Decarbonization and electrification are buzz words passing through the engineering profession. Some consider these two words to be one and the same. However, that is not true. Decarbonization simply means a reduction in carbon, thus the reduction in carbon dioxide generated during combustion. Electrification is the use of electricity for power. Hence, electrification is one means used to attain decarbonization.
Electrification has entered the vocabulary of elected officials trying to appear as good stewards of the environment and climate change. Sometimes this means going to electric vehicles. Other times, it means eliminating any fuel-burning item. As a result, there are states and major jurisdictions looking to mandate electrification in the codes to achieve decarbonization. To the engineering community, this means the elimination of gas-fired and oil-fired appliances. It would also mean the elimination of wood-burning and pellet-burning appliances. Water heaters, boilers, furnaces and air handlers would all have to be powered by electricity, not fossil fuels or solid fuels.
Before jumping to the notion of electrification, we need to ask the age-old question children ask when traveling, “Are we there yet?” For the vast majority of the United States, the answer is a resounding, no. Actually, we are years away for most parts of the country. Keep in mind, I wholeheartedly support reducing the impact on climate change. The engineering community owes it to the world to solve the issues of climate change. This is our responsibility.
I recently prepared a report for a major jurisdiction that was considering mandating electrification in the codes (Building, Mechanical and Plumbing). Any engineering analysis has to look at the total picture regarding decarbonization. When we burn fossil fuels, we emit carbon dioxide into the atmosphere. A layperson would say, “Then stop burning gas or oil with building heating appliances.”
What the layperson often does not understand is what generates electricity. The majority of electricity in the United States still comes from burning gas, oil and coal. A smaller percentage of electricity is generated by nuclear power and renewable power including wind, solar, geothermal and hydroelectric. If the electricity is nuclear, wind, solar, or hydroelectric, the switch to electrification should be now. But when using fossil fuels, electrification would not result in decarbonization. In fact, it may be the opposite, with the amount of carbon dioxide increasing rather than decreasing.
Let’s go back to that major jurisdiction and the report on electrification. The state in which the jurisdiction is located claims that there are no more coal-fired power plants within the state. That happens to be a true statement. However, the jurisdiction buys electricity from a neighboring state that does use coal-fired power plants to generate electricity. Furthermore, other than a small percentage of electricity generated by wind, the remaining electrical power for the jurisdiction is generated by gas-fired power plants.
I will not argue the differences between coal-fired and gas-fired power plants. Coal has been picked on enough. Both generate large volumes of carbon dioxide. The real question is how efficient are these fossil-fueled power plants. Realize that the majority of fossil-fueled power plants typically use the fuel to create steam, which operates turbines to generate electricity. As every engineer knows, every step along the way means a loss in efficiency.
Not surprisingly, most fossil-fueled power plants operate at approximately 40% efficiency. If a gas-fired power plant adds all of the bells and whistles to increase efficiency, they get up to 60% efficient. Not all that great in terms of efficiency.
Next, we look at the efficiency of building appliances. A very poor performing heating appliance operates at 80% efficiency or higher. However, many appliances operate at more than 95% efficiency. If electricity is supplied by a fossil-fueled power plant, the switch to electricity will increase the amount of carbon dioxide entering the atmosphere. A 40% efficient power plant has to operate more than twice as long to provide the same amount of energy as the gas-fired appliance for the building.
I realize that this is simple math, but it is not far from what you will find when grinding out all of the numbers. If you want a low-end number to use to determine the breakeven point regarding decarbonization, it would be two-thirds, or 66%, of the electricity must be generated by nuclear power or renewable energy. When the amount of nuclear power and renewable energy increases to generate electricity, decarbonization also increases.
If you are wondering how many parts of the United States have more than 66% of electricity generated by nuclear power or renewable energy, it is very few. What immediately comes to mind is Las Vegas. The City of Las Vegas, and surrounding areas, have their electricity generated by the hydroelectric power plant at Hoover Dam, as well as, various solar installations. Electrification makes sense.
Many areas in the state of Washington have their power generated from a combination of nuclear power and hydroelectric. Similarly, New York has both hydroelectric from Niagara Falls and nuclear power. The last time I checked, Illinois is the state with the highest percentage of power generated by nuclear power plants. However, many of those nuclear power plants are slated to be closed, with no new nuclear power plants on the horizon.
Until there is a major switch in the generation of electricity in the United States, electrification in the codes is a major step backward in regard to decarbonization. We need a concerted effort to develop more wind, solar, hydroelectric, and yes, nuclear power. This will move us in the right direction toward electrification.
I would rather have a 95% efficient gas-fired boiler installed, as opposed to a highly efficient electric boiler using electricity generated by a 40% efficient fossil-fueled power plant. Electrification is a goal we must strive to achieve, but we are not there yet. It is still going to take a number of years to get to that point.
The views expressed here are strictly those of the author and do not necessarily represent PM Engineer or BNP Media.