The Path of Beneficial Electrification

California Geo 4-3-20

Electricity has operated stationary devices and equipment for much of its history.  Until the development of Lithium-ion batteries for hand tools, plugs and cords were necessary to run equipment not already hard-wired to circuit breakers in an electrical box.  Aside from a brief, 1950s residential trend toward the “gold medallion” all-electric home, electricity in buildings has been supplanted by fossil fuel supplies for buildings’ major thermal loads.

The “new” Gold Medallion-

That 1950s all-electric home was often a result of electric utilities wanting to sell more power for greater revenue and potential profit—a mechanism that regulators have since removed as a utility’s incentive.  Today, however, there is a renewed push for electrification of buildings and other segments of our culture by regulatory policy goals.  The size and breadth of this trend is intended to remove combustion emissions from our lives, thus providing defense against greenhouse gas-based global warming and the continued climate change we are already seeing.  This effort is called B.E. (Beneficial Electrification) and it’s taking hold.

Formally, BE is called “Environmentally Beneficial Electrification,” promoting the electrification of energy end uses currently powered by fossil fuels (natural gas, propane, gasoline, diesel and fuel oil) including transportation, space conditioning and water heating with low or no carbon electricity.  As the U.S. electric supply becomes less carbon intensive, BE is the quickest and best path for the United States to reach meaningful reductions in carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gas emissions.  Electrification will provide utility companies an opportunity to obtain cost-effective load growth and new revenue opportunities.

What we advocate- 

At the California Geothermal Heat Pump Association, we always push a consistent message— how renewable energy can replace fossil fuel use and its emissions that threaten our health in the near term and our survival as a species in the long term.  Our equipment replaces fossil fuel heating and hot water production.  And it provides cooling on far less power than typical air conditioning.  We are synonymous with BE and rely on a sustainable resource of the earth’s thermal battery for most of the thermal energy we import or reject from/to underground.  Geothermal heat pumps (GHPs) are a well-established electrification technology that provides high value to all electric utility stakeholders by moderating consumption, particularly during periods of extreme heat or cold.

As outlined in the Oak Ridge National Laboratory report, “Geothermal (Ground-Source) Heat Pumps: Market Status, Barriers to Adoption, and Actions to Overcome Barriers December 2008,”  if the U.S. building sector sets a goal to use the same amount of nonrenewable primary energy in 2030 that it did in 2008, it is estimated that 35 to 40 percent of this goal (a savings of 3.4 to 3.9 quads annually) could be achieved through aggressive deployment of GHPs. They have the potential to offset about 35 to 40 percent of the projected growth in total building energy consumption between now and 2030.  And, as electricity becomes greener, the environmental benefits will increase from each GHP installed.

Fair Rate Design

GHPs provide peak demand reduction (.55 kW to .88 kW summer peak reduction per ton of installed capacity) and predict significant annual kWh increased sales.  But standard rates do not recognize these benefits to the grid. 

Fair rate design would recognize the load factor improvement provided by GHP systems over traditional gas furnace and air conditioning installations.  There is a strong argument that the increased kWh consumption and load factor of GHP-equipped buildings (versus conventional HVAC and water heating systems) would generate more net revenue for the electric utility against the same fixed cost of electricity delivery. 

These increased revenue contributions should be equalized to the baseline fossil fuel buildings via lower rates. Since electric vehicles are given favorable (lower) rates, then the same should apply to GHP systems.  Utilities can and should offer GHP rates that reflect these benefits. This approach serves the dual purposes of allowing customers to reduce their overall energy use (and costs) while encouraging beneficial electrification at a faster pace. 

Incentives by policy- 

In a democratic society we depend on government leadership for protection; not just militarily, but also socially, legally, and economically.  While we may appreciate or disdain the policies that affect us for these purposes, let’s focus instead on American business and industry for a moment.  Certainly, they are profit-motivated, which drives our capitalistic economy.  However, their actions may not always be political (like trying to craft its preferred policy, or opposing another) through lobbying.  Policy tends to forecast the future approval or incentives by government to encourage certain things to be researched, prototyped, or manufactured by business.  BE also works this way within any governmental jurisdiction that includes it.

Continuing the manufacture of less-favored or undesirable products (like high-profit, gas guzzling vehicles) is still pursued by business regardless of government preference or consumer willingness to buy and operate them.  Until the Trump Administration attempted to reverse them, CAFE standards (Corporate Average Fuel Economy) were continuing to demand higher mileage vehicles.

Some states have required that increasing numbers and kinds of EVs (electric vehicles) must be produced and sold by the major manufacturers.  Many commercial vehicles operating in dense inner-city neighborhoods make a positive impact on respiratory health by operating emission-free and with less noise.

Panel 18 goes down

Many states have also demanded increases in the energy efficiency of their building stock, and some demand that solar PV panels be on the roofs of all new buildings.  A growing number of cities have refused to extend natural gas service to new customers.  All of these things send a clear message to business, “We are dis-incentivizing the use of carbon in this society” (for environmental protection).

When business gets a policy signal from government, it has the option to make a paradigm shift in parallel to that policy, or struggle for survival.  Skeptics laughed at first when California decided that all its new cars must be electric by a certain date.  But the industry response has provided consumers with many models in a short time.  Hybrids, plug-in hybrids, and fully electric cars and trucks are increasing their sales.  All the previous consumer worries are being reduced (battery wear-out warranties, away-from-home charging, and range anxiety).

Even heavy construction equipment is beginning to be electrified.  They join electrified municipal buses in making urban areas cleaner and quieter.  It’s true that batteries put weight on these chassis, but drivelines, transmissions, fuel tanks, exhausts, and radiators have disappeared in compensation to that load.

Changes without Policy demands-

Though no government policies have been created to stimulate it, business-industry partnerships are pursuing electrified aircraft.  Some of the commercial versions are intended to modify today’s “hub and spoke” air travel which causes non-direct flight legs for the public that can double the actual distance flown.  Electric “jets” are part of this mix of research and development projects that are underway.  Again, no government policy or regulatory mandates are driving this effort—only business’ strategy that consumer acceptance will be ready to meet the proven products when they’re certified for private + commercial flight.

While this technology is still new (and somewhat expensive) it promises to have amazingly low operating costs per hour.  Commercial operators are very interested in this, particularly because electricity is a regulated “fuel” with stable costs and increasing renewability, while carbon fuels fluctuate.  Increased renewable electricity will make the grid greener and greener without emissions.  This forecasts climate preservation.

Utility “digestion” of renewables-

With state policies across the country demanding increased renewable portfolios of electricity from utilities, there has been a dramatic production increase of solar photovoltaic and commercial-sized onshore wind generation.  Solar PV has expanded more quickly because it can be deployed in small numbers on building roofs and in large multi-megawatt arrays built for the utilities themselves.  This expansion represents a virtuous circle, in that the more units manufactured, the quicker the drop in price.  Solar PV has dropped dramatically in the past 10 years.

Renewable electricity expansion is also accelerated by the fact that they are very quick to permit and complete when compared to fossil-based facilities.  Part of this boost is because there are no emissions to be considered and no water is consumed like a steam-turbine cycle with potential supply challenges.  

The intermittency of renewable generation has caused serious difficulty to utilities’ attempt to incorporate it into the grid.  Solar PV is more often a challenge because it produces its  maximum output within daylight hours.  With solar, utility grid management has had to contend with overproduction during those daytime “sun hours,” and the worst of these occur in springtime.  With a large injection of such electricity, the utility is forced to either turn it away, or throttle back base load generation (usually steam-turbines burning fossil fuels) that was designed for maximum efficiency and profit potential by running at full capacity.  This phenomenon (which could be more accurately described as a conundrum) is referred to as the “Duck Curve.”

The belly of the duck is dramatic, but the real problem begins as we climb the neck of the duck with the approach of sundown.  In grid management, this is referred to as the “ramp-up,” and it means that to preserve stable voltage on the grid, huge amounts of generation must be uniformly applied as commuters go home and fire up all manner of electric devices at home.

Storing electrical power-

Regional grid management authorities often deal with multiple utilities.  Until recently, there has  been no dependable way of storing already-made electricity other than pumped storage hydro (which we know is a regional, topographically challenged, rainfall-dependent option).  BE is good for us in terms of climate change defense and respiratory health, but thus far it does not provide a serious option to correct the duck curve.  True, we can drive  more EVs and charge them during daytime at work, but until lots more charging takes place, the duck can still challenge us.


Typical electricity generation produces (non-storable) sine wave, alternating current.  Solar PV generates DC current but turns it into AC using inverters.  That’s what makes Net Energy Metering possible at my (and many others’) homes.  It also allows large-scale arrays to feed directly to the grid.

Off-grid consumers have used batteries to store their DC power for decades, then inverting it for household loads as needed.  Since 1992 both my RVs have been wired in this way.  That approach utilized large, lead-acid batteries for storage.  The newest form of storage is in Lithium-ion batteries.  These are the same technology as nearly all of our EVs, and they have expanded for use inside homes.  For a home with solar PV AND battery storage, still connected to the utility—this arrangement could take some of the belly out of the duck.

 The real technological leap has been the use of Lithium-ion batteries as grid-scale storage.  They can absorb duck belly excess and store it for the ramp-up period—helping in two ways.  First, not so much throttling back of non-renewable generation, and second, a boost while climbing the duck’s neck.  There is no direct policy or regulation for developing this technology but industry has embraced it and is working to solve the duck curve, a fundamental problem that must be solved if we are going to fully emphasize BE.

In addition to the two renewable methods near to high-voltage transmission lines (above left) the photo does not show whether grid storage is involved here.  There are a growing number of what is referred to as “right-sized” installations where solar PV and wind might be combined with grid-scale battery storage.  The capacity arrangements are calculated to minimize intermittency of either generating technology throughout the day and therefore store the maximum at the right time to solve the ramp-up.  It should be understood from an electrical engineering point-of-view, this can be DC-to-AC, stored as DC, and then inverted back to AC for the grid.  Confused?  Don’t be, this happens instantaneously in the background, and this kind of storage puts voltage on the grid faster than any other source of generation can.

Optimizing the future-

If we push forward with BE, we’ll be using more electric power at home, likely with some solar PV on-site.  We’ll use more heating, cooling, and hot water equipment that’s electric, and much  of its scheduled operation (demand management) could be directed by microcircuitry that queries current grid load and/or rate charges to decide when to store, and when to consume.  Smart metering makes this possible.   In a sense, our buildings and our lives, will take on something like the role of grid-scale battery storage.

Big-time BE will make the best improvement in emissions we’ve ever seen, and that improves quality of life both aesthetically and in terms of health costs and delayed mortality.  There will be more charging stations for our EVs, but we’ll be charging at work sites and at home.

—Bill Martin