Electrification in IAQ and Buildings

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Electrification has become a buzzword in the air handling industry. It’s a term used to describe the replacement of fossil fuel energy with solar and wind. The movement advocates a shift from oil, gas, and coal to electricity powered by solar, wind, and other sources of zero-carbon electricity.

While it’s currently a hot topic, the shift to true electrification in commercial and residential buildings won’t be fast or straightforward. Hundreds of millions of buildings must first be retrofitted with alternate HVAC systems. But because 13% of energy-related CO2 emissions in the U.S. come from buildings, the shift will make a significant difference.

It's Going to Change Our Industry

Bob Miller, President of Coward Environmental, weighs in. “Electrification will change our industry, but IAQ is not driving it. Instead, the momentum was first created by environmental advocates looking for ways to deal with global warming. However, the goals of electrification are sweeping. If we can switch from fossil fuels to renewable energy, that’s going to reduce global warming.”

While a shift to electrification may seem futuristic to some, Miller thinks it’s feasible. “We sometimes forget how far heating and cooling has come in the last 50 years. It wasn’t until the 1970s that a heat pump became common in American homes, replacing boilers.” He adds, “Large-scale heat pumps didn’t become feasible for large commercial buildings until around 2000.”

The Role of Government in the Shift

“A lot of states and cities are signing on to electrification,” says Miller. “Massachusetts and California seem to be leading the way here in the United States, but many major metropolitan areas are also signing on.”

Locally, Philadelphia has taken a leadership role. Miller explains, “Philadelphia has the largest gas distribution system in the United States, serving more customers, residential and commercial, than any place in the United States. There are serious conversations about the financial and practical implications of replacing in that kind of massive and pervasive infrastructure. Putting dollars to towards new electrification technologies seems to be the better investment”

All levels of government are interested in electrification. “This is where I see projects moving forward a little bit quicker,” says Miller. Municipalities and progressive states will lead the next phase of electrification. Then the federal government will get on board. The biggest headwind is the fight against invested infrastructure. Utility providers may have to pivot and re-invent themselves.  The move away from centralized, massive infrastructure will cause pain to the existing players.”

U.S. Energy is Always Evolving

Fossil fuels have played a starring role in the energy industry throughout the twentieth century. Americans spent most of the last century building a grid based on coal, oil, and natural gas. “Back then, fossil fuel was deemed most cost-effective for most regions,” notes Miller. “Now we have an enormous fossil fuel infrastructure that’s been bought and paid for. So it’s no wonder competing interests are fighting to stay in the lead. They don’t want to set aside an infrastructure that they have created.”

However, technology continues to advance rapidly, changing every part of the energy story. Miller says, “Look at the technology of batteries. Distributed generation and storage is becoming economically feasible, whether that means solar panels on houses, solar panels above parking areas, micro wind turbines, or whatever it is. Batteries can now store that energy.”

At the same time, companion technologies are emerging that increase energy efficiency. “The cost of lighting has dropped precipitously,” notes Miller. “Now LEDs use less energy and produce less heat. Also, there’s emerging heat pump technology with exciting players like Aermec and Smardt leading the way. We’re solving problems faster than ever, so energy transitions can happen faster than ever.”

Higher Ed Gets Involved

Miller predicts higher education will also be racing to electrification and reducing carbon footprints. Many universities have sustainability councils that set goals, monitor energy consumption, and calculate carbon footprints. “At my alma mater, Penn State has the Sustainability Institute. They want Penn State to be carbon neutral by 2042, so they must move towards electrification and renewable energies.”

The University of Pennsylvania also aims to become carbon neutral by 2042 and has reported that 2022’s overall emissions, including building emissions, already fell 45% compared to 2019.

The University of Maryland has even more ambitious goals, aiming for carbon neutrality by 2025. In addition, they have pledged to restrict energy purchases to alternative sources. For example, 88.5% of their purchased energy came from wind in 2021.

Worldwide Impact

The desire to move from coal and gas to greener energy sources is evident all over the globe. “This shift has been happening over the past 30 years, most notably in Europe,” Miller emphasizes, “where the use of coal has dramatically declined. Admittedly, the U.S. has spent most of the last thirty years swapping gas for coal, with only a marginal increase in the use of alternative energy. Today, both continents are determined to move towards greener energy sources: solar and wind.”

Other global factors may impact the switch. Miller notes, “We’re seeing geopolitical factors speed things up. For example, since Russia is withholding its gas supply to Europe, the Western Hemisphere has started supplementing their need with liquefied gas. But this crisis reminds all European of the impact of energy dependence. Consequently, they are even more drawn to solar and wind energy that comes without political strings attached.”

How Has Electrification Impacted Your Business?

Coward Environmental Systems sees a shift to electrification in many industries, governments, and universities. We’d like to get your opinions. How has the march towards electrification affected your business? Send your thoughts to Bob Miller. He’d love to hear from you.