Smart Cities

Building Electrification Demands Smart Adaptation

The growing trend of electrification in buildings appears to be an obvious choice for authorities around the world. Electrification was prominent in California’s latest Building Energy Efficiency Standards update and in president Biden’s efficient buildings strategy, it has been a growing influence on building policy in the EU for sometime and is estabilishing itself as an important issue in the Asia Pacific region. Electrification is a win for governments striving to grow their economies and meet decarbonization goals, it is a win on cost for building owners and tenants, and a win for the planet and everyone on it (except maybe the fossil fuel industry). However, electrification is not as simple as making a decision and flipping a switch, our buildings will have to adapt. “Many organizations have started to prioritize energy and sustainability initiatives, but how can building owners and facility managers, each with unique logistical and functional needs, best prepare for a future that may drastically differ […]

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The growing trend of electrification in buildings appears to be an obvious choice for authorities around the world. Electrification was prominent in California’s latest Building Energy Efficiency Standards update and in president Biden’s efficient buildings strategy, it has been a growing influence on building policy in the EU for sometime and is estabilishing itself as an important issue in the Asia Pacific region. Electrification is a win for governments striving to grow their economies and meet decarbonization goals, it is a win on cost for building owners and tenants, and a win for the planet and everyone on it (except maybe the fossil fuel industry). However, electrification is not as simple as making a decision and flipping a switch, our buildings will have to adapt.

“Many organizations have started to prioritize energy and sustainability initiatives, but how can building owners and facility managers, each with unique logistical and functional needs, best prepare for a future that may drastically differ from current operations?,” asks Mark Danzenbaker, CEO of GridPoint, in an article for Facility Executive. “Building owners and facility operators can not only adapt to an all-electric future, but simultaneously reduce costs, accelerate sustainability goals, and give back to the communities in which they operate.”

In the simplest sense, electrification means we can power everything in buildings by renewable energy, but it is about more than just that. On our road to 100% renewable energy we must also reduce consumption as much as possible by eliminating waste and maximizing efficiency, electrification helps by bringing all devices into the smart energy management ecosystem. Electrification brings health benefits too, according to Heath Effects from Gas Stove Pollution, a 2020 report by Rocky Mountain Institute (RMI), homes with gas stoves can have nitrogen dioxide concentrations 50% to 400% higher than homes with electric stoves, and children living in those homes with a gas stove have a 24% to 42% increased risk of developing asthma. 

Electrification has shown to reduce cost for buildings owners and tenants, providing more money for health, wellbeing, and other human-centric building improvments. Rewiring America research found 85% of US households would save money on monthly energy bills if they used modern all-electric equipment, and ACEEE analysis shows 27% of US commercial space can be electrified with a payback of less than 10 years, even without rebates. Finally, electrifying all buildings will drive the economy by creating a huge number of new jobs for a socially and geographically diverse group of people. However, with buildings producing 40% of all carbon emissions, climate change remains the major driver for building electrification.

“Greater electrification of building services, coupled with energy efficiency and a low carbon electricity supply system, is one of the key solutions, but the increased electrification of buildings will have significant implications for the design and operation of buildings and their technical services systems,” reads a technical memorandum on building electrification by the Chartered Institution of Building Services Engineers (CIBSE). “Electricity is currently much more expensive than fossil fuels at the point of use in part because it carries the costs of grid decarbonisation. This may change in the future, in the meantime this could run the risk of heavy increases in energy bills without well-considered design.”

Seventy million American buildings burn natural gas, oil, or propane, on-site to heat their space and water, generating 560 million tons of carbon dioxide each year, 10% of total US emissions, according to The Economics of Electrifying Buildings, a 2018 RMI report. While 2021 data from the US Census Bureau and Department of Housing and Urban Development estimate that over one hundred million US are buildings burning fossil fuels, contributing 13% of total US emissions. Their October 2021 update also demonstrates the speed of new construction is increasing the scale of the problem —of the 1.4 million new homes constructed last year, more than half were built with fossil fuel heating or appliances.

These “dirty” appliances and building systems are then typically “locked in” for at least the average 10-15 years life expectancy of appliances, if not for the whole 60-year life expectancy of buildings. Electrification of appliances is a low-hanging fruit in the decarbonization of buildings and will have a significant impact on the numbers - if we are to reach our lofty decarbonization goals we will have to act now to stop the rot. All eyes are on governments to ensure all new builds are fully electric and to drive progressive retrofit programs, on industry to provide the necessary smart solutions, and on all building stakeholders to better future-proof their assets while helping mitigate the impacts of climate change.

“Electrifying all existing and new buildings is another top economywide decarbonization policy. Most of the US building stock that will exist in 2050 is already built today, which means existing fossil fuel equipment in buildings must be replaced with electrified alternatives. This means replacing fossil fuel-powered space heating, water heating, and cooking equipment with electric alternatives such as air source heat pumps, and electric or induction cookstoves,” reads an April 2021 paper by Energy Innovation. “Considering appliances can last up to 20 years, all new equipment must be electric by 2030 to ensure an all-electric building stock by 2050.”

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