Ensuring Electrification Leads to Decarbonization: Exclusive Interview with HJ Wang of DNV GL - [an Energy Central Power Perspectives™ Interview]

Posted to Energy Central in the Energy Efficiency Group
image credit: HJ Wang
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Energy Analyst Chester Energy and Policy

Official Energy Central Community Manager of Generation and Energy Management Networks. Matt is an energy analyst in Orlando FL (by way of Washington DC) working as an independent energy...

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Programs that hasten the electrification are becoming a popular priority among utilities, whether for heating systems, cooking appliances, or even transportation. The thinking is that by converting areas of energy consumption where customers are burning fuels to electricity, which can be generated by cleaner sources, a net benefit will be gained in emissions reductions.

However, careful study is required for such programs because not all electrification measures will have a net beneficial impact on the environment, even if the electric equipment has higher efficiency. A main reason for this effect is that the energy mix making up the local grid needs to be taken into account, as a coal-heavy grid, for instance, may lead to electric equipment accounting for more emissions.

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HJ Wang, a Senior Engineer at DNV GL, has been studying this issue and looking to provide insights into exactly how, when, and where electrification can be most effective in emissions reduction goals and which instances, conversely, lead to more environmental harm than good. HJ will be discussing his findings at a presentation at the upcoming AESP Summer Conference in Toronto, Canada, which will be titled "Quantifying the Environmental Impacts of Electrification: How Behavior-change to Electricity Matters." Before that, though, HJ was kind enough to speak with Energy Central about this topic, his findings, and what his recommendations are in the vital avenue of electrification.

Matt Chester: Your presentation is going to give an overview of how electrification, often seen as a net benefit towards decarbonization, might not always have that intended climate benefit. Can you give a brief overview and perhaps an example of why that’s the case?

HJ: Electrification, unlike energy efficiency programs, is not straight forward to calculate the benefit because it is adding electricity usage, rather than reducing it. Although it reduces the fossil fuel usage at the end-user, you can’t simply subtract the added electricity by the fossil fuel reduction because they are two completely different energy types. For example, an electric stove measure replaces a 70%-efficient natural gas stove with a 90%-efficient electric stove. Although the efficiency improves, it doesn’t really have the net benefit in terms of the CO2 emission. If you look at the source, a gas turbine power plant typically runs at 40% efficiency to convert natural gas to electricity, so if you take that into account, the electric stove actually generates more CO2 compared to a gas stove. On the other hand, the U.S. is shifting towards a greener power generation mix, so this may change if we use 100% renewable source to generate electricity. In summary, we definitely need a tool to help us determine how much benefit, if there is any, for an electrification measure and an entire program. This is what this tool is for.


MC: To help inform how and where electrification can actually have the greatest benefits today, you’ve developed this study that can answer the question of impact. What types of electrification projects did you find tended to have the greatest net benefit? Which projects were the least beneficial?

HJ: We typically find measures that involve replacing fossil fuel powered engines with electric motors have the most benefits. Measures like non-road vehicles, such as forklifts and airport ground support vehicles typically have larger benefits per kilowatthour added because the fossil fuel engine is so inefficient compared with an electric motor. Another big topic is on-road electric vehicles. There are so many factors involved in this, so I plan to do a little demo during the presentation and show how other factors may impact the EV environmental benefits.

As for the least beneficial ones, they are typically related to replacing gas heating equipment with electric resistance heat, such as cooking measures or electric storage water heaters.

Heat pump is another popular measure in electrification programs, however, it may not show benefit if it is implemented in a cold climate, where heat pump has to use backup heat for the majority of the heating season. During the presentation, I will also give some different scenarios on how they impact the heat pump benefits.  

Image result for electrification in homes

MC: A key point is that electrifying equipment now, when the grid is still so reliant on fossil fuels, can have the opposite of the intended effect—but of course the energy mix on the grid is evolving every year. How do you envision the changing energy mix to change these conclusions? How long will it take before electrification is more often than not a net benefit?

HJ: This is a very good point. I would say most of the electrification measures we have seen already show benefits even in a fossil fuel dominated power generation mix. However, with greener power generation, we definitely will see more benefit of the electrification measures.


MC: You also note that ratepayers can benefit from being able to shift usage to periods of underutilized capacity—how does your electrification study relate to this type of demand response?

HJ: Right now, this study is focused on CO2 impact, but electrification definitely will help utilize the capacity during the off-peak hours for battery charging or build up winter demand using heat pumps. We are also carrying out studies on the load shape for electrification programs in our Electrification TRM development.


MC: The goal of this study appears to be informing the utilities on how to best achieve their emissions reductions goals, but what benefits will customers notice if utilities take your advice?

HJ: One of the major uses of this study is for marketing purpose. The incentive of the electrification program is often paid by how much kilowatthours are added, which can be interpreted by the customer as the utility is paying them to use more energy. This study provides a way to quantify the environmental impact of each electrification measure, so the customer can understand if they are helping to reduce the CO2 emissions by participating in the program.

Image result for electrification from utilities

MC: Another audience you note is that this type of study can help inform the actions of policymakers. Have you had any success stories in policymakers coming to you (or you taking your study to them) to help them learn about what the most efficient way would be for them to reach their policy goals?

HJYes, we use this tool frequently to inform the policymakers on the program performance and promote new electrification measures that have positive impact on the environment. This tool can also be used to assist the utility to present a case to the regulators on how their electrification program will promote decarbonization and have a positive impact on the climate.


MC: Aside from presenting at the AESP Summer Conference, are there any particular topics or speakers you’re eager to listen in on as an attendee? What do you see as the most exciting topics you want to learn more about?

HJ: Definitely all the presentations in the electrification session and anything that's related to electrification. This is the trend that lots of utilities are moving into, so I'd love to see different perspectives from the rest of the country. 


If you're interested in learning more about the emissions effects of electrification programs from utilities, be sure to check out HJ Wang's presentation this topic at AESP’s Summer Conference (in Toronto from August 27 to 29). You can learn more about the agenda and register for the conference here.


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