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Can beneficial electrification follow the same trajectory as wind and solar? 

by Allen Best

Deep in a report about beneficial electrification that was commissioned by the Colorado Energy Office is an observation about the breadth and depth of change in energy now underway.

“Twenty years ago, utility-scale wind energy was just beginning to emerge. Today, it is a major source of electricity,” points out the new report by GDS Associates, a consultancy.

“Similarly, only 10 years ago, the solar industry had only begun to mature, with major innovations and market adoptions, driving what is now an increasingly common source of electricity.”

Those and other example “serve to indicate the importance of the combination of policies and programs to drive the market. None of the changes occurred overnight. Beneficial electrification can be expected to succeed with a similar path.”

Beneficial electrification is defined by Colorado law as replacement of fossil fuel by electricity in transportation, buildings, and other sectors. These two reports look more narrowly at buildings and industrial uses.

Neither is a giant slice of the emissions pie in Colorado, as you can see in the above pie-chart that was presented by the Colorado Energy Office at the Roadmap Public Listening Session.

That’s the point. For Colorado to achieve its deep decarbonization goals: 50% in the next decade and 90% by 2050, it must do more than close coal plants. Getting a million electric vehicles on the road won’t be enough.

The report, “Beneficial Electrification in Colorado: Market Potential 2021-2030,” lays out the opportunities but also the challenges, creating menu options for Colorado legislators, utilities, and other policy makers.

In a 2018 report, the Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory found that “nearly 100% of all energy use” in residential and commercial buildings can come from electricity. The study explores what is practical to expect in this displacement of fossil fuels in buildings for space heating, hot water, and cooking.

In theory, consumption of natural gas and propane in Colorado could be cut by nearly half in the next decade.

The study finds a more realistic goal of 6% reduction in natural gas consumption and just under 10% reduction in propane.

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Conversion from natural gas does not always pencil out. Propane, however, is another matter. There’s almost no gap between technical potential and economic potential. The difference lies in the higher price of propane, about $21 per million Btu as needed to operate a highly-efficient furnace as compared to $4 for natural gas.

Air-source heat pumps—the crucial technology in wringing heat from outside air—require electricity, presumably from primarily renewable sources. The technology had advanced greatly in the last decade, making it more suitable for colder weather climates. Just how cold? The report does not try to assess potential within Colorado, although as recently as September 2019,  an Xcel Energy representative cautioned that the technology isn’t quite there for mass adoption in Colorado. Anecdotally come reports of building electrification planned in the Aspen area. That may not be the coldest area in Colorado, but it’s colder than most.

(The companion report by the consultant identifies market barriers and potential solutions for building electrification. See synopsis on next page).

A high-electrification scenario would increase electrical consumption 2% by 2030 while resulting in approximately 3.5 million tons less of carbon dioxide equivalent emissions.

The same report also finds that electrifying the industrial sector will be more challenging than buildings. One study found that only 3.6% of the U.S. industrial sector has technical potential for electrification, a stark contrast to the near 100% technical potential in the building sector.

Compressor stations such as this one at Frederick offer potential for using electricity to displace fossil fuels. Photo/ Allen Best

“Colorado has a diverse industrial sector, spanning companies associated with food processing, forestry, agriculture, paper products and wood products, and oil and gas, to name a few. Each of these industries has its own ways of utilizing fossil fuels in their processes,” the report says. In some cases, solutions other than electrification may be needed to mitigate greenhouse gas emissions. These include renewable natural gas or an electric-to-hydrogen solution that facilitates the use of combustion to achieve high temperatures.

Even so, the oil-and-gas sector stands as a good candidate for expanded electrification in compressor stations and pumps. Solar panels already are omnipresent at extraction sites in Colorado’s Wattenberg field, but opportunities for expansion of electric use are ample, the report says.

See also:

Barriers to building electrification

Not everything pencils out equally, though, even in electrification of homes. The report goes into considerable detail about such things as cooking stoves and clothes dryers.

The Colorado Energy Office sees the push for electrification being a large element but one among several. A statement by the offices also identifies several other strategies for reducing emissions from the built environment as the state puts together its roadmap for achieving 2025 and 2030 carbon reduction goals.

Other elements include:

  • building energy codes with even higher standards than what were required by legislation adopted in 2019;
  • benchmarking requirements and performance standards for commercial buildings;
  • expanded weatherization and energy efficiency programs;
  • the use of lower-carbon renewable natural gas, such as from landfills and dairies; and
  • replacement of fossil fuels with electricity generated by renewables.

The Colorado Energy Office says these actions together could reduce greenhouse gas emissions by 2.7 million tons in the coming decade—with electrification responsible for over a third of these reductions.

Go here to find the 112-page report.

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