The 2030 District Challenge for Planning seeks to significantly reduce site energy use intensity for existing buildings with the intent to reduce carbon emissions from the built environment to slow the effects of climate change.
While energy efficiency can go a long way toward reducing a building’s emissions, a building cannot fully decarbonize without eliminating on-site fossil fuel combustion. Making a building’s space heating and cooling, hot water, and appliances all-electric eliminates on-site combustion and allows a building to be supplied with on- or off-site clean energy.
Building electrification not only helps reduce greenhouse gas emissions, it also improves indoor air quality and can reduce costs.
While we know that electrification has numerous benefits, we also know that it is more difficult to achieve in existing buildings where systems need replaced than in new construction where an all-electric infrastructure is chosen from the outset.
To dig into the details on how existing buildings can electrify affordably, we called on building, regulatory, and policy experts to give us the lay of the land.
Space heating represents the largest end use in commercial buildings. For buildings that use fossil fuels, the most common systems are package units and boilers.
Scalable electric replacement solutions exist (for the most part.) ACEEE’s analysis tested three system replacement scenarios: packaged rooftop units with rooftop heat pumps; furnace + central air conditioning with split or packaged heat pumps; and boilers/space heater + central/room/no air conditioning with ductless or variable refrigerant flow (WRF) heat pumps. Buildings with large central boilers + chiller systems require a site-specific solution and are more difficult to electrify cost-effectively.
Replacements are more financially viable with explicit support for electrification. In all replacement scenarios, supporting programs or policies significantly increases the number of buildings that would experience a <10-year payback period.
Equitable electrification is essential. Equity should be a key consideration for regulators in examining the future of gas. Low-income customers and renters face barriers to electrification and will bear the brunt of the cost when gas customers dwindle unless regulators intervene on how gas assets are paid for and halt the expansion of new gas infrastructure that costs money to maintain.
Regulation needs renovation. Regulatory accessibility, buildings as flexible grid resources, rate design, infrastructure build-outs, policy and programs need to work together in service of electrification to maximize benefits.
Beneficial electrification has three components. This includes (1) reducing total energy, (2) saving money, and (3) reducing emissions. It is also often accompanied by energy efficiency technologies, i.e. high-efficiency heat pumps.
Energy Efficiency Resource Standards can help or hinder electrification alongside energy efficiency. New York and Massachusetts have fuel-neutral Btu goals to ensure an overall improvement in energy efficiency irrespective of fuel source. However, Pennsylvania’s electric consumption reduction program, Act 129, prevents replacing fossil fuel equipment with electric equipment in service of its goal.
Opportunity exists to accelerate decarbonization. Pennsylvanians can learn from peer states that are better aligning utility incentives and complementary programs (e.g. weatherization) with building decarbonization goals.