Designing the Tesla building
In the midst of this dramatic shift from gas to electric-powered automobiles, we can envision the impending transition to fully electric-powered buildings. No, Tesla has not started constructing buildings — but its transformative design approach can revolutionize the buildings industry.
By eschewing internal combustion in favor of electricity-driven mobility, all-electric vehicles (EVs) have catalyzed a new era in mobility. Recognizing this new future, automakers, corporations and nations are committing to a fossil-fuel free transportation future. In just the past few months, DHL, IKEA, Norway, France, Great Britain, India, China, Volvo and even General Motors have announced plans to eliminate gas-powered vehicles in order to realize the myriad benefits of electric mobility.
What emerged was a product that was more efficient, safer, quicker, cleaner, healthier, quieter, more aerodynamic and cheaper to operate than before. The design of these high-performance machines provides lessons for maximizing the benefits of all-electric buildings.
An all-electric approach presents a similar opportunity to design and optimize buildings in pursuit of better, cheaper, more sustainable performance. As with EVs, opting out of combustion introduces new constraints into the building design process.
Traditional buildings burn cheap natural gas to provide low-cost heating. This methane-based approach, however, belies systemic inefficiency and inflexibility. By reframing buildings in an all-electric context, new value streams and synergies can be realized, providing far-reaching benefits to building occupants, owners and the surrounding community.
Unlike natural gas, which must be burned to provide heating energy, electricity can be used in a variety of ways — enabling additional services beyond heating. For example, an electric-powered compressor allows a heat pump to provide cooling in addition to heating with one piece of equipment. The controllability of electric heat pumps can enhance occupant comfort and contribute to grid resiliency in ways that natural gas systems cannot.
As dispatchable appliances, heat pumps can be ramped up or down in response to grid conditions, providing more reliability and enabling more renewable energy penetration. This flexibility unlocks new value streams, which could enable grid service-based compensation for heat pumps — all while delivering heat at four times the efficiency of a natural gas boiler.Electric energy is, by its nature, more flexible and responsive than the chemical energy offered by conventional fossil fuels.
The grid scale compounds these benefits, which are summarized by the metric "resource-to-room" efficiency (see image above). This metric reflects total supply chain energy losses, from natural resource extraction through room-level heating — just as "well-to-wheel" efficiency accounts for all energy losses between oil extraction and vehicle propulsion. As illustrated, the resource-to-room efficiency of natural gas heating is only 80 percent. If this fuel was instead combusted in a top-of-the-line natural gas power plant, an all-electric building could leverage that same natural gas at 135 percent increases as more renewable energy is incorporated into the electricity supply.
Electric energy is, by its nature, more flexible and responsive than the chemical energy offered by conventional fossil fuels. As buildings become more connected and complex, this flexibility can be leveraged in increasingly beneficial ways to enhance the occupant experience — while simultaneously improving grid resiliency, boosting economic productivity and reducing the negative environmental and human health effects of combusting fossil fuels.
Reliance on fossil fuels cannot be eliminated overnight, but as the case of the electric vehicle highlights — a focus on holistic, innovative design strategies also can catalyze the all-electric transition for the built environment.