As President Joe Biden’s administration settles in, we can expect to see a very different approach to climate change. Reducing greenhouse gas emissions from buildings, vehicles and power plants is sure to become a priority again. However, while improving energy efficiency will return as a policy goal, reducing total electricity usage likely will not. In fact, many clean energy advocates see heating, cooling and transportation powered by electricity instead of fossil fuels as critical to mitigating the impacts of climate change.
Such moves toward what’s called “electrification” are already occurring at the municipal level. Starting with Berkeley, Calif., last June, a dozen cities banned natural gas hookups in new homes during 2020. San Francisco included commercial buildings in the ban. Seattle’s city council is considering similar restrictions, and the mayor proposed banning the use of gas for space and water heating in new large multifamily and commercial buildings.
Of course, the environmental value of switching heating and cooling from gas to electricity is based on how a region’s electricity is generated. In the Pacific Northwest and much of California, hydroelectric generation predominates. So moving the loads now supported by gas to electricity in these regions would have a near-instantaneous impact on greenhouse gas production.
But as other states ramp up solar, wind and storage resources, incremental benefits could also accrue. Moving the systems to all-electric operation could have a noticeable impact on overall natural gas demand, which in turn, could lead to a reduction in the substantial emissions that occur from natural gas extraction and pipeline transportation.
Space and water heating and air conditioning are the primary building targets for electrification advocates. According to the U.S. Energy Information Administration’s Annual Energy Outlook 2020, heating makes up more than one-third of total energy consumption in the residential and commercial building sectors. Space heating makes up almost 75% of that total.
Natural gas is the primary heating fuel in these sectors, notes energy consulting firm Wood Mackenzie, Annapolis, Md., in its publication, “Electrification of Residential and Commercial Space Heating: Policies, Technologies and Outlook.”
Air-source heat pump units for electric heating and cooling in residential and smaller commercial applications are more expensive to install than natural gas boilers as retrofits, but can be less costly in new construction because they save the cost of gas connections. For homes that don’t have air conditioning, heat pumps can be less expensive than installing a new furnace and air conditioning.
The American Council for an Energy Efficient Economy, Washington, D.C., examined the issue of electrifying commercial buildings in its October 2020 report, “Electrifying Space Heating in Existing Commercial Buildings: Opportunities and Challenges.” The conclusion was that about 27% of commercial floor space now heated with fossil fuel systems could be electrified with a payback of less than 10 years, without any added financial incentives. Adding in efficiency improvements, such as improved insulation and windows, along with electrification incentives and some form of carbon pricing, could enable up to 60% of commercial floor space to hit the 10-year payback mark.
Electrifying road transportation offers even greater opportunities to speed the way to a net-zero economy. As a whole, the transportation sector was responsible for 27% of U.S. greenhouse gas emissions, according to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency. Cars and trucks alone made up 82%. Again, electrifying those vehicles would have a positive impact, even where renewables make up only a portion of electricity generation.
Oil drilling can be even more greenhouse-gas intensive than drilling for natural gas, as producers often burn off the natural gas byproduct of oil-drilling efforts. So simply reducing the demand for oil can have environmental benefits.
While electric vehicles are still more expensive than traditional models, that price premium is shrinking quickly. Volkswagen, the globe’s biggest automaker in sales, announced the batteries in its 2020 ID.3 sedan and upcoming ID.4 compact SUV hit an important cost target of $100 per kilowatt-hour. The world’s biggest battery maker, China’s CATL, also claims to have hit this goal, which auto analysts believe can bring EV manufacturing costs into line with gasoline-powered cars and trucks.
Consumer interest in EVs grew, even during the worst of the pandemic, when traditional vehicle sales dropped. Tesla was the most notable success story, but BloombergNEF, New York, notes other EV makers also profited. Volkswagen and Daimler EV sales doubled even while experiencing record-setting declines in total sales.