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Inside Innovation: Electrification amid a global power surge, part one

John Bleasby
Inside Innovation: Electrification amid a global power surge, part one

“Electrification is an imperative,” says leading U.S. research group Pecan Street. The global objective of reducing global GHG emissions hinges to a great degree on converting away from fossil fuels for everything from transportation to homes and buildings. For building owners, engineers, designers and planners looking to create new projects in the future, this is a critically important message.

Yet electrification is proving challenging and does not come without costs and complications or without resistance from a fossil fuel industry that risks being displaced.

There are no better examples of problems that can occur than those found in Europe. Despite incentives and mandates to develop carbon-reduced electrical generation through electrification, Bloomberg reports power rates in Germany recently hit levels triple the current cost of power in Ontario.

Much is blamed on a “chaotic transition” from fossil fuels to an assortment of renewable power generation options, without proper consideration for replacement nuclear plants and reliable green solutions. Furthermore, the New York Times reports a 500 per cent price increase in natural gas sourced mostly from Russia. Although declining, fossil fuels are still used for generating over 40 per cent of Europe’s power needs.

Meanwhile, China relies on coal for more than half its power generation. However, coal prices are up there and everywhere else. Instead of operating at a loss, Chinese plants are cutting back, leading to reports of periodic blackouts.

Although natural gas prices are rising in North America, they have not surged to the levels experienced in Europe, largely due to ample continental supply. Furthermore, only 20 per cent of Canada’s power is generated by fossil fuels, according to NR Canada.

Nevertheless, some warn of the possible turmoil caused by proposed electrification mandates.

James Danly, commissioner of the U.S. Federal Energy Regulatory Commission, calls the Joe Biden administration’s proposed Clean Energy Electricity Performance Program an “H-bomb” that would “absolutely change and frustrate every settled expectation we have for these slowly developed and incrementally produced markets.”

Consider the upgrading of existing homes, for example. Pecan Street suggests existing residential electrical panels need upgrading in order to switch from fossil fuels to electricity for heating, cooking, water heating and vehicle charging. In the United States alone, 48 million homes will need upgraded electrical service panels at an average cost of $2,000 each.

Pecan Street CEO Suzanne Russo believes policy-makers need to include panel upgrades as an infrastructure matter requiring action and possibly incentives, alongside updated building and electrical codes.

“Electric panels are part of that infrastructure, and that’s really a blind spot in conversations around electrification.”

The fossil fuel industry seems ready jump on this.

“Since we released the report, our work has been misrepresented by organizations that support the natural gas industry,” Russo wrote in a blog. “Claims that the cost burden is too great and electrification should be abandoned are not grounded in the data and are not made in good faith.”

The time to act is now, Chris Bentley, a former Ontario energy minister, told Bloomberg News.

“It can take a decade to go through the processes of consultations and planning and then building and getting online, particularly when you’re talking about big electricity projects. 2035 is tomorrow.”

Francis Bradley, CEO of the Canadian Electricity Association, might agree.

“It is absolutely essential that every opportunity and every potential technology for low-carbon or no-carbon electricity need to be pursued and need to be pursued to the fullest.” 

However, reducing operational carbon emissions from buildings and from their power sources is only part of the problem. Canadian lifestyles are ranked among the highest in carbon emissions.

“People are expecting buildings to resolve everything for them,” Deborah Byrne, current chair of Passive House Canada, told attendees at the organization’s recent technical symposium. “I think it’s too much that we continue to address climate change in our buildings without people also changing their behaviour towards its use.”

These and other challenges, and their possible solutions, will be discussed in Part Two.

John Bleasby is a Coldwater, Ont.-based freelance writer. Send comments and Inside Innovation column ideas to editor@dailycommercialnews.com

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