Electric Power in the Future

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Tim Mack

Tim Mack

Image by Colin Behrens from Pixabay

It has been said that foresight as a field has occasionally been short on systems thinking. I do not mean systems thinking as a discrete discipline in itself, which has had its ups and downs over the years, but instead as a through understanding of logistic structures and cross-disciplinary dynamics. In this context, it is also the case that engineering (especially electrical engineering) has not always had a significant voice in setting policy on renewable energy systems development, especially in the United States. This is in part true because the congressional policy arena has been dominated for decades by the fossil fuel industry, which has had little or no interest in the successful development and marketplace expansion of renewables.

One example is the question of what the impact would be on the North American electric grid and its infrastructure if all U.S. buildings and most American vehicles were fully electrified. Would the load on this national infrastructure be overwhelming, and would the cost of power soar, generating economic catastrophe? This has been an insistent argument of the natural gas industry, which in the face of the declining vitality of the coal and other branches of the petroleum industry has become the most viable opponent of renewable power.

And what do we now mean by renewables? In the past, this has mainly meant wind and solar power. Those opposed stated with certainty that these resources would never match fossil fuels in terms of cost and efficiency, but does this continue to be true? One of the more interesting battlegrounds in this “heated” debate has been the state of New York, where utilities have insistently pushed for more gas pipelines and expanded gas infrastructure across the state for several decades. And interestingly, a significant portion of this debate is not now centering on solar panels or wind turbines, but instead on heat-pump technology and, most often, on ground-source heat pumps.

That technology has taken astounding leaps forward in the last few years. At present, new air-source heat pumps are now independently rated at twice to three times more efficient than gas furnaces, and ground-source heat pumps are proving three to five times more efficient than gas. As well, new construction standards such as passive and net-zero heating operating in complement with local regulation (such as higher levels of insulation) have improved new building envelopes while meeting tighter local emission standards.

As implied, these U.S. regulatory shifts are not at the national level, where fossil fuel interests continue to hold the U.S. Congress in thrall (one example is the lax U.S. regulation of fracking). These new local regulations seldom favor the fossil fuel industry, but do favor geothermal technology, which has emerged as a real contender. In Canada, the dialogue has reached the federal level, and fuel switching and building retrofits are now becoming increasingly acceptable across North America.

In comparison, Sweden’s federal program of educational encouragement and regulatory support has been in place for several decades. The result was a national shift in the use of heating oil from 9,000,000 cubic meters in 1975 to 500,000 cubic meters in 2014, in line with the nation’s increased federal restrictions on greenhouse gas emissions. This program of incentives and training (including both builders and homeowners) began in 1994 and has resulted in between 40 and 70 percent of new HVAC (heating, ventilation, and air-conditioning) systems being heat-pump based. Now, over 50 percent of Swedish homes are heated by heat pumps, mostly ground-source based.

What is interesting in the Swedish case study is that national electric use did not surge, but in fact went down nearly 30 percent over the above 20-year period (1994-2014), in part due to increases in heat-pump efficiencies. As a result, Sweden’s dependence on imported oil decreased significantly over the same period. This rather dramatic decrease in petroleum use and related energy costs, as a result of the national decision in Sweden to shift energy reliance on fossil fuels, happened in a society somewhat different from the United States. But these are policy matters, and not engineering ones.

From the engineering viewpoint, electric power patterns are clearly shifting. It is true that a massive increase in electric vehicles in the U.S. could theoretically put a nearly one trillion kilowatt additional demand on the national electric grid (about 20 percent of its present total capacity). But it is also clear that no dramatic shift will occur in the near future. In the past, electric cars required a national vehicle charging network to make them viable, much as the South Korean government mandated in the early 2000s. The capacity of the North American grid is not frozen in time, however, nor is the demand. As some use levels increase, others will decline.

This is especially true in terms of rooftop solar (also a localized dynamic). The cost of solar panels and related battery storage—which lessens the dependence on sunny days—will continue to drop significantly worldwide. This is enhanced by power-generating windows and coatings, and the consequence of this is the growing category of self-contained and energy-positive buildings, both new and retrofitted.

As well, load-optimization software is helping energy planners keep up with the shifting electricity landscape. One area of optimization has been the concentration of ground-source-based heat pumps in new developments, where the use of microgrid-management software helps reduce the number of ground bore holes necessary per house.

Another factor driving the shift to energy efficiencies and renewables is the growing number of enterprises like Alphabet X’s [Google] Dandelion Energy endeavor, which focuses on ground-based heat-pump installations. Although ground-based heat pumps are still more restrictively regulated in many areas than gas hookups, that seems to be changing, despite the continuing costs of installing the related loop assets.

Increasingly efficient home batteries and personal car chargers can also enable successful power sharing at peak load times from rooftop solar, often with a net gain to the local homeowner. As well, the lifetime cost of home electric management and electric vehicles will continue to drop in many regions of the world, with electric cars ahead of fossil fuel vehicles on that front. New power generation plants are also proving to be increasingly renewable, with the cost of coal and nuclear power now considered far too high to be competitive. And in addition are local/state legislation such as the Washington Clean Energy Transformation Act, which prohibits electric utilities in Washington state from supplying power from coal-fired utilities. Truly, renewables are coming into their own.

Further Reading

BF Nagy, “Can We Truly Electrify America?Plumbing and Hydronic Contractor News, September 2020, pp. 64-69. https://www.phcppros.com/articles/11967-can-we-truly-electrify-america

Jerry Yudelson, Reinventing Green Buildings, New Society Publications, 2016. Epilogue by Timothy Mack. https://newsociety.com/books/r/reinventing-green-building

Timothy C. Mack is managing principal of AAI Foresight Inc. and former president of the World Future Society (2004-2014). He may be reached at tcmack333@gmail.com.