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The Biden administration ran on a platform that included a green agenda, and it has been working diligently to implement much of that agenda. A large part includes reducing our dependency on fossil fuels that produce greenhouse gasses and contribute to global warming.
Addressing global warming is a noble cause, and I support that. The task has been challenging because Americans have become accustomed to cheap and abundant oil, natural gas and coal to the point that low prices did not provide much incentive for conservation. Many jobs in the coal and oil industries depend on those fuel sources continuing.
Maybe we need to plan the construction of wind turbine plants and solar panel manufacturing facilities in areas that are heavily dependent on coal or oil. Then the concern about job loss goes away and it becomes a task of retraining workers for new industries.
Automakers continue to make mega-sized sport-utility vehicles with high fuel consumption rates because these vehicles have huge profit margins for the automakers. Also, gasoline has been relatively cheap in the United States compared to the rest of the world.
With recent spikes in oil prices caused by war and cuts in overseas oil production, many consumers felt the pain at the pumps while oil companies were making record profits.
However, even at our current prices, we are paying much less than the fuel prices in other countries that put heavy taxes on fuel. The same goes for our water and sewer rates; they have been low when compared to rates of other developed nations. Recently, the politicians promoting the green agenda announced that they want to ban all gasoline-powered cars in California by the year 2035. ASHRAE announced initiatives to phase out fossil fuel for buildings by a similar date.
Having a hard date to go cold turkey on fossil fuels and move to all-electric cars and homes will create chaos. Phasing-in hybrid systems would reduce dependency on fossil fuels while still allowing them for certain applications such as water heating, where a water heater burner runs about an hour or two per day.
There needs to be planning, engineering and investment in research and development before committing to such lofty and, more likely than not, unrealistic goals of no gasoline in cars and no fossil fuels in homes and buildings by the year 2035.
Maybe if the cars were allowed to be hybrid or electric by 2035, then perhaps. Hybrid cars use much less gasoline because they run on a battery at low speeds. At a moderate speed, they convert to gasoline power, where a small gasoline engine runs the vehicle drivetrain and simultaneously charges the battery. When the brakes are applied, the braking runs a generator that helps charge the battery.
Better Battery Storage
Recently I attended a utility power generation and distribution seminar. The utility generation folks said they are shutting down some of their coal-fired power plants by the year 2028 and replacing them with clean energy, which means wind turbine and solar photovoltaic generation capabilities.
The alarm bells were going off when I heard them say they were shutting down coal, natural gas and nuclear power plants with no new continuous power generation facilities other than wind and solar that are currently planned. I had to ask: “How will you generate power on a long, cold winter night when there is no wind blowing and the sun is not shining?” Their answer was that they “hoped to develop better battery storage technologies by then.”
This caused me to think about my 40 years of experience with designing fire suppression systems and 33 years in the volunteer fire service as a fighter, captain, fire investigator/fire marshal, assistant chief and fire chief. I remember a large five-alarm industrial fire where combustible metals were involved, and I also recall a few electric vehicle fires and extractions that became problematic with lithium batteries.
The rechargeable batteries used in power plants and cars are made of combustible metals, such as lithium. Combustible metals present a unique fire hazard. The usual water-based fire sprinkler systems would only aggravate a combustible metal fire. As a firefighter, I remember crouching low in the doorway to an industrial building where there was an explosion and a combustible metal fire. I sprayed water toward a flickering glow deep inside a building that was about four football fields in size, and when the water hit the molten burning metal, it flashed into steam and exploded into what looked like a fireworks show.
One of the plant fire brigade members on the scene informed us that their protocol was for the plant fire brigade to respond to fires and shovel sand or iron filings from strategically placed barrels or totes onto a combustible metal fire to stop the combustion process in small fires.
In this case, the initial blast from a furnace explosion had injured several workers and sent molten metal across the plant. The handful of fire brigade members went to render aid to the injured workers first. We ended up protecting exposures while the 300-foot by 600-foot building — full of pallets of combustible metal — burned.
The memory of that all-day conflagration came to mind when the utility generation people said that a lithium battery storage facility was what they were hoping for to be able to provide power in the future when there is no wind or sun shining.
The size of the facility that would be required for a backup power supply for alternate current battery storage would be very large if it was going to serve as a power source for many hours or days of backup power supply. Winter nights are long, and the wind can be calm for more than a day. Even coal or natural gas power plants often include diesel fuel or natural gas-fired generators as a backup power supply. So, going totally fossil-fuel-free is not likely and is not a good design option.
What About Nuclear Power?
Nuclear power produced with modular units as an electric power generation is attractive to many. Hybrid gas-electric cars and hydrogen-fuel-cell cars are popular with the fossil-fuel reduction crowd.
One electric company representative was asked why nuclear power was not being given serious consideration as an option for clean energy. The answer was: “Nuclear energy is too controversial.” However, it is a good choice if we are going to be serious about reducing dependence on fossil fuels because nuclear power does not depend on wind, sun, oil, gas or coal.
In France, the government stepped in and standardized the electrical power generation station designs to one modular design for all nuclear power plants. In the United States, each utility hired an engineering and construction firm and re-invented the wheel with each power plant, with a unique size and type of reactor design.
The U.S. Atomic Energy Commission, the Nuclear Regulatory Commission and Energy Secretary Jennifer Granholm should consider this concept to standardize the size, type and design of power plants. They would be small modular reactors that could be manifolded and produce power with parts that are interchangeable from facility to facility.
Standardizing the design would make constructing nuclear power plants less expensive. When nuclear power plants operate, they do not require fossil fuels such as coal, oil or natural gas.
Increasing Power Generation Demand
When the utility company representative spoke at that power generation and distribution seminar, it was noted that the utility anticipated a 25% increase in demand by the year 2030. However, that did not seem to line up with what I heard on the news.
News reports of eliminating fossil fuels by 2035 seem to indicate power generation demand will increase closer to 100% by the years 2030 to 2035. California’s new mandate of all-electric cars by the year 2035 is alarming, as is ASHRAE announcing it wants to switch to all-electric heat pumps and geothermal technology in that same time frame.
At its best, heat pump technology is still in development and has been problematic in some northern climates. Going all-electric means utility companies may not see the need to route gas utility lines to new developments. Many people prefer having gas appliances because gas is more efficient at cooking and heating and has better control accuracy and recovery times than electric heat.
The recent ASHRAE proposal for the elimination of fossil fuels, which includes natural gas, means we could see the end of natural gas boilers, natural gas water heaters, natural gas furnaces, gas stoves, gas fireplaces, and other gas heating appliances. It also means the elimination of fuel oil appliances, and most people would agree that closing coal-fired power plants is not a bad thing.
Most people would probably agree that a total electric energy future for all new construction puts a lot of eggs in one basket, leaning toward a monopoly for some unregulated electric utilities and power distribution companies. Most people should be on board with reducing the amounts of fossil fuels used and reducing our dependency on oil, gas and coal, but they would also agree it would be very painful and difficult to take the cold-turkey approach rather than a phased-in approach by 2035.
It would be nice to have the option of a natural gas stove for cooking. It would also be nice to have natural gas as a backup for a heat-pump water heater because heat-pump water heaters have such a slow recovery rate; it is especially noticeable with larger families.
The hot water storage tanks will need to be much larger with heat pumps, and the minimum storage temperature will need to be in excess of 140 F (60 C) to control Legionella bacteria growth, as recommended by design guidelines and industry standards.
Higher storage temperatures make the heat pumps less effective. Also, temperature-actuated mixing valves should be installed on the outlet of the hot water tanks to ensure a constant hot water delivery temperature to the hot water distribution system — and to minimize the risk of scalding associated with people tinkering with system temperatures, which is common in combined systems.
Rolling Brownouts and Blackouts
Most importantly, everyone should have the option to install a natural gas-fired emergency generator for when the electrical grid goes down. Rolling brownouts and blackouts are likely due to the increased demand we are about to put on an already overtaxed and underregulated power generation and distribution system.
In northern climates, power outages could be devastating when there is a mandate for all-electric cars, and everyone is mandated by code to add a 50-amp car-charging plug to charge their cars at home. At the same time, we are mandated to install electric heat pumps for heating our homes and domestic hot water. It would be nice to have in-line backup equipment that uses natural gas to get you through the periods that heat pumps cannot handle.
Many areas of the country are experiencing rolling brownouts or blackouts where the power is shut off for hours or days at a time to not overload the electrical utility generation and distribution grid.
Currently, many heat pumps include a stand-by electrical element that comes on for heating the air or water when they cannot meet the peak demand condition. If there is a power outage, there will be no option for natural gas in new homes and new subdivisions or developments that are designed as all-electric. Heat pumps are fine for heating because heating systems run long, but domestic hot water and cooking operations do not use enough gas for long enough to justify the elimination of fuel gas for purposes of reducing fossil-fuel emissions.
Most homeowners would prefer having natural gas for purposes of having a gas-fired emergency generator. It would be nice to have natural gas as an option, and the utilities should have oversight and some form of government regulation so as not to be an unregulated monopoly.
Otherwise, we could end up with week-long blackouts and frozen and burst pipes similar to what some states experienced a couple of years ago. Or we may be forced to live with rolling blackouts/brownouts that are common out west and in many other deregulated areas. If utilities cannot provide electricity to customers now, and new power-generating plants are not planned, we cannot expect to double the power demand and not have more problems while relying only on solar and wind power.
Slow Phase-out of Fossil Fuels, Slow Phase-in of EVs
We need to plan to provide enough electricity in 2035 when every home has a 50-amp car-charging station and a 30- to 50-amp circuit breaker for a heat pump for domestic water heating and another 30- to 50-amp circuit breaker for space heating.
In addition, we will need electric charging stations at parking lots of workplaces and electric charging service stations to replace the gasoline service stations. This will be a big change, and some estimates are that by the time these are implemented, it could double the amount of electricity we are currently using.
The laws of supply and demand in a market economy will adjust to allow us to reduce our dependence on oil by slowly phasing out gasoline cars and phasing in electric or hybrid cars — maybe even hydrogen fuel-cell cars could be in our future.
Heat pump manufacturers are gearing up for the production of combination heating and domestic hot water units. When a single appliance is used for both building heating and for domestic hot water, you lose both if the appliance fails. In addition, each system has a specific working temperature. It is easy for someone not familiar with the system to change things and create a dangerous scalding condition or create performance issues.
There are many unanswered questions. Is our electrical grid ready for the onslaught of every home having high-amperage power-charging stations for electric cars and running all-electric heat pumps for water heating and space heating?
As Yogi Berra would say: “It’s like déjà vu all over again.” Politicians produce a mandate without any research or study of the issue, as they did when they mandated water flow reductions in the Energy Policy Act of 1992. There was no engineering research and no testing. There was simply a mandate, and everyone simply wrapped their arms around water conservation as a good thing without studying the effects of the proposed reductions.
For example, we know that there are problems with reducing the flow rates of plumbing fixtures. The problems are reduced water closet flushing performance (poor evacuation of the contents), reduced drain line transport, and increased susceptibility to getting scalded from ultra-low flow showers (see www.asse-plumbing.org/membership/resources-and-downloads).
Another concern is the overall reduced flows in the plumbing system (around 20% of the water consumption prior to the 1992 Energy Policy Act). The reduced flow velocities contribute to aging water and dissipation of water treatment chemicals in utility water mains and in building water distribution systems, which has led to an increase in bacteria and other micro-organism growth. According to the CDC, the cases of Legionnaires’ Disease have risen more than 900% from 2000 to 2018.
So, how fast should we move away from fossil fuels to reduce greenhouse gasses? I suggest we make reductions at a steady and controlled pace so that we don’t go so fast that we miss the sharp turn and go over the cliff.
For more information, Table 1 is a breakdown of where we get our electric power supply.
All these design challenges of the future can be addressed with proper engineering. We must also consider covering these issues in future code language.