By Bobby Almeida, Project Manager
As people, companies, and governments become more and more serious in tackling global warming, one strategy is to completely remove direct carbon emissions from buildings. This strategy, known as building electrification or decarbonization, has gained momentum as the science continues to remind us that we aren’t doing enough to decrease CO2 emissions.
Building operations account for 28% of global CO2 emissions according to Architecture 2030, and the only way to eliminate those emissions is through decarbonization. Cities have taken notice as well. New York has passed a building decarbonization ordinance, requiring buildings to reduce their CO2 emissions or face significant fines. Los Angeles is in the process of adapting their own ordinance to require most buildings to be net zero by 2050 with incremental steps along the way. Other cities aren’t far behind.
Recent marketing has pushed the notion the natural gas is a clean way to generate energy, but that’s just marketing. According to the EPA's eGRID 2016 data the average electricity in California emits approximately 70 kg of CO2 per MBTU of energy, while natural gas emits 55 kg per MBTU of energy. However, that’s assuming the same appliance efficiency. In reality, a high efficiency gas appliance is only 96% efficient, while a standard heat pump is 330% or more efficient. Factoring in efficiency, natural gas is at 57 kg per MBTU of energy and electricity is at 21 kg per MBTU of energy. That means electricity has less than half the carbon emissions! While there are a few electricity regions in the United States where natural gas has slightly lower emissions, remember that this is based off of 2016 data. Electricity generation has only gotten cleaner with more renewables since then and will continue to do so.
The technology already exists to completely electrify buildings, especially in warmer climates such as California. When looking at a normal building there are three typical reasons for natural gas consumption. The first is space heating, the second is hot water, and the third is cooking. Both space heating and hot water can be replaced by heat pumps. A heat pump is essentially an air conditioning unit running backwards, and they are extremely common. Any rooftop packaged HVAC unit can easily be replaced with a heat pump. Buildings with boilers that make hot water for space heating can use a heat pump to make hot water. The same technology can be used to make hot water for sinks, showers, and other plumbing and kitchen fixtures. Cooking may seem daunting, but the answer is very simple. Induction cooking is an extremely efficient, high precision way to cook and it only uses electricity. Induction cooking is common in Europe but isn’t as widespread in the United States. There aren’t any downsides to induction cooking since is offers more control than gas while reducing cooking times. Whether at home on a busy night or in a restaurant trying to eke out a profit, cooking time is important.
I can personally attest to all of these technologies. At home my wife and I have a heat pump for space heating, a heat pump water heater, and induction cooking. They all work great, and I don’t ever want to go back to any gas alternatives. Additionally, the lack of gas provides us with peace of mind since our fire risk is lower, and I don’t have to remember to shut off the gas line in the event of an earthquake.
The push to decarbonize buildings is necessary if we are going to limit the destructive impacts of climate change, but it will provide some secondary benefits as well. New buildings won’t have to install natural gas, which avoids piping and installation costs, meter costs, and waiting on the utility to turn on the meter. The Clean Power Alliance says an all-electric new home costs approximately $6,000 less than a home with natural gas. Additionally, burning gas creates emissions other than carbon dioxide. Toxic pollutants such as carbon monoxide, nitrous oxides, and others will be reduced as our buildings move away from natural gas. Once you combine all of these benefits it is easy to see why building decarbonization is such an important step forward, and why so many companies and governments are moving in that direction.