By Andrew Epstein
Brendle Group has held a central place in my life since my mother created the company in 1996, the same year I was born. Though I effectively grew up alongside the company, after leaving Fort Collins in 2013 to pursue a bachelor’s degree in electrical engineering, I hadn’t spent much time in close proximity to Brendle Group. In December, I finished two years as a Peace Corps volunteer in Benin, West Africa and returned to Fort Collins to plan my next steps. In that time, with an eye toward better understanding what it takes to implement a beneficial electrification (BE) project, I evaluated the potential for BE at both Brendle Group’s headquarters and at my childhood home.
Systems Examined: Central Heating, Hot Water Heating, and Gas Stovetop Ranges
The existing central heating system installed at Brendle Group in 2010 consists of air source heat pumps (ASHPs) and Natural Gas (NG) furnaces for backup when the ASHPs can’t perform at low temperatures. Electric backups would be prohibitively expensive to operate at low temperatures, given that there are many days where the ASHPs require backup. Since 2010, however, ASHPs have evolved; and now solutions exist that can handle temperatures near zero degrees Fahrenheit before requiring backup heat. Such a system can therefore be paired with in-line electric backups for the rare extreme cold occurrence and is a great option for an all-electric central heating and cooling system.
Options for all-electric water heating (HWH) include electric tanked, electric on demand (point of use), electric tankless, and solar thermal systems with electric backup. The most feasible for us appears to be an electric tank water heater like Rheem’s Marathon high efficiency HWH, because on demand and tankless HWHs have a hard time keeping up with Colorado’s cold winter water temperatures, and hot water consumption at both sites is low enough that the high capital cost of a solar thermal system with backup heating doesn’t make financial sense.
At the residential building, replacing the gas range with an induction stovetop seems the best option. Induction ranges tout more powerful heat transfer (shorter cook times) than NG or traditional electric stovetops and are more efficient. Induction cookstoves work by magnetically inducing an electric current in the pan itself. The pan’s resistance to this current results in the heating of the pan without the cooktop ever heating. Induction ranges are a great option for BE, but it’s important to make sure the kitchen is wired to accommodate high current appliances (as induction ranges often need supply circuits rated to carry 40-50 amps).
Once all NG systems have been converted to electric, all that remains is to unsubscribe from NG service. Complete canceling of service is necessary to see the financial benefits since ~50% of every NG bill is fixed cost rather than consumption dependent.
Carbon Neutrality, Net Zero Energy, and the Economics of BE
Electrifying direct fossil fuel burning systems is beneficial from an emissions standpoint only when emissions are reduced, not just displaced, from the point of use to the power plant. Doing so requires electrifying the systems and then purchasing renewable energy from the utility or increasing onsite generation in order to cover the added electricity consumption of the new systems. In this sense, BE is also a great stepping stone to net zero energy where, on an annual basis, on-site electricity production equals consumption.
The majority of key takeaways from this exercise came through an examination of the economics of BE. In the case of the two buildings analyzed, I found that:
- Even when a new electric system consumes more energy or is more expensive to operate than an existing NG system, pairing it with increased on-site renewable generation can provide a reduction in emissions and a net cost benefit.
- For carbon neutrality, increasing on-site electricity generation to cover system needs is often more economical than purchasing green energy from the local electric utility.
- High NG fixed costs + low NG rates mean that to find an economic benefit it is important to shut off NG service entirely. A large reduction in NG consumption that does not eliminate the NG bill entirely leaves relatively high fixed costs.
- Local electric utility rate structures are different for residences with electric heat versus non-electric central heat and it is important to model the switch when calculating savings.
- Certain financial incentives are available, from local suppliers, for installing high efficiency electric systems. In some regions, utilities, cities, and municipalities also provide financial incentives.
On the whole, beneficial electrification paired with increased on-site generation presents a great opportunity for building owners. Through beneficial electrification, many sites (including those I analyzed) can reduce their emissions and operating costs, and help pave a path to a more sustainable future.
About the Author – Andrew received his bachelor’s degree in electrical engineering from Stanford University where he studied power electronics and their associated controls, with a focus on applications in cleantech. Upon graduating, he spent two years living in and working on a variety of grassroots projects in Sinendé, Benin. Andrew is currently a technical product manager at Doosan Gridtech where he contributes to the design of software products that manage large scale energy storage systems for utilities and independent power producers.