When is the Right Time to Electrify?

WHERE WE ARE NOW

With the imperative to quickly reduce CO2 emissions, cities have focused much of their attention on improving energy efficiency in buildings. In New York City, several local laws and changes to building codes are already yielding significant benefits, including the ban on burning heavier fuel oils (No.6 and No.4), and changes to the Energy Code that require new buildings and building alterations to have higher-performing facades and equipment.

As a result, while the total built square footage of the city has increased by about 7 percent since the turn of the century, greenhouse gas emissions have decreased by more than 14 percent. While the city is on a good trajectory, more must be done to achieve the steep reductions needed to mitigate climate change.

TODAY’S GRID ISN’T READY FOR THE ELECTRIFICATION OF BUILDING SYSTEMS

Notwithstanding the need to alter people’s habits in how and when they consume energy, much talk has centered on replacing building systems that burn fossil fuel—mostly natural gas—with electricity. While the potential benefits of electrification can be significant in helping the city meet its 80x50 challenge, initiating it without drastically altering the current mix of energy generation would effectively result in increased overall emissions.

Currently, about 50 percent of the grid’s capacity is considered non-carbon emitting (mostly due to the Indian Point nuclear power plant,) which is relatively lean in comparison to the rest of the nation. However, this mix of power delivered to New York City still emits about 0.70 pounds of CO2 per kilowatt hour. As a reference, the burning of natural gas (including extraction and transportation) produces 0.45 pounds of CO2 per kilowatt hour of energy, as calculated by the Department of Energy.

As we move forward, we can expect that old and inefficient gas-fired systems in buildings will be replaced with high-efficiency electric heat pump systems or other equivalents. However, the differential in CO2 emissions between the burning of natural gas in buildings and consuming electricity, with its current generation mix, is still too wide. Even if one accounts for the shift in the annual peak demand from summer to winter as heating systems electrify, and that CO2 emissions from the grid are generally lower in winter than the published average yearly value, it’s clear that increasing electric energy use without addressing the current generating mix or rate structures will not result in the desired CO2 reductions.

WHAT’S NEXT?

For electrification to become reality, the generation of electricity, its transportation and its pricing will need to become more cost effective and less carbon intensive. On October 4, Urban Green’s conference, It's Electrifying: Exploring NYC's Climate Plan to Electrify Buildings, will begin to examine these critical challenges—and I look forward to seeing you there.

About the author

Elias Dagher
Elias Dagher is the Senior Principal at Dagher Engineering.