There is perhaps no other industry trend that has the momentum of electrification across the United States building codes are quietly being ushering in that represent significant evidence that this change is happening and happening now. San Francisco, Oakland, and San Jose, along with 40 other cities across California, have passed electrification ordinances representing more than one-third of the state population. But the trend isn’t just a California thing; similar initiatives have been announced in New York, New Jersey, Maine, and ten other states plus the District of Columbia and Puerto Rico have established goals of reaching 100% clean energy, and several others are signaling that they intend to join as well.
This movement gained increased momentum in 2020 when the 2021 International Energy Conservation Code (IECC) was introduced that included specific electrification measures designed to assist in moving from gas to electricity. These measures include requirements around the installation of combustion-based water heaters, dryers, or stoves. When installed in a residence, an electric outlet is required to be installed within three feet of the appliance. This requirement ensures that a homeowner can easily switch to electric appliances “should natural gas become less affordable or even unavailable over the life of the building.”
When paired with legislation prohibiting natural gas infrastructure in new construction, the adaption of electrification is accelerated. These laws are increasing rapidly. In 2019, only one jurisdiction in the United States had passed such an ordinance. Yet, here we are only a year later, with one-third of customers in California will be covered under such mandates.
When facing this design requirement, many developers will question the economic impact, but the effect of an all-electric design might be more profound financially than one might expect. Study after study reveals that the actual equipment used in all-electric construction versus natural gas equipment is lower in both upfront costs and operation. This is not new data, and past studies have consistently demonstrated this trait. One example from the Rocky Mountain Institute (RMI) in 2018 examined both new construction and retrofit costs across seven different cities, with seven different climates, in which all-electric homes still won based on both cost and emissions savings over an assumed 15-year equipment lifetime. The cities RMI analyzed were Austin, Texas; Boston, Massachusetts; Columbus, Ohio; Denver, Colorado; Minneapolis, Minnesota; New York, New York; and Seattle, Washington.
Minneapolis is an interesting city to dive a little deeper on, as it is a colder climate city that instantly conjures up common misperceptions of gas advantages over electric. The average winter daily low temperature in Minneapolis is 7.5 degrees, brrr. However, even when taking into account the higher-capacity heat pump that would be needed versus the heat pump more commonly used in a milder climate, the installation and equipment cost is an electric heat pump is still about the same as for natural gas heating equipment. Operationally, however, in Minneapolis, the electricity rates for all-electric homes provide a discount that, when combined with the improved efficiency of electric versus gas, results in a $1,500 savings over the equipment’s lifetime.
Many utility incentive programs are now also providing programs targeted at rewarding electrification, further improving ROI. Just one example is Sacramento’s “Go Electric Business” program. PG&E, the state’s largest combined gas and electric utility provider, also added its endorsement to moving to all-electric energy codes. It is becoming increasingly common to find utility incentive dollars targeted towards electrification.
You might be asking yourself why? Natural Gas is currently plentiful and cost-effective fuel for on-site combustion appliances; however, it remains a fossil fuel with emissions related to its consumption and collection. Natural Gas emerged as a bridge fuel to move our energy needs away from dirtier oil and coal energy generation. Natural Gas was intended to be precisely that, a bridge. To decarbonize, eventually, reliance on natural gas as an energy source must decrease.
Currently, global consumption of natural gas is split mainly between 3 sectors. Roughly 41% is consumed to produce electricity, 35% for industrial use, and 20% for use in buildings in the form of direct combustion, i.e., boilers, hot water heating, cooking, etc. The combination of utility regulators targeting natural gas used in electrical generation and building codes targeting onsite building consumption of natural gas provides a strategy that can impact 61% of the current natural gas consumption.
Diving deeper into the 20% building consumption metric, we are essentially looking at heating systems for comfort, water heating, or cooking. Where is the flame in your building? When it comes to non-cooking heating, two words define electrification “Heat Pump.” Whether we are talking about air, water, or ground source heat pumps or using a heat pump for water heating, in each case, we are discussing technology that uses electricity to move heat from one place to another instead of generating heat directly. Moving heat can be two to three times more energy-efficient than generating heat,
The push back to heat pumps has always been the belief that in colder climates, they do not perform as well at or below freezing temperatures. Until recently, there was some truth in that belief, but with technological advances, heat pumps have been developed to provide sufficient heating, even in the northern portions of the continental United States. Leading products are now capable of performing well below -10F while operating at more than double the efficiency of gas.
While heat pumps may work for heating space or water, they are not the answer for cooking. As a home chef and passionate foodie, this topic, in particular, intrigued me. I have always insisted on gas for cooktop cooking. I want the heat to be on or off and at the temperature I want it to be. The slow warm-up and cool-down of a traditional electric cooktop simply will not do. So, when I saw my first induction cooktop, my initial impression was, well, not impressed. It looked like a traditional glass cooktop, the same cooktop that I vowed never to use again. But what I didn’t realize was the induction technology cuts out the intermediate step of heating a burner, instead immediately transferring heat to the pan, pot, or skillet just like gas – the very stage that made electric cooking so painful in the past. But it does do much more efficiently and with much greater control.
Induction cooktops do not glow when you turn them on; in fact, some manufacturers are adding virtual flames or lighting because when it’s on, it is kind of hard to tell it is on. This is because the cooktop uses an electromagnetic field instead of electrical resistance heat.
The difference is seen in the performance; for example, 6 quarts of water can arrive at a boil 2 to 4 minutes faster than any other cooktop’s ability to bring the water to a near boil. The other difference is the heat is not generated until the cooking pot comes into contact with the glass top. This means it will not be hot until the cooking vessel is placed on the cooktop. Once that contact is made, it will get hot, but in the pan, not on the surface. Until the pot or pan is placed on the cooktop, there is no heat making for a nice safety feature and eliminating burn on foods from boil overs.
However, there are a couple of notable drawbacks; however, cookware needs to be “induction – compatible.” But this may not be as big of an issue as first thought as your existing cookware might work. Your current cookware can be tested by placing a magnet to the bottom – if it firmly sticks, it likely will be compatible. Another drawback is that the induction cooktop’s magnetic field can interfere with digital thermometers, so you might have to dial back the technology here and switch back to an old-fashioned analog thermometer.
From an efficiency standpoint, an electric induction cooktop allows about 90% of the heat to reach the food compared to a traditional electric cooktop which only allows for about 65-70% of the heat to reach the food. That wasted heat in the electric cooktop is likely making its way into the rest of the kitchen, causing the space to heat considerably more with a traditional electric cooktop than an induction cooktop.
The comparison between induction cooking and gas cooking also must include some other elements. Aside from natural gas being a fossil fuel and the associated carbon issues around the fuel source, they also pose some serious indoor air quality issues. Gas cooktops emit Nitrogen Dioxide (NO2), Carbon Monoxide (CO), and Formaldehyde (HCHO). According to Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory and Stanford University, gas cooktops add 25-33% to indoor NO2 concentrations during the summer and 35-39% in the winter. They also add 30% to the CO concentration in the summer and 21% in the winter (I know, seems counterintuitive, however apparently, CO concentrations are lower outdoors in the summer).
As far as efficiency, while gas offers instant on and instant off, they are incredibly inefficient, with only about 40% of the heat reaching the food when cooking. As you can imagine, the rest of that wasted heat is absorbed by the space in the kitchen, adding to the overall heat load of the room.
As utilities continue to increase the percentage of renewable generation sources, electricity begins to emerge as the energy source with the potential to have a smaller carbon footprint. Between a steady pace of coal generation electrical plants decommissioning and continuously decreasing costs for renewable energy combined with increasing storage paired with increasingly ambitious state and city carbon-reduction goals, the utilities are sending a strong signal that electricity is the energy source of the future. Xcel Energy and Duke Energy have publicly stated plans to reduce emissions by 80% by 2030 and 100% by 2050.
The most obvious route to move towards these decarbonization goals is the electrification of building heating systems and transportation systems. The result, however, is an increased demand for electrical supply. Some have estimated as much as an 85% increase in supply will be required to meet the demand by 2050.
This underscores the importance of energy efficiency. With increased demand brings increased pressure to minimize wasted resources. While electrification provides a cost-effective path to decarbonization, it still pales compared to the opportunity to reduce costs through improved efficiency. The next decade will underscore the importance of identifying opportunities to recognize waste and improve efficiency within our built environment’s electrical consumption. We are quickly approaching when realizing those efficiencies will be expected rather than encouraged, meaning the financial incentives begin to shift away from efficiency and move towards electrification. A lesson can be gleaned from lighting, where financial incentives have started to turn away from offering large incentives for conversion from incandescent lighting to LED. The payback is already present in efficiency alone; the utility companies are increasingly finding it less necessary to provide additional financial incentives for these conversions. While we are not there yet, this same trajectory may begin to show itself in other efficiency measures. The lesson: don’t wait. If you plan on using utility incentive dollars to help increase your ROI associated with electrification, you need to be preparing for those improvements now and reserving those incentive funds before they shift to other priorities.