First consumers “Cut the Cord.” Now will they “Plug the Pipe”?
It’s getting cold outside. Of course that’s the moment that all furnaces take a turn for the worst. Mine is no exception. It broke last week.
I imagine I’m more handy than I really am, so I turned to my favorite do-it-yourself source —YouTube. I tried all the basic furnace fixes, including rubbing the flame sensor with a crisp five dollar bill (some commenters suggested a twenty). No go. I’ve scheduled a visit from the furnace repair person.
But instead of fixing our natural gas furnace, maybe my family should think about the longer term and put in electric heat. California is embarking on the path to 100% zero carbon electricity. Once the state is down that road, electricity will be a far lower greenhouse gas source of heat than natural gas. Electric heat pumps are being talked about as a highly energy efficient heating option. If we switch to electric water heating and cooking too, then we could eliminate our natural gas service entirely. My family has already “cut the cord” on television. Next we can “plug the pipe” on gas.
Policymaker Interest in Building Electrification is Growing
Americans primarily heat their homes with fossil fuels–natural gas, propane, fuel oil. Direct combustion of fossil fuels provided 84% of residential space heating in 2015, based on the latest Energy Information Administration survey of residential energy consumption. The rest came from electricity.
The direct use of fossil fuels in homes represented just 4% of total US greenhouse gas emissions in 2016. That’s a small number. However, over a dozen US states have adopted deep decarbonization targets to cut greenhouse gases by up to 80% by 2050. Models have identified home fuel switching — from fossil fuels to electricity — as a necessary step to meeting these goals. This has turned home heating into the next big target for greenhouse gas busters.
Several governments have already taken action to promote the use of electricity for home heating. The Sacramento Municipal Utilities District (SMUD) is an early mover, offering incentives for builders to construct all-electric homes. Four hundred new all-electric homes are expected over the next 24 months. SMUD highlights the climate change benefits, but the homes also increase demand for the electricity that they sell.
The California legislature, which likes to lead on these issues, also got involved this year with a pair of new laws. The first commits $50 million per year for zero-emission technologies in homes and buildings. Electric heat is a leading contender for this funding. The second requires state agencies to figure out whether direct greenhouse gas emissions from buildings can be cut to almost half of 1990 levels by 2030. The study needs to consider whether building electrification makes sense relative to other reduction options.
The state has its work cut out for it. There are a lot of questions left that are important to policymakers and to consumers like me.
What Needs to Be Evaluated
In home heating, some research organizations are arguing that electric heat pumps are a viable alternative to fossil fuel furnaces. Electric heat pumps are like air conditioners in reverse, using thermodynamics to pull heat from the colder outside into the warmer inside. They use just a fraction of the electricity of a traditional resistance heater. However, the heat pumps currently on the market cost much more to install than traditional furnaces.
Heat pumps aren’t new, but American haven’t embraced them. For one, they don’t work very well in many parts of the country. In the cold Midwestern and New England regions, where households use lots of fossil fuels for heat, heat pumps won’t meet a household’s heating needs. Heat pumps work best where winter temperatures are more moderate — the South, Southwest, and California. Can the technology be improved to overcome this mismatch?
The greenhouse gas and criteria air pollutant impact also merit further study. The case for heat pumps could be strong in California, but electricity production is still very polluting in much of the US.
These regional differences raise important questions for California policymakers. As has been blogged about here before, California’s best shot at addressing global climate change is by developing technologies and policies that can be exported. Would exporting home electrification technologies and policies cut global greenhouse gas emissions? If not, maybe the state should focus elsewhere. But if we’re sure electric grids will be decarbonized throughout the country and world, then let’s go for it!
Consumers Are Hard to Convince
Consumer adoption may be the biggest barrier. It’s hard to convince people to try new technologies in their homes, even when policymakers think it is the right decision. We’re invested financially in the technologies we have, not to mention the comfort factor. That’s where I find myself. I have decades of experience staying warm in homes and apartments heated by natural gas furnaces. For the moment, I’m looking forward to the heating repair person coming next week and getting my fossil fueled furnace fired up again.
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