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Electricity Makes a Run at Home Heating

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.

The inside of my furnace, before my failed repair attempt. SOURCE: Author

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.

Air source heat pump. “Double duty heat pump furnace” by David Dodge. Licensed under a Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 2.0 Generic (CC BY-NC-SA 2.0).

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!

All-electric homes on Sacramento. SOURCE

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.

Keep up with Energy Institute blogs, research, and events on Twitter @energyathaas.

Andrew G Campbell View All

Andrew Campbell is the Executive Director of the Energy Institute at Haas. Andy has worked in the energy industry for his entire professional career. Prior to coming to the University of California, Andy worked for energy efficiency and demand response company, Tendril, and grid management technology provider, Sentient Energy. He helped both companies navigate the complex energy regulatory environment and tailor their sales and marketing approaches to meet the utility industry’s needs. Previously, he was Senior Energy Advisor to Commissioner Rachelle Chong and Commissioner Nancy Ryan at the California Public Utilities Commission (CPUC). While at the CPUC Andy was the lead advisor in areas including demand response, rate design, grid modernization, and electric vehicles. Andy led successful efforts to develop and adopt policies on Smart Grid investment and data access, regulatory authority over electric vehicle charging, demand response, dynamic pricing for utilities and natural gas quality standards for liquefied natural gas. Andy has also worked in Citigroup’s Global Energy Group and as a reservoir engineer with ExxonMobil. Andy earned a Master in Public Policy from the Kennedy School of Government at Harvard University and bachelors degrees in chemical engineering and economics from Rice University.

21 thoughts on “Electricity Makes a Run at Home Heating Leave a comment

  1. I’ve got 3 cold climate heat pumps installed in 3 different pilot homes humming along this morning in Fraser, CO the “Ice Box” of America. We are located at 8,000 ft and experience about as cold of a winter as you can get in the lower 48. From a single home pilot we conducted a couple of winters ago the heat pumps were able to heat the entire home without backup heat all but 6 days during the winter. Overall the homeowner saved about 35% on their heating bill compared to their existing baseboard. Our latest pilot is focusing on partially sizing a home and working in conjunction with existing propane furnaces as the backup heat source. From our experience we know first hand that heat pumps will perform in cold climates at altitude.

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