Reduce Demand. Clean Up Electricity. Electrify Everything.

Live better electrically

These are the three things we have to do to to decarbonize.

Sometimes, one should take a deep breath. After reading David Robert's post on Vox, "Most American homes are still heated with fossil fuels. It’s time to electrify", I should have. In it, he talked a lot about heat pumps and not much about insulation, and I felt compelled to write 4 reasons why heat pumps are not going to save the planet.

After reading comments and spending the weekend on Twitter I changed the title of the post to two rallying cries for a green building revolution: Reduce Demand! and Electrify Everything! Now I might have to change it again.

David Roberts was right.

Because David Roberts was right -- we do have to electrify. Everything. My mantra about reducing demand isn't enough. I used to think otherwise; I thought that if we reduced demand enough that we were just sipping gas, that it was OK; I couldn't see the logic in burning gas to boil water to spin a turbine to generate power to push down a line to heat a coil in a stove -- to boil water. Why not do it directly, and more efficiently?

But much has changed in the last few years. Where I live in Ontario, Canada, much has been done to decarbonize electricity and, until the recent defeat of Kathleen Wynn, this was continuing. Twenty years ago environmentalists encouraged people to replace electric heat that was running on coal-fired electricity to natural gas because it was cleaner and had a lower carbon footprint. But as David Farnsworth writes for RAP,

In 1990, replacing electric resistance space-heating equipment with onsite fossil fuel space-heating and water heating technology offered efficiency savings and reduced emissions. Today, the exact opposite is true; fuel-switching from fossil-powered end uses to electrified ones now produces those results.

So much has changed. With smart water heaters and electric vehicles, there are many opportunities for smoothing out demand, as Sheena noted in her tweet. Farnsworth writes:

This new era of fuel-switching offers an advantage that the earlier transition couldn’t: flexibility. Unlike virtually all other electric end uses, water heaters and EVs don’t have to immediately use the power they draw from the grid. When you take a shower, it doesn’t matter whether the water was heated five minutes or five hours earlier. The same goes for your EV. This flexibility produces an array of benefits for consumers, utilities, and our economy.

Another thing that has changed is that electric stuff is much better than it used to be. As Nate the House Whisperer writes,

Until recently, electric houses and cars were a sacrifice. Electric stoves weren't great to cook on. Heat pumps didn't work well in cold climates. Electric cars were glorified golf carts. All that has changed in the last few years with things like induction cooking, cold climate heat pumps, and Tesla cars. (The Chevy Bolt and Nissan Leaf are pretty good too.) Now that there are good electric options for our homes and cars, there is a viable path to #ElectrifyEverything that is not only just as good as using fossil fuels, but often is better.

passive house kitchen

Lloyd Alter/ Passive House Kitchen in Brooklyn/CC BY 2.0

Take cooking; most serious cooks loved gas, to the point that architect Michael Ingui's clients would have to spend a fortune to put them in Passive House designs. But recently at the New York Passive House conference, Michael told me that most of his clients now were going induction, that it is now accepted by the pros. And yes, although heat pumps won't save the planet, air source heat pumps now work at relatively low exterior temperatures.


My super-duper two year old high efficiency gas boiler/ Lloyd Alter/CC BY 2.0

In an earlier post, The key to tackling climate change: electrify everything, David Roberts noted how by going electric works over the long term. If you buy a new super-efficient gas furnace (like I did just two years ago) it will never get any better over its 20 year life. However, had I bought a heat pump,

Over the same 20 years, the power grid from which the heat pump draws its electricity will be getting cleaner — less coal, more renewables. That means the heat pump’s carbon-emissions-per-unit-of-heat will decline throughout its life. Its environmental performance improves as the grid improves.... Electrical grids are giant levers that can move the environmental needle on hundreds of millions of distributed technologies at once. Every device, appliance, or vehicle that runs on electricity benefits from the grid’s every incremental improvement.

Roberts' two-point strategy is:
Clean up electricity.
Electrify Everything.

I still believe that there has to be a third point,

Reduce Demand.
Juraj Mikurcik house heated by towel bar

© Juraj Mikurcik

A good example why is Juraj Mikurcik's house in the UK, built to Passive House standard. It has a heat pump hot water heater which supplies all the heat needed in the house for most of the year -- through heated towel bars in the bathrooms.

CC BY 2.0. The Heights/ Lloyd Alter

The Heights/ Lloyd Alter/CC BY 2.0

Another example is The Heights, Vancouver's first Passive House apartment building. It is actually heated by dumb old electric baseboard heaters because the demand is so low in Passive House apartments that it's all you need.

The other point about prioritizing reducing demand is that it doesn't just apply to buildings; it applies to everything. It's why I promote bikes and bike-friendly cities over electric cars, and walkable medium-density development over single family houses. Our urban design is as important as our insulation or our power source.

I changed my post title once because I realized my heat pump obsession caused me to miss the key point in David Roberts' post. I might have to change it again to reiterate the three-point strategy:

Clean up electricity!
Electrify Everything!
Reduce Demand!