Beneficial electrification and our clean energy future

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The latest news on carbon emissions is sobering. A new preliminary report from the Rhodium Group reveals that after three years of decline, carbon dioxide emissions in the United States increased by 3.4 percent last year. To rapidly decarbonize our energy systems and minimize the economic and health impacts of climate change, beneficial electrification is a critical piece of the answer.

While the transportation sector remains the largest source of emissions in the United States, the building and industrial sectors underwent the largest growth in greenhouse gas emission in 2018. Preliminary estimates suggest that direct emissions from residential and commercial buildings increased by 10 percent in 2018 to their highest levels since 2004. What caused the uptick? The combustion of fuel oil, diesel, and natural gas for heating and cooking, driven by population growth and an increased demand for heating and other non-electric energy services.

Minnesota is now one of the fastest warming states in the country and national trends with greenhouse gas emissions are playing out in our backyard. The biggest culprit? Tailpipe emissions from cars, buses, and commercial trucks. And relative to Minnesota’s 2005 baseline, emissions from the residential, commercial, and industrial sectors have also increased 11 percent, 1 percent, and 17 percent respectively. It is only with significant effort to decarbonize electricity end-use and generation that Minnesota will meet its 2025 and 2050 goals of 30% and 80% reductions, respectively.

So how can we rapidly get the carbon out of our energy systems?

There is now growing consensus that deep decarbonization will require electrification. Electrification is the conversion of end-uses powered by fossil fuels or other carbon-based fuels to electricity. Advances in electrified technology have enabled us to move beyond the limitations of inefficient electric resistance heating and into a new world of super-efficient air source heat pumps.

Electrification is a no regrets, least cost strategy to decarbonize Minnesota’s economy and meet our greenhouse gas emissions reduction goals.

New research in Minnesota indicates that decarbonizing our power sector through the increasing adoption of variable renewable energy like wind and solar, as well as the electrification of end-uses in buildings, will increase jobs, drive economic growth, reduce resident’s electric bills, and deliver drastically improved air quality across our state.

But change won’t be easy. Electrification requires disruptive change and a careful consideration of how all Minnesotans will be impacted. Throughout the state, only 18 percent of Minnesotans rely on electricity for heat. Most homes utilize natural gas or delivered fuels, like fuel oil or propane. Moreover, as we increasingly electrify our heating load, peak demand for electricity will likely undergo a seasonal shift from summer peaking (driven by cooling) to winter peaking (driven by heating). We need a flexible electrical grid to power this additional demand during these seasons with wind and solar electricity. Minnesotans must also be able to rely on their electrified appliances to deliver low-cost, efficient heating supply during even the coldest days of winter.

There is a great opportunity for Minnesotans to lead from the North and create a clean energy economy that works for and benefits all.

At Fresh Energy, we believe that any electrification strategy carried out in our state must be accomplished in the public interest. To that end, we have crafted a beneficial electrification framework.

We consider electrification to be beneficial when it 1) reduces the lifecycle greenhouse gases of implemented technologies through the conversion of end-uses powered by fossil or other carbon-based fuels to electricity and the upgrade of existing electrical equipment to higher-efficiency technologies, and 2) improves public health and safety by reducing exposure to nitrogen oxides, sulfur oxides, and volatile organic compounds in indoor and outdoor air as well as the risk of fire, explosion, and carbon monoxide poisoning.

We’ll be working this year—and into the future— within this framework to advance policies that:

Include utility commitments to decarbonize their electricity generation mix. As we electrify end-uses and build electric load, we must make sure that this additional demand for electricity is met with an increasing percentage of renewable power generation. This dual approach to “greening the grid” while electrifying end-uses will allow us to avoid building out unnecessary  fossil-fired power generation in the name of serving new load.

Maximize consumer savings in the long term on energy and implemented technologies as well as operation and maintenance, while also considering associated electrical upgrades and efficiency measures. We know that electrification will likely lower wholesale energy prices and put downward pressure on customer electricity costs. However, aggressive energy efficiency measures along with electric panel upgrades will be required to ensure that older buildings can accommodate electrified appliances. Similarly, building specifications for new developments must meet higher efficiency standards and include electrical panels for electric appliances to ensure that this type of retrofit won’t be required in the future. Incentivizing adoption of energy efficiency measures and electrified appliances will be key to spurring this transition.

Enhance electrical grid operation through load shape improvement, enabling smart integration of solar and wind power. Dynamic load management, including demand response and storage, will be essential to aligning peak demand with the availability of solar energy during the day and wind energy at night. Energy efficiency will also play a critical role in reducing unnecessary infrastructure even as beneficial electrification increases electricity use in new sectors of the economy.

Drive energy access and equity by prioritizing electrification in under-resourced communities, existing and proposed affordable housing developments, across building stock of all ages and in community spaces and public transportation routes. Communities that experience disproportionately large exposures to air pollution and struggle with resource reliability must be a priority within electrification strategies. The reduction in indoor and outdoor air pollutants and diminished risk of explosion afforded by building electrification should be championed in new and retrofitted buildings, and especially in affordable housing.

Advance a clean energy economy through the recruitment and training of skilled labor and the continued growth of and investment in clean energy. Labor will benefit through the creation of new jobs and must be supported in career transitions away from fossil systems as electrification continues. By 2050, a decarbonized energy system is expected to triple the number of energy jobs in Minnesota, including 14,000 new jobs in wind and 36,000 new jobs in solar. Job growth for electric installers and within markets supporting the production and sale of electrified appliances is also expected.

We envision a bright—and electric—future for all Minnesotans with beneficial electrification driving the change. Stay tuned for updates on specific policies we’ll be advancing at the Capitol this legislative session.