Accelerating the Electrification of Buildings at eLab Accelerator 2019

One of the most exciting developments in the energy system is the role that beneficial electrification—using renewable energy and efficient electric technologies to heat and cool homes and businesses—is playing in supporting the transition to a cleaner energy system. A cohort of teams at RMI’s Electricity Innovation Lab (eLab) Accelerator—happening this week—are exploring how to integrate electrification strategies into their home regions.

Why Electrification?

Fossil fuels burned in residential and commercial buildings are a large source of carbon dioxide—about 10 percent of all US carbon emissions—and also contribute to methane emissions because the gas distribution system leaks millions of tons of the super pollutant annually from the wellhead to burner tip. Yet increasingly, nearly all our buildings’ energy needs can be met with electricity from a low-carbon electric grid, eliminating direct fossil fuel use in buildings and making obsolete much of the gas distribution system—along with its costs and safety challenges.

By electrifying the 70 million buildings that currently burn fossil fuels for heating and cooling, we can help lower both carbon emissions and other air pollutants. With the growth of an increasingly low-carbon grid, coupled with the introduction of grid-enabled technologies like demand response, electrification is emerging to claim its rightful place in informing decarbonization strategies to meet the growing number of clean energy goals adopted by businesses, cities, and states across the country.

As RMI’s The Economics of Electrifying Buildings report showed, in many scenarios, notably for most new home construction, electrification of space and water heating and air conditioning reduces the homeowner’s costs over the lifetime of the appliances when compared with performing the same functions with liquid and gas fossil fuels. Costs are also reduced for customers in several retrofit scenarios: for customers switching away from propane or heating oil, for gas customers who would otherwise need to replace both a furnace and air conditioner simultaneously, and for customers who bundle rooftop solar with electrification. New homes and homes currently lacking natural gas service also avoid the cost of gas mains, services, and meters not needed in all-electric neighborhoods.

Electrifying Correctly

The work ahead is to scale what is easy to do at the level of an individual building and do it across 70 million buildings, in 50 states and multiple climate zones, and to do it right so we are reducing, not exacerbating, inequity issues. Electric space and water heating, and electric vehicles can be intelligently managed to shift energy consumption to times when clean energy is plentiful, aiding the cost-effective integration of large amounts of renewable energy onto the grid.

Dynamic electrification strategies will increasingly test existing utility business models and grid planning processes, and will need to integrate the perspectives of urban planners, power producers, technology firms, developers, and policymakers as part of an inclusive, whole-systems approach. The objectives of the eLab Accelerator teams take a variety of forms under the aegis of supporting scaling the transition of homes and businesses off fossil fuels and toward efficient use of low-carbon electricity for heating and cooling needs.

This work includes establishing programs that support the widespread electrification of buildings and energy efficiency policies to support beneficial electrification. Teams are also exploring the future of the gas utility business model and potential transitions, stranded costs in gas infrastructure, and demand flexibility strategies to accommodate heating demand.

On-the-Ground Projects

Teams driving electrification strategies at Accelerator 2019 include:

  • Decarbonizing Minnesota’s Natural Gas End Uses: While electrification of heating in concert with a decarbonizing electric grid offers benefits for customers and opportunities for emissions reductions, natural gas utilities are exploring innovative business models with the potential to offer their own opportunities. This team, championed by Great Plains Institute, seeks to find common understanding of where different technologies may be most appropriate, and develop a vision of the portfolio of solutions required to decarbonize end uses currently served by natural gas.
  • Energy Shift Pilot Project: The team, led by the nonprofit organization HEET, will refine a pilot project design for the Energy Shift framework, where a gas company in Massachusetts will provide renewable BTUs through street-segment ground-coupled heat pumps to a participating street or community. The team will also consider opportunities to scale beyond the first pilot, giving customers the ability to choose whether to get their renewable energy delivered through wires and/or pipes.
  • Equitable Electrification in Sacramento: The Sacramento Municipal Utility District is leading a team to identify and prioritize strategies for transitioning low- and moderate-income customers in Sacramento, California, to electric space heating, water heating, and cooking.
  • Great River Energy Comprehensive Planning: The objective of the Great River Energy (GRE)-championed team from Minnesota is to establish a foundation that will allow energy efficiency, demand response, electrification, and other demand-side resources to be optimally accounted for in GRE’s integrated resource-planning process. This foundation would include both principles and best practices for demand-side resource modeling as well as an ongoing dialogue with Minnesota stakeholders.
  • Rhode Island’s Building Electrification Strategic Transformation: In order to reach Rhode Island’s goal of a cleaner, more efficient heating sector, the team—championed by the Rhode Island Office of Energy Resources—will work to design a program and coordination strategy that supports the rapid deployment of heat pumps in the Ocean State. The project will focus on creating a program and strategy that ensures proper heat pump usage, optimal energy savings, ratepayer cost savings, and customer satisfaction.

The data is clear that any systematic decarbonization efforts must include a robust electrification component. The presence of five teams at Accelerator focused on creating actionable strategies to speed electrification efforts in their home territories is a testament to the importance the industry places on this topic. Stay tuned for updates on the teams’ progress following Accelerator as they bring their work product home and begin to put their plans into action.