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Is Electrification a Fad?

A Movement You Can’t Ignore

Originally published
Originally published: 7/1/2024

Shag carpeting. Water beds. Cabbage Patch dolls. Furby. Who remembers these fads from decades past? 

In our current decade, with these once must-haves a distant memory, our attention has turned to the UN’s Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC). In 2021,  the panel published a report that made it   clear that unless we achieve net-zero carbon emissions and reduce additional greenhouse gases over the next decade, we may face pronounced environmental changes, including weather extremes and severe weather events. To avoid potentially catastrophic damage to our planet, we must act now and implement sustainable energy solutions. Moving away from fossil fuels toward green electric power sources is not a passing fad; it is the key to our planet’s survival.

A Regulatory Shift

Conversations at both the state and federal levels are focusing on reducing our carbon footprint and optimizing renewable energy sources in order to meet the goals of the Paris Climate Agreement. Buildings account for 40% of U.S. energy consumption and greenhouse gas emissions. In order to achieve the goals of the Paris Climate Agreement and limit global warming, decarbonizing buildings needs to be at the forefront of climate policy. 

Indeed, U.S. cities have begun to mandate lower emissions from new and existing building stock. New York City’s Climate Mobilization Act requires all buildings larger than 25,000 square feet to reduce carbon emissions by 40% by 2030. Washington, DC’s Clean Energy DC Omnibus Act sets minimum building energy performance standards, requiring commercial and multifamily buildings to increase energy efficiency. Standards are based on benchmarking data, with energy efficiency scores measured by annual energy consumption per square foot and compared with  the performance of similar-sized buildings nationwide. Buildings that do not meet standards are placed on a five-year compliance plan. The legislation also mandates that by 2032, 100% of the city’s energy supply must come from renewable sources. Additional municipalities across the United States and beyond are exploring similar building standards. 

Meeting these new standards will require a full-scale adoption of energy-efficient and low-carbon HVAC solutions powered by electricity and not fossil fuels in both existing buildings and new construction.  Technologies are available – oil-free, magnetic-bearing compressors, compressors using vapor injection, variable speed drives, automation solutions and predictive monitoring using artificial intelligence – that enable facilities to utilize electric power sources and optimize their energy consumption. This improves efficiency and lowers costs while maintaining and even improving performance and occupant comfort.

The Potential of Electrification Solutions

The move toward electrification in buildings holds tremendous potential for reduction in carbon emissions and energy usage, but retrofitting requires investment. Numerous older buildings have boilers, which can last for many years.

 Building owners often hesitate to discard expensive legacy systems that are still performing satisfactorily. Heat pumps and chillers that work in combination with an existing boiler system are an easy way to partially electrify the system and reduce emissions if a full retrofit isn’t possible. The International Energy Agency (IEA) estimates that heat pumps have the potential to reduce global CO2 emissions by at least 500 million tons by 2030. The IEA also reports that since 2010, the market share of heat pumps in the U.S. has more than doubled, with about 40% of new homes built with heat pumps. 

Heat recovery technology, which enables buildings to use rejected heat from cooling systems, such as those serving data centers, can also save energy and reduce emissions. But for effective heat recovery, energy storage –  cold, hot, or both, and potentially electricity storage as well – is critical. Another option is to increase the system scale, integrating multiple buildings and loads on a district scale, which can provide more load balance, built-in storage and additional options. Colleges and universities are beginning to build district energy systems within their campuses and are realizing the savings in energy and maintenance expenses.

Beyond HVAC

The transition to electric power is affecting all sectors, including transportation, water and wastewater treatment, and data centers, which are all  large sources of carbon emissions. Electrification is occurring across the globe as industry, government and climate agencies all work together to implement sustainable energy solutions.  Personal and commercial electric vehicles are becoming more affordable and more efficient in performance. With the federal government’s goal to make half of new U.S. cars zero-emission by 2030 and with the Inflation Reduction Act’s incentives and tax credits for the adoption of electric vehicles of all types – light, medium and heavy-duty – electrification will be far-reaching.

Transforming Infrastructure

Powering the world with electricity requires sufficient infrastructure to handle increased demand. Utilities will need to upgrade power grids to support the transition to electric power. In addition to incentivizing customers and industry to accelerate the adoption of carbon-free and energy-efficient technologies, the Inflation Reduction Act also offers tax credits and grants for utilities to upgrade their facilities with clean electricity generation, storage and renewable energy sources such as hydrogen.

Demand-side flexibility measures, such as load-shifting or peak-shaving, can reduce peak energy demand either by shifting energy use away from peak consumption periods or by avoiding peaks altogether by reducing energy usage for one function to serve another. Essentially, equipment can be switched off or turned down during peak demand periods, instead of choosing to use it at another time. Demand-side flexibility solutions become even more effective when coupled with efficient energy storage mechanisms, as they can automate energy storage deployment during low-demand periods when demand is higher. Aside from preserving grid function, demand-side flexibility also helps households and businesses lower energy costs. 

Electrification is happening all around us and is here to stay. With  available technologies and additional research and investment, electrification will provide a more efficient and sustainable way of life as we all work to meet regulatory requirements while increasing operational and cost efficiency in our businesses.

Akshay Arya is the Sales Director, Distribution & OEMS, for Danfoss Climate Solutions, North America. Akshay holds an undergraduate degree in instrumentation and control engineering from Rajiv Gandhi Technical University and an MBA in marketing and international business from Symbiosis International University.

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