The world’s energy diet is in the midst of transformational change. Fossil fuels, a fundamental driver of progress since the Industrial Revolution, are under pressure for their role in climate change and air pollution. Advancements in clean energy generation are rapidly improving power output, and the American economy is growing its manufacturing capacity for solar photovoltaics and wind turbines, rapidly improving the financial viability for alternative energy systems compared to traditional coal and gas power plants. Converting the power grid to renewable energy sources is essential to a climate-friendly future, but it is only one part of the process. 

In order to achieve the benefits of a variety of renewable energy technologies, a shared energy platform is needed where energy can be exchanged on the municipal scale to commercial buildings and residential consumers. Because electricity is the most flexible form of energy, using and supporting the current electricity system as the shared energy platform allows for all sorts of renewable energy technologies to provide heating, cooling, lighting, and energy for our processes and entertainment. 

Historically, electricity as a sole fuel source has not been effective, as the best practice for energy-efficient heating and emissions reductions was to use natural gas as an energy source. This was quantified in terms of site-source ratios for electricity from the grid and the CO2e emissions associated with electric consumption.

Compared to electric resistance heating, natural gas as a heating source was more efficient, had less emissions, and was cheaper to operate. However, in the last 10 years, the electric grid has significantly changed, and advancements in heating equipment are rapidly changing HVAC design strategies — with electric poised to replace natural gas by drawing from a cleaner grid and leveraging advanced heat pump technology. As engineers, we recognize the need to reassess our collective design practices to reflect the changing environment. And, in our roles on project teams, we need to work with facilities managers and building operators to help them transition to electric systems based on their local electric grid and facility needs. 


Beneficial Electrification

Beneficial electrification is a term that describes this process of replacing fossil fuels with electricity while improving energy efficiency and controlling costs. Applications for beneficial electrification will reduce emissions and life cycle costs. This has the potential to increase the demand for electricity, accelerate “greening the grid,” and link the electric utility business model to a clean energy future.

Across the nation, states, regions, cities, and institutions are already establishing electrification programs and promoting all-electric energy efforts. California requires that 100% of all retail sales of electricity be comprised of 100% renewable energy and zero-carbon sources by 2045, new buildings are required to be all-electric in many areas and cities along the West Coast, municipalities are incentivizing all-electric buildings in the New England area, and utility companies are supporting innovation in building technologies with rebate programs. As these efforts become more commonplace, economies of scale make them less costly to adopt and more attractive to organizations concerned about the environment with an eye toward long-term cost-effectiveness.


Electrifying Higher Education

On college campuses, fossil fuel is a significant portion of energy consumption used to support space heating and domestic hot water. Transitioning these systems to electrical power would make tremendous progress toward a sustainable energy future. Since the facilities management policies for many of these institutions plan periodic renovations and additions to campus buildings, gradual adoption of electrification can spread capital investment costs over many years. 

In 2018, Bowdoin College in Maine achieved complete campus carbon neutrality, an impressive feat that was accomplished two years ahead of schedule. The college changed its light fixtures to LEDs, insulated pipes, and installed a cogeneration turbine that produces electricity as a byproduct of heat generation. The college also put careful thought into the sources of its power — first looking for opportunities to offset its power use by supporting renewable energy generation elsewhere and then looking closer to home to support local renewable energy projects that are transforming Maine’s power grid. With widespread support from corporations and institutions, like Bowdoin, the state is on track to reach its goal of 80% renewable energy for its grid by 2030 and 100% by 2050.

“Our students are passionate about issues of climate change, and it is important to them that their college take aggressive steps toward reducing its carbon footprint,” said Matt Orlando, senior vice president for finance and administration and treasurer, Bowdoin. “After we assessed the first costs and payback on a fossil-free heat recovery chiller, not to mention the avoided social cost of carbon, the premium for an all-electric system was negligible. We felt really good about our decision not to connect to our gas-fired steam plant.” 

In the summer of 2020, the Los Angeles Community College District (LACCD) — one of the nation’s largest community college districts — committed to achieving 100% renewable, carbon-free electricity consumption at all its facilities by 2030 with a further goal of achieving 100% carbon-free energy consumption for all other energy uses, including the electrification of equipment and systems that use fossil fuels by 2040. When the LACCD board approved the Clean Energy Resolution, HGA had just started designing an expansion to the Central Plant at East Los Angeles College (ELAC) that sought to increase cooling and heating capacity for the growing campus. 

ELAC’s initial plan was to add three low-emission, high-efficiency heating hot water boilers, but this equipment no longer aligned with the LACCD Clean Energy Resolution. To support energy efficiency and the transition away from fossil fuels, HGA developed a solution that would use heat recovery chillers to meet the campus’s heating needs while simultaneously providing the increased cooling capacity that was required. When complete, the central plant expansion project will greatly reduce carbon emissions associated with campus energy consumption and transition the campus away from heating with fossil fuels, leveraging the efficiencies that come with heat recovery chillers and a diversity of campus energy users.


Clean Energy Revolution

One of the barriers to electrification in the past has been the affordability of natural gas resulting from the hydrofracking boom of the last few decades. Clients are not eager to invest in new systems when the operation of their old ones is inexpensive. Current policy debates suggest that federal subsidies for fossil fuels may be phased out, which would further improve the landscape for alternative energy sources. 

Growing climate change awareness is prompting many consumers to demand that their utility companies increase the percentage of power that comes from clean energy. Nearly half of residential customers in a 2019 survey indicated they would be willing to pay higher utility rates for 100% renewable energy, while a staggering 83% are interested in adopting independent power generation for their homes using renewable technologies.

This demand for independent power generation is driving innovation in adjacent industries. Rapid growth in the capacity and reliability of batteries is making them a progressively more affordable and flexible option for electricity storage and increasing the viability of weather-dependent generation like solar and wind power. Efficient, utility-grade batteries smooth imbalances between supply and demand by soaking up excess energy that would have been lost in the middle of the day when solar supply is abundant and saving it for after sunset when it is scarce. Successful advances in battery technology have already sent storage costs plummeting, dropping nearly 70% between 2015 and 2018. Energy storage on higher education campuses helps to balance the local supply and demand for campus renewable energy generation and consumption, improve electric reliability for the campus, and provide an asset for the connected utility grid as a distributed energy resource (DER).

Battery innovations are also transforming options for vehicles as evidenced by bold efforts to boost adoption of electric cars around the country. California has announced that by 2035, all new cars and passenger trucks sold in the state must be zero-emission vehicles. The federal government has also chosen 2035 as its target year for full electrification of its fleet of vehicles. GM plans to phase out production of gasoline- and diesel-powered vehicles in favor of electric vehicles by that same year and aspires for full carbon neutrality in its global products and operations by 2040. Many campuses are electrifying their own fleet vehicles and beginning to install EV charging stations for community use as well.


Efficiency and Resiliency

With these promising trends, it might be tempting to assume that switching out fuel sources will be enough to bring the world’s greenhouse gas emissions under control. In fact, these changes will ultimately fall short without concerted efforts to decrease power consumption, particularly through more energy-efficient and resilient buildings. 

It is estimated that 40% of America’s energy use is spent in buildings for heating, cooling, hot water, lighting, and electric devices. Upgrading the efficiency of those buildings — to lose less energy through better insulation and weatherization and to use less energy through more efficient appliances and fixtures — could substantially reduce their power consumption while also making them more comfortable for occupants and more resilient in adverse weather events.

Energy efficiency upgrades remain some of the easiest and most cost-effective tools in decreasing wasted energy and preventing carbon pollution. Replacing old appliances is one area for potential improvements. Studies show a refrigerator produced in 2007 uses 71% less power than one from 30 years earlier despite being larger and having more features. LED lightbulbs use, on average, 75% less energy and last 25 times longer than incandescent bulbs of similar brightness. Energy-efficient windows prevent heat loss and block harmful rays from entering conditioned spaces. Smart thermostats allow fine control of building temperatures to adjust to occupancy and weather conditions. Insulation with greater R-values and reflective roofing can prevent heat infiltration on warm days and building heat loss on cold ones.

In addition to improvements in materials and appliances, occupant behaviors can greatly reduce wasted energy. Changing energy consumption habits through education and incentives is a good way to help people remember to unplug devices when not in use, draw the blinds against the sun, adjust the thermostat when they’re away, or save high-energy tasks for low-demand parts of the day. Demand-response incentive programs instituted by utility companies around the country are actively engaging consumers in efforts to avoid grid overload during peak consumption periods. This, in turn, prevents the need for the utilities to generate additional energy or purchase it from wholesale markets when costs are at their highest.


Student-Driven Energy Leadership

Over the past several years, many institutions have begun setting sustainability goals that surpass government requirements. Many of them embrace principles of social responsibility and global sustainability, so their efforts to electrify buildings serve both economic and aspirational roles. On higher education campuses, there is an added desire for environmental stewardship as the next generation of learners and students are making sustainability, renewable energy, carbon consumption, and fossil fuel-free use a part of how they evaluate institutions. According to the Princeton Review's 2020 College Hopes & Worries Survey, 66% of college-bound teens and parents said having information about a college's commitment to the environment would affect their decisions to apply to or attend a school. 

Educational institutions are taking note of these efforts. As of January 2021, per, more than 60 U.S. colleges and universities have made full or partial commitments to divesting from fossil fuel use and transitioning to clean renewable sources in the upcoming years. Whatever their motivations, clients are interested in supporting the elimination of fossil fuels and switching to renewable energy sources. 


Global Objectives, Local Solutions

Electric utilities have recognized that renewable energy generation is faster and cheaper to install than coal and gas-fired plants. Fossil fuels will continue to play a significant role in our energy diet for some time, but science and economics will continue to push engineers to:

  • Adopt clean energy generation at all scales; 
  • Elevate energy efficiency in building design with increased focus on reducing heating needs; and 
  • Innovate with technologies that directly support electrification, such as heat pumps and heat recovery equipment that can simultaneously produce heating and cooling.

Facility managers can position their organizations for electrification with capital planning for infrastructure and anticipating the replacement of HVAC equipment with systems that can reap the benefits of a cleaner electric grid. Leaders will commission utilities master planning studies with the clear goal of anticipating these changes in regional infrastructure to align with established sustainability goals and specific capital projects to sustain reliable operations.

There is no one single pathway to greater building electrification. Around the world, thousands of institutions are taking concrete steps toward a climate-friendly future, but each of these projects is uniquely influenced by local conditions. Electrification strategies will be informed by the carbon intensity of the electric grid, the diversity of energy needs, and the human capital to embrace transformational change in campus and regional infrastructure.