Establishing the case for building electrification
Building electrification presents a tangible strategy within the consulting-specifying industry to reduce and eliminate long-term operational CO2 emissions.
In our effort to identify solutions that can help solve the climate crisis from within our firm and the broader construction industry, Henderson Engineers has zeroed in on building electrification as a top priority. So, why is that our focus and how does it play a role in the global effort to solve the climate crisis?
The short answer is building electrification presents a tangible strategy within the consulting-specifying industry to reduce and eliminate long-term operational CO2 emissions. More specifically, we can effectively eliminate 28% of annual global CO2 emissions1 if we operate all our buildings on electricity if that electricity transitions to carbon-free and renewable energy over the next 13 to 18 years. That percentage climbs to 75% when we look at U.S. emissions holistically as noted in my most recent article on building electrification. On our way to 2030 and 2040, electrification, when combined with a less carbon intensive grid, will support the needed cumulative reductions in short term operational CO2 emissions.
Before we identify specific design strategies and equipment to achieve electrification, we need to understand the “why.”
To advance this building electrification dialogue, the following points need to be acknowledged to keep the focus on finding solutions and avoid becoming distracted by media noise. At Henderson, we have framed the conversation under the lens of, “Let’s agree on these points and put our heads together to have solutions ready for our clients.” Here are a few points we’ve settled on for starters:
- Climate change is happening.
- CO2 emissions associated with building operations need to be reduced to mitigate the intensity, severity, frequency, and acceleration of climate change.
- Lifecycle methane (CH4) emissions associated with natural gas-based systems in building operations need to be reduced to mitigate the intensity, severity, frequency, and acceleration of climate change.
- To mitigate the impacts of climate change and stay within the 1.5°C threshold established by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), we need to reduce global CO2 emissions 50% by 2030 and achieve net zero emissions by 2040.
- Maintaining the status quo will yield a global temperature increase of ±7°C.5
- Designing and installing natural gas building systems today locks in a building’s operational CO2 emissions until 2040 and beyond.
- A building with natural gas systems is not able to reduce CO2 emissions 50% by 2030 and will never be able to achieve net zero.
- The electrical grid can keep up with the additional demand of all-electric buildings if we continue our current efficiency trajectory in new construction and renovation projects.
- CO2 emissions from utility-scale electricity generation in the U.S. are declining3 and will continue to decline up to 2040.
- There is an all-electric solution for every building and every project.
Once agreement can be reached on the validity of these points, the next step is to understand the building design and construction industry is a key player in solving the climate crisis. While this is a global issue, we’ll be focusing on the following conditions within the U.S. for the purposes of this article:
Buildings have a significant impact on climate change. One of the most significant impacts comes from operational energy use and associated CO2 emissions. In general, the U.S. building sector is making progress on driving down operational CO2 emissions but there is still much to be done to achieve our zero-carbon goal. Here’s a snapshot of pre-pandemic building sector performance metrics in the U.S. from 2019:
- Fossil fuel use is responsible for 92% of total U.S. anthropogenic CO22
- Fossil fuels made up 59% of electricity generation in the U.S.4
- Electricity generation made up 32% of CO2 emissions in the U.S.4
- The U.S. building sector energy-related CO2 emissions declined by 23% since their peak in 2005.3
- The U.S. building sector purchased electricity-related CO2 emissions declined 31% since their peak in 2007.3
- Between 2005 and 2019, total U.S. electricity generation increased by almost 2% while related CO2 emissions fell by 33%.3
- Between 2005 and 2019, fossil fuel electricity generation declined by approximately 11%, and non-carbon electricity generation rose by 35%.3
- Onshore wind and solar PV are the least expensive utility-scale energy sources to deploy.6
Transitioning from mixed fuel buildings that utilize some form of fossil fuel to all electric buildings is not necessarily a simple flip of the switch for some project types. There are a number of lingering perceived barriers to full electrification that require attention and a sincere, truth-seeking dialogue among all stakeholders. To start the dialogue, let’s consider some of the commonly expressed perceived barriers, many of which are outside a design team’s control:
- “The electric grid is dirty, and we’ll just be exacerbating GHG emissions if we electrify all our buildings.”
- “The electric grid can’t handle the additional building loads. Existing infrastructure at both building and regional scale may not be able to accommodate the additional electrical demand.”
- “China and India continue to deploy carbon intensive energy sources. Our efforts won’t mean anything if the rest of the world doesn’t act.”
- “Solar and other renewable sources won’t generate enough energy to satisfy demand depending on climate zone and geographic location.”
- “There could be an issue with open bidding since manufacturers and availability might be limited.”
While there is some truth in these statements, they represent an evolving snapshot. If planning is based on these momentary conditions, we’ll most certainly fall short of reaching our collective climate goals. We expect the grid to get cleaner as it scales up. We expect foreign nations to transition away from carbon intensive energy sources. And we expect the building industry to continue to find efficiencies, innovate, and deliver technology that recognizes the importance of regeneration. It will be our combined efforts that bring the necessary solutions. And as leaders, we need to continue to do the right thing regardless of the actions of others. As Martin Luther King, Jr., noted at his commencement address for Oberlin College in 1965, “The time is always right to do right.”
There are also barriers expressed that are within a design team’s sphere of influence.
- “Projects can’t afford the additional capital costs associated with building electrification.”
- “Operational costs are going to be higher for all-electric systems compared to mixed fuel systems.”
- “Building electrification might work in places like California. But in other climate zones with higher heating loads, going all-electric is going to be inefficient.”
- “Designing all electric systems may increase the use of refrigerants and thus lead to increased GHG emissions due to refrigerant leakage.”
- “Cooking with all-electric systems is inferior to gas systems.”
These perceived barriers to building electrification should indeed be recognized, but they represent a more pessimistic view often based on inexperience with how to effectively design all-electric buildings. It wouldn’t be fair to go so far as to say these barriers don’t exist, but they can all be overcome with research and sharing our collective experience. Any project can go over budget and going all-electric doesn’t necessitate a higher budget.
The same could be said for operational costs. Fuel source, whether mixed fuel or all-electric, isn’t specifically linked to operational efficiency or costs. The increased use of refrigerants and potential for GHG emissions is real, so our designs need to specify equipment that uses the lowest global warming potential (GWP) refrigerant available, is least likely to develop leaks, and utilizes controls and sensors that identify and communicate leakage to building operators. All-electric cooking has made some incredible improvements over the last few years based on the emergence of induction stoves. The Building Decarbonization Coalition has some terrific information supporting electric and induction cooking as part of its Kitchen Electrification Group Resource Directory. The health and safety benefits of induction cooking alone are a strong enough case for many users to make the transition.
Shared responsibility in every sector
The transition to zero emissions buildings relies on a lot of people in a lot of sectors. The figure below alludes to the simultaneous actions required by both the construction industry and the utility industry to achieve zero emissions. No one sector can do it alone. The graph identifies historical CO2 emissions associated with building related energy use from 1990 to 2019 and plots the path to zero CO2 emissions by 2040. For the design and construction industry, successfully reaching zero building emissions means electrifying all building operations. Any continued use of natural gas or fossil fuels essentially prevents a zero-emissions built environment.
U.S. buildings energy-related CO2 emissions
When we zoom in and take a closer look at how individual organizations are going to reach their climate goals, it’s important to communicate that net zero plans for emissions, GHGs, CO2, or carbon are impossible to meet if buildings continue to use natural gas or other fossil fuel-based systems. For instance, Henderson presented the graph below to a client to demonstrate that they could achieve their CO2 reduction goals via building electrification, but that they would fall short if they continued to specify and install any natural gas-based (mixed-fuel) systems.
Call to action
There’s an urgent need to communicate the critical importance of designing all-electric buildings within our organizations, among industry partners, and out to clients beginning today. The message can be based on these four fundamental ideas.
- If we deliver all-electric buildings to our clients, long-term operational CO2 emissions will decrease, and we’ll be providing a path for clients to realize their climate goals.
- If we deliver buildings with natural gas systems to our clients, long-term operational CO2 emissions will increase, and many clients and government organizations will not be able to meet their climate goals.
- If we continue to deliver buildings with natural gas systems, we lock in CO2 emissions for decades and become complicit in escalating the severity, frequency, and acceleration of climate change.
- Efficient, all-electric buildings are possible everywhere and we can deliver them with our combined efforts today.
- UN-GABC, 2020 Global Status Report for Buildings and Construction
- S. EIA, U.S. Energy-Related Carbon Dioxide Emissions, 2019 https://www.eia.gov/environment/emissions/carbon/
- S. EIA, Monthly Energy Review (April 2020) and EIA, Form EIA-923, “Power Plant Operations Report” https://www.eia.gov/totalenergy/data/monthly/archive/00352004.pdf
- Climate Action Tracker, Warming Projections Global Update, November 2021. https://climateactiontracker.org/documents/997/CAT_2021-11-09_Briefing_Global-Update_Glasgow2030CredibilityGap.pdf
- Lazard, Levelized Cost of Energy Analysis, Version 14.0, https://www.lazard.com/perspective/levelized-cost-of-energy-and-levelized-cost-of-storage-2020/
- UN-GABC, 2021 Global Status Report for Buildings and Construction.
Original content can be found at www.hendersonengineers.com.