yet a fossil-fuel power plant likely churns away somewhere else in your region to power this equipment.
More work is needed to build modern electrification on a base of clean, renewable power plants. It is possible, but not a simple equipment copy/paste operation.
What does modern electrification mean to rural Americans? While homesteaders desperately wanted electrical service generations ago, do Americans now want to power everything with electricity?
Electrical service has come a long way since 1936, but that does not mean there is enough capacity in the electrical grid to move all farm infrastructure to electric power right away. For a farm in Nebraska to go all-electric, another electrification law may be needed to upgrade the electrical services required at these properties.
Electrification is already happening in some U.S. cities. For example, Berkeley, Calif., does not allow new natural gas service to buildings. They are committed to the electrification of mechanical systems and see it as a tool to reduce carbon emissions.
However, the 120,000 citizens of Berkeley live in a 10-square-mile patch of land, not scattered across the expanses of Nebraska. Upgrading the electrical service to a house to allow for a heat pump and a couple of Tesla cars is more feasible in the Bay Area of California than for ranches in the plains.
Proximity hurdles should not keep rural America from looking for a path to electrification. If the world's large cities move quickly to electrification concepts, it could leave rural communities behind. If demand for natural gas appliances, gasoline and diesel-powered vehicles and internal combustion engine tools drops in the next decades, they will become scarcer and more expensive. Once again, rural states could feel the woes of being passed over.
We have seen a similar product transition trend in the PHCPPROS world. Fifteen years ago, permanent split capacitor (PSC) circulators were almost exclusively used. Now, electronically commutated motor (ECM) circulators are mandated in some countries because they are much more energy-efficient.
Even if you do not care about the energy efficiency, ECM has the economies of scale on its side. Today, ECM pumps have dropped in price drastically. In 15 years, you may not be able to find an inexpensive PSC pump. There could be a similar transition path from fossil-fuel-powered vehicles to electric vehicles, but rural states are not yet stocked with the charging stations and power grid found in big cities.
Could a town like Beatrice become the next evolution of rural electrification districts? Would this rural community have a vested interest in installing local renewable energy sources in the neighborhood and eventually plowing the fields with electric tractors? These modern electrification districts could greatly benefit rural America.
Additionally, the changes could be vital in slowing climate change trends. Current climate change forecasts note that farmers could suffer financially more than other people. If electrification, renewables and energy efficiency work for farms, they can help avoid the most drastic crop yield-related factors such as excessive heat and drought.
The precursor to this discussion is a simple question: Do rural Americans even want to go electric? It would be a new homesteading mission of sorts. Without a modern Rural Electrification Act, the ramp to an all-electric future may be too steep.Yet, if the urban world goes electric, the rural world could be left behind again. Is there a modern politician like Sen. Norris who would fight for a new Rural Electrification Act?