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Inefficient building electrification risks prolonging fossil fuel use

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A fresh study finds that decarbonization pathways have to incorporate better electric heating technologies and much more renewable energy sources to reduce pressure on the U.S. electric grid during increased electricity usage from heating in December and January. Otherwise, harmful fossil fuels will continue steadily to power these seasonal spikes in energy demand.

Buildings’ direct fossil fuel consumption, burned in water heaters, furnaces, along with other heating sources, makes up about nearly 10 percent of greenhouse gas emissions in the usa. Switching to a power system that powers heating through , instead of coal, oil, and natural gasthe process referred to as building electrification or building decarbonizationis an essential step towards achieving global net-zero climate goals.

However, most building decarbonization models haven’t accounted for seasonal fluctuations in energy demand for heating or cooling. This helps it be difficult to predict what an eventual switch to cleaner, all-electric heating in buildings could mean for the country’s electrical grid, especially during peaks in energy use.

A fresh study by researchers at Boston University School of Public Health (BU.S.PH), Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health (Harvard Chan School), Oregon State University (OSU), and the nonprofit Home Energy Efficiency Team (HEET) examined these seasonal changes in energy demand, and discovered that monthly energy consumption varies substantially and is highest in the wintertime months.

Published in Scientific Reports, the analysis presented novel modeling of multiple building electrification scenarios, and discovered that this seasonal surge in winter energy demand will undoubtedly be difficult to fulfill through current renewable sources, if buildings switch to low-efficiency electrified heating.

The findings emphasize the necessity for buildings to set up better home-heating technologies, such as for example ground source heat pumps.

“Our research reveals the amount of fluctuation in building energy demand and the advantages of using extremely efficient heating technologies when electrifying buildings,” says study lead and corresponding author Dr. Jonathan Buonocore, Assistant Professor of Environmental Health at BU.S.PH. “Historically, this fluctuation in building energy demand has been managed largely by gas, oil, and wood, which could be stored over summer and winter and used through the winter. Electrified buildings, and the electrical system that supports them, will need to provide this same service of providing reliable heating in winter. Better electric heating technologies will certainly reduce the electrical load placed on the grid and enhance the ability because of this heating demand to be met with non-combustion renewables.”

For the analysis, Buonocore and colleagues analyzed building energy data from March 2010 to February 2020, and discovered that U.S. total monthly average for energy consumptionbased on the existing usage of fossil fuels, and also future usage of electricity in the wintervaries by way of a factor of just one 1.6x, with the cheapest demand in-may, and the best demand in January.

The researchers modeled these seasonal fluctuations in what they call the “Falcon Curve”since a graph of the change in monthly energy consumption represents the form of a falcon. The info demonstrates winter heating demand drives energy consumption to its highest levels in December and January, with a second peak in July and August because of cooling, and the cheapest levels in April, May, September, and October.

The researchers also calculated the quantity of additional renewable energy, specifically wind and solar technology, that would have to be generated to meet up this increased demand in electricity. Without storage, demand response, or other tactics to control grid load, buildings would need a 28xincrease in January wind generation or perhaps a 303xincrease in January solar technology to meet up winter heating peaks.

But with an increase of efficient renewables, such as for example air source heat pumps (ASHPs) or ground source heat pumps (GSHPs), buildings would only require 4.5xmore winter wind generation, or 36xmore solar energythus “flattening” the Falcon Curve as less new energy demand is positioned on the electrical grid.

“This work really demonstrates technologies on both demand and the supply side have a solid role to play in decarbonization,” says study co-author Dr. Parichehr Salimifard, Assistant Professor of College of Engineering at Oregon State University. Types of these technologies on the power supply side are geothermal building heating and renewable energy technologies that may provide energy at all hours, she sayssuch as renewables in conjunction with long-term storage, distributed energy resources (DERs) at all scales, and geothermal electricity generation where possible. “These could be in conjunction with technologies on demand sidei.e., in buildingssuch as passive and active building energy efficiency measures, peak-shaving, and energy storage in buildings. These building-level technologies can both decrease the overall building energy demand by reducing both baseline and maximum energy demand and also smooth the fluctuations in building , and therefore flatten the Falcon Curve.”

“The Falcon Curve draws our focus on an integral relationship between your selection of building electrification technology and the impact of creating electrification on our power grid,” says study co-author Zeyneb Magavi, co-executive director of HEET, a nonprofit climate solutions incubator.

Magavi cautions that research will not yet quantify this relationship predicated on measured seasonal efficiency curves for specific technologies, or for more granular time scales or regions, or measure the numerous strategies and technologies which will help address the task. All this should be considered in decarbonization planning.

Yet, Magavi says, this research clearly does indicate that “utilizing a strategic mix of heat pump technologies (air-source, ground-source, and networked), and also long-term energy storage, can help us electrify buildings better, economically, and equitably. The Falcon curve shows us a faster way to a clean, healthy energy future.”

“Our research makes clear that whenever accounting for seasonal fluctuations in energy consumption apparent in the Falcon Curve, the drive to electrify our buildings should be coupled with dedication to energy-efficient technologies to make sure building decarbonization efforts maximize climate and health advantages,” says study senior author Dr. Joseph G. Allen, Associate Professor of Exposure Assessment Science and Director of the Healthy Buildings program at Harvard Chan School.

“Our work here shows a pathway for building electrification that avoids counting on , and avoids renewable combustion fuels, which still can produce polluting of the environment, and perhaps perpetuate disparities in polluting of the environment exposure, despite being climate-neutral,” says Buonocore. “Avoiding issues such as this is why it is necessary for public health experts to be engaged in energy and climate policymaking.”

More info: Jonathan J. Buonocore et al, Inefficient Building Electrification WILL DEMAND Massive Buildout of Renewable Energy and Seasonal Energy Storage, Scientific Reports (2022). DOI: 10.1038/s41598-022-15628-2

Citation: Inefficient building electrification risks prolonging fossil fuel use (2022, July 28) retrieved 29 July 2022 from

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