By Tyler Jensen PE, LEED AP
Building electrification is the shift away from the on-site burning of fossil fuels and towards the use of technologies powered by electricity such as heat pumps. Using electricity in lieu of sources like natural gas can position a facility to reduce its on-site operational carbon footprint over time as the electricity grid greens. Carbon-free sources including solar, wind, and nuclear provided 46% of Arizona’s net energy generation in 2022 and that will only continue to grow. Arizona’s largest utility has committed to delivering 100% carbon-free energy by 2050 and another large Arizona utility plans to get 70% of its energy from wind and solar by 2035 (EIA).
Even in mild climates like Arizona, there are many gas-fired heating systems that are prime for electrification upgrades. Further, there are many electric resistance heating systems that would benefit from conversion to high efficiency heat pump technology and may provide a relatively rapid payback. Heat pumps move heat rather than generate heat, so they can be upwards of four times as efficient as electric resistance or gas-fired heaters.
And while natural gas prices have been steadily decreasing in recent months, some energy-market experts believe that may not last. With price uncertainty, now could also be the time to consider building electrification options as part of an organization’s overall emissions reductions and climate plan. Buildings are still one of the largest contributors to carbon emissions. With the increase in corporate climate pledges, market differentiation is critical to attracting top talent and tenants and retaining them at your facility.
Modifications to Securities and Exchange Commission (SEC) reporting guidelines that were released in March 2022 have mandated that publicly traded companies report their Scope 1 and 2 emissions on a phased schedule over the next several years. As the next generation of employees occupies the landscape, they are demanding additional transparency and firm commitments to their employer’s climate strategies. Building electrification is an important part of achieving those goals.
Incremental steps can lead to big results
Full building electrification for new facilities can be relatively straightforward in mild climates where heat pumps can operate well within their capabilities. But facility owners and operators seized by the desire to decarbonize an existing site often balk when presented with the option of 100-percent electrification using a large, expensive electrical heat pump system. However, this doesn’t have to be an all or nothing proposition.
Building electrification can be done responsibly with very significant impact even if you don’t initially adopt 100 percent electrification. Decarbonization goals can be reached incrementally. The focus on going all the way to net zero and 100 percent reduction of onsite operational carbon is not effective and can actually be harmful. Such an approach doesn’t let developers, landlords, and asset managers understand that they can make a big impact in their facility today while also allowing their buildings to be responsibly and easily upgraded in the future as technology advances.
Rather than devoting capital and operational expenditures for a fully electric retrofit project, building owners and operators should consider an incremental approach that initially targets upgrades to the primary heating systems that provide the bulk of the facility’s annual heating needs.
Additional high efficiency electric heat pumps can then be provided for ancillary systems such as gas-fired or electric resistance rooftop units as those units reach end of life. This approach significantly reduces operational carbon and allows the capital cost of full electrification to be spread out.
An effective asset drawdown strategy for an existing building can be phased and implemented over time so capital expenditures can be deployed incrementally and aligned as new leases are executed. Even where there is a central heating plant serving multiple tenants, partial upgrade of the plant can be feasible with the associated cost, energy, and carbon reduction allocated to specific tenants.
This allows an incremental shift toward electrification in line with tenant demand. However, it also requires a deep understanding of the hybrid plant’s configuration and operation so that a green lease can be successfully implemented, keeping in mind the operational costs on both new and current tenants.
Sustainable energy options are becoming more accessible
Electric heat pump technology has rapidly advanced in the last decade, particularly part-load and extreme cold weather performance. It is still incredibly important to optimize building heating and cooling load requirements before simply applying efficient technologies. A high performing envelope and well controlled ventilation strategies are critical. Strategies like retro- and monitoring-based commissioning ensure your facility is operating as intended. The costs of these efforts are often offset with local utility incentives.
Institutional and other large-scale users that require elevated energy capacities for their sites may find that the grid is unable to support a fully electric utility option for their facility. Given the challenges of storing and transporting hydrogen, onsite hydrogen generation is an exciting area of development that may allow these users to decarbonize. However, this technology is still in early days and is not yet effectively scaled to a point where it is feasible for most users.
Geothermal utilization is expected to increase in the coming decades. This technology continues to progress and coupled with advances in heat pump technology, which can produce hotter process fluid temperatures, geothermal is also becoming more suitable for retrofit applications.
Understanding the right path to electrification for your organization
While building electrification can be a powerful tool in the fight against climate change, a full understanding of the costs, incentives, logistics, and planning requirements must be achieved before proceeding. Although 100 percent electrification should be the goal, it is not always practical, and positive climate benefits can still be achieved in a cost-feasible manner.
About the author
Tyler Jensen is Studio Leader for High Performance Buildings at ESD, now Stantec Consulting Services. He has broad experience as a mechanical engineer and project manager across a variety of markets, with a focus on new construction, tall buildings, infrastructure, large commercial interior, and repositioning projects. Tyler is responsible for ensuring the performance, efficiency, and profitability of an interdisciplinary team of engineers and project managers. He is a member of ASHRAE and the Council of Tall Buildings and Urban Habitat (CTBUH), is a renowned speaker, and has published numerous articles within the industry.