Electrify Everything: Why Our Thinking Has to Be as Flexible and Resilient as Our Buildings

Live better electrically

It is hard keeping up with the latest ideas in green building, but things are changing fast.

Energy consultant Dr. Steve Fawkes repeats a quote attributed to economist John Maynard Keynes: "When the facts change, I change my mind. What do you do, sir?" He admits that he used to be a sceptic of the call to "electrify everything." He was also skeptical about heat pumps, believing that they were "over-hyped and under-performing." But like Keynes, he has changed his mind because facts have changed.

I have gone through much the same kind of transformation. Since I started writing at TreeHugger, so much has changed, and so have my opinions. It makes it hard to teach Sustainable Design at Ryerson University; every year I have to totally redo my lectures because there really is no canon. Everything is in flux.

Grandmas House

Lessons From grandma/Screen capture

I used to believe that we should learn from grandma’s house, and design with cross-ventilation, natural light, and double-hung windows, using Steve Mouzon’s phrase about "design before the thermostat age." I was a critic of heat pumps because they were expensive and complex, but also because they cooled as well as heated; and I thought air conditioning was evil, a sign of failure in design. As Professor Cameron Tonkinwise noted: "The air conditioner allows architects to be lazy. We don't have to think about making a building work, because you can just buy a box."


Lloyd Alter/CC BY 2.0

But as Oscar Wilde noted, all criticism is autobiography. I came to realize that this was really elitist and selfish in a warming and more crowded world. It worked for me; I happen to be lucky enough to live in an old brick house shaded by big maple trees, and to have a cabin in the woods by a lake that I can skip out to in hot weather, and a job that I can do from anywhere. For most people now, air conditioning is no longer a luxury but a necessity.

passive vs grandma

Passive house or Grandma's house?/Public Domain

This is why I became passionate about Passivhaus or Passive House. It works for everyone, in houses or apartments, by reducing demand, by keeping heat in when it’s cold and out when it’s hot. If you do have to top it off a bit, a simple little air source heat pump can supply the little bit of heating or cooling needed.

Radical Simplicty

© Nick Grant

I also liked Passivhaus because it required a change in the way of thinking about design; simple forms, less glass, and, as Dr. Fawkes noted in an earlier post, elegance. He quoted Antoine de Saint-Exupéry: "A designer knows he has achieved perfection not when there is nothing left to add, but when there is nothing left to take away." It encourages thinking about simplicity and that most important virtue, sufficiency – how much do we really need?

I was late to the #electrifyeverything party. I thought it was a subset of Net Zero, that it was not really about demand but about supply; buildings could still be uncomfortable energy hogs, as long as they had enough solar panels on the roof. I figured there was not a problem burning a little gas if it was the most efficient way of getting a little bit of heat.

I thought of all the energy lost boiling my egg on an electric stove, burning gas to boil water that spins a turbine that turns a generator to push electrons down a wire to heat a coil that boils water that cooks my egg, rather than just turning on the gas and boiling water directly. In the meantime, the Province of Ontario where I live got down to making only 4 percent of its electricity from gas and none from coal, so cooking with electricity is now much cleaner in terms of CO2, not to mention all the other things we have learned about the effects of gas cooking on indoor air quality. Induction ranges and LED bulbs keep reducing the amount of electricity you actually need to do things.

Dr. Fawkes has had the same epiphany, writing:

It is clear that we are moving to a more electrified future, in heat and ultimately transport. For new build the only way to go is to mandate Passive House standard and therefore cut heat loads so much that direct electric heating (possibly with storage to allow households to take advantage of PV generated power and to interact with the electricity market) is viable.

Renovations and upgrades may be tougher; this is where we may need more technology.

...heat pumps will have a growing role to play, either for individual homes or perhaps group heating schemes with thermal stores that also interact with the electricity flexibility market. Other emerging technologies such as “heat batteries” or thermal stores will also have a role to play in electrifying heat alongside heat pumps.

But as this response to Dr. Fawkes a few minutes ago so clearly demonstrates, even in sunny California the demand for electricity exceeds supply in all but a few months of the year. #Reducedemand should still be mantra number 1; then it will be much easier to #electrifyeverything.

And perhaps the most important lesson of all is that nothing is cast in stone, and things change; we have to be flexible, adaptable and resilient, just like our buildings. Instead of Keynes, I will end with Malcolm Gladwell:

I feel I change my mind all the time. And I sort of feel that's your responsibility as a person, as a human being – to constantly be updating your positions on as many things as possible. And if you don't contradict yourself on a regular basis, then you're not thinking.