Electrification: The Long Road Ahead
America is moving toward an all-electric world, powered by renewable energy sources. The restricting of fossil fuels has become such a passionate fervor that some have defaced famous artwork (search: “just stop oil”) in support of restricting petroleum products. The current Presidential administration has designated billions of dollars to promote renewable energy. However, the transition to all-electric is not as easy as just ending the use of fossil fuels. Switching to all-electric will require time, more energy generation, and research into advanced technical solutions to make this transition a reality.
Renewable Energy: A Snapshot
The Energy Information Agency released its annual figures for how the U.S. generated electrical power in 2021. The U.S. needs to produce about 12 (to 15) times more electricity to meet current demand and will also need to create sufficient storage capacity to offset low production periods. Looking at the chart, we only need about four times more electricity generation. However, the industrial, commercial, and residential sectors also used about 19 trillion cubic feet of natural gas in 2021. Simple math says that equates to about 5,850,000 megawatts, or about 1,500,000 megawatts more than the current total electrical production. NOTE: This figure excludes any benefits from appliance efficiencies or distribution/line losses. And that is just to replace natural gas. I did not calculate what would be needed to replace gasoline or other fuel oil.
Other Renewable Energy Challenges
Some electric sources are intermittent. The sun shines, and then it sets. The wind blows, and then it stops. Historically, the grid had transmission (power generation) and distribution (the loads). Power flowed one way. Adding an ever-increasing amount of variable renewable energy (VRE) at the distribution level changes the system paradigm. Instead of one-way power flow, there are branches that will experience current from two directions because local renewable sources produce power and feed it to the distribution network. Multiple renewable energy sources create challenges since the added power may appear as a fault, change in load, or a change in generation. The variation in current might cause nuisance tripping, failure to trip, under-reach/overreach problems, auto-reclosing problems, and more. Research into solutions for this problem is underway and will be deployed into an integrated and improved electrical grid.
Manufacturers are Doing Their Part
The market shift to all-electric appliances has prompted manufacturers to improve heat pump heating capacity. Heat pumps were once air conditioners with a quirky valve that allowed them to provide heat during the spring and fall. Many manufacturers are now testing “cold-climate” heat pumps that deliver ample capacity at temperatures lower than -20F! The industry is doing its part to support heating solely with heat pumps.
Contractors are Critical
Marvelous new HVAC systems are great, but they are not enough. High-efficiency heat pumps are extremely dependent on the crew that installs them to meet their intended efficiency. First, the designer who calculates the Manual J® load selects the equipment and designs the duct system. Second, in existing homes, ducted HVAC systems rely heavily on the person who sold the new system as it is critical that the salesperson evaluates the ducts to ensure they are the right size, sealed tight, and insulated right (especially in unconditioned space). Finally, the star of the show, the installer! Correctly setting the new heat pump and ensuring proper operation are vital to comfort and performance. Fantastic new equipment that is poorly installed will fail to deliver comfort, waste energy, and possibly break down sooner than expected.
ACCA offers a Quality Installation Certificate to support quality HVAC professionals who commission the systems they install. These demonstrate to your customer that the expensive new system they purchased was installed right!
Bottom Line: The transition to all-electric buildings will take time. Despite the strong desire to switch to fully electric, there are A LOT more production and technical resources that must be developed and implemented. During that time, HVAC professionals can take steps to support the transition.
When you talk with your customers about replacing their HVAC system, it is important to understand what is happening in the market. Some customers will be passionate about heat pumps, others will want to continue to use fuel-fired heat. As always, present the facts, advise your customers, and help them to make the best decision possible.
As we continue to move toward an all-electric platform, you will need to ensure your business is ready to face the upcoming challenges and growth opportunities it is presented.
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