Northeastern states map the challenges of electrification

Northeastern states map the challenges of electrification

Northeastern states over electric lines
Shutterstockcheda/GreenBiz Collage

The only way to achieve climate targets in the Northeast is to start electrifying transportation and heating to a high level. According to the report "Action Plan to Accelerate Strategic Electrification in the Northeast (PDF)," a committee of over 30 stakeholders is laying the groundwork for a massive revamp of the region’s electric power consumption to meet climate goals.

Northeast Energy Efficiency Partnerships (NEEP) produced the report in collaboration with many other groups as part of a multi-year ongoing dialogue about electrification of the regional energy system.

"To meet the aggressive long-term carbon reduction goals established throughout the region, serious work to transform our energy systems and markets must ramp up quickly," the NEEP report said. Switching from fossil fuels to electric power "is necessary to reduce carbon emissions by 80 percent in the Northeast while driving economic development."

The logistics of this transformation appear to be very difficult, the NEEP report said. Currently, the region depends more on fuel oil for water and space heating than any other part of the United States. A great deal of technical innovation and financial investment will be required to shift the existing blueprint toward new fuel sources. 

Complicating the situation further, 70 percent of the region’s building stock was constructed before efficiency codes existed, according to the Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory (LBNL) report "Electrification of Buildings and Industry in the United States (PDF)."

Space heating makes up around 50 percent of the energy that residential and commercial buildings consume, the NEEP report said.

New technology incentives

The new technologies require a jump start to energize their markets.

Electric vehicles, advanced heat pumps and heat pump water heaters (HPWH) probably will be the key ingredients in electrifying the power system, the NEEP report said. These advanced heat pumps will include variable refrigerant flow heat pumps (VRF), ground source heat pumps (GSHP) and cold climate air source heat pumps (ccASHP).

Although initial investment and marketing are required to ramp up the use of these new solutions, many benefits may appeal to customers. These may include lower maintenance and/or operations costs, increased customer safety, improved home comfort and reduced air pollution, according to the NEEP report.

"ASHPs are a huge factor in electrification of buildings. There are more and more places that are starting to offer incentives for ASHPs," said Jeff Deason, program manager at LBNL. "The Northeast tends to be a focal point for those incentives."

According to the LBNL report, Vermont has set a target of having 35,000 ASHPs installed by 2025. National Grid’s Rhode Island office is considering putting a heat pump incentive in place. Massachusetts Clean Energy Center already offers substantial incentives. These incentives range from $2,500 to $30,000 per heat pump. 

Advanced smart-grid technology, including features for distributed generation, can yield energy efficiency dividends when electrification takes place.

Action plan recommendations

The NEEP report emphasized setting concrete goals that include building code updates, vehicle carbon emissions, building-fuel goals, charging-infrastructure construction and energy-performance targets. However, it is not clear how these objectives would be put into action.

Developing metrics related to carbon reduction, economic sustainability, grid benefits and environmental advantages would be a useful part of this process, according to the NEEP report.

Business stakeholder participation is necessary to move these goals forward. This could include stockholder incentives, marketing campaigns and employee training. The NEEP report said the marketing campaigns could use nonpartisan messaging by mentioning energy independence, cost savings, local jobs and business development.

Utility companies should initiate pilot tests of microgrid technologies, dynamic rates, distributed generation, community solar, distributed storage and load management, the NEEP report said.

Local governments should retool their urban plans and transit goals to improve electrification as well, according to the NEEP report. This should include transit options for disadvantaged communities and small businesses. These might include electric buses, electric vehicles and ride sharing.

Providing affordable heating equipment to communities that cannot easily budget for it is a crucial part of these plans that NEEP has developed.

Technical, economic and behavioral market barriers

What is holding back the transformation of the Northeastern market?

"The obstacles really aren’t technical for the most part at this point," Deason said. "There are units on the market that can meet the needs of different households. The next place to go is considerations of economic potential. Is it in the interest of homeowners and business owners to adopt these? Will their energy costs go down as compared to the alternatives? That depends on a number of factors we lay out in the report. Economics are the barrier."

One economic issue that comes up is the need for building retrofits. If a landlord’s electrical demand increases substantially, that will result in additional costs to upgrade their electrical panel systems.

"If you fairly dramatically increase the electric load to these panels, you’re going to have to upgrade them or change them out," Deason said. "The expense of that can be significant and make the difference between whether or not an electric solution is cost-effective."

There is also a behavioral obstacle to fuel switching that comes up when building owners and contractors look at introducing electricity.

"Depending on exactly what you’re upgrading, there may be certain biases among building owners, contractors and energy service professionals toward replacing a light fuel with a light fuel," Deason said. "There are definitely fewer barriers when converting from electric resistance heating to heat pumps, because those are electrically powered."

It’s much easier to transition from electric resistance heating to ASHPs than to switch over from fossil fuels to ASHPs. Deason said, "Even where the economics might look good, the building owner or whoever’s servicing that building may not think in terms of making that change.

"Heat pumps do very well when compared to electric resistance heating in most of the modeling exercises in terms of their economics. That’s an easy sell."

Amplifying constructive marketing messages to contractors could help to solve this problem. As Northeastern stakeholders solidify their plans and plan their pilots, they will strategize to move forward.

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