Electricity was once considered “dirty” power produced from high-sulfur black diamond coal. Very few people wanted to switch from clean-burning natural gas. Today, electricity can be one of the cleanest power sources available and it can fuel vehicles and outdoor power equipment like lawn mowers and string trimmers. So, switching from fossil fuels to electricity sourced from renewable energy can be beneficial.
What is beneficial electrification?
The Environmental and Energy Study Institute (EESI) states that beneficial electrification (BEL or strategic/smart electrification) is a term for replacing direct fossil fuel use (e.g., natural gas, propane, heating oil, gasoline) with electricity in a way that reduces overall emissions and energy costs.
BEL is not fuel switching. Fuel switching implies that we want to electrify everything or run everything on natural gas. That is not the case. It is rarely ever a great idea to put all your eggs in one basket. Fuel switching is considered a short-term solution, where BEL is a long-term approach to replacing fossil fuels.
When utility customers are introduced to BEL, the natural response is, “So, who really benefits?” Obviously, the electric utility benefits. What about the customer? The utility industry has come into agreement that BEL must satisfy at least one of the following conditions without adversely affecting the others:
- Save money on energy spend
- Benefit the environment
- Improve consumer quality of life
- Utility grid
- Increase grid resilience
There are some tradeoffs sometimes (but not adverse). Let’s examine each claimed advantage.
How can BEL save money?
The cost of electricity is often perceived as a barrier to BEL. Customers have a perception that gas is always cheaper. In some cases, it is. Let’s compare the cost to generate one million Btu of heat from electricity, natural gas, propane and fuel oil.
|Heating Equipment||Efficiency||MMBtu Fuel Equivalent||Fuel Price||Cost/MMBtu|
|Natural Gas||92%||10.5 therms||$1.70/therm||$17.85|
|Fuel Oil||85%||8.5 gallons||$3.00/gal||$25.50|
|Electric Resistance||100%||293 kWh||$0.130/kWh||$38.10|
|Air-Source HP||290% (10 HSPF)||100 kWh||$0.130/kWh||$13.00|
|Geothermal HP||400% (4.0 COP)||73 kWh||$0.130/kWh||$9.50|
Electric resistance heating for baseboard and radiant floor space heating or water heating is relatively expensive. Likewise, propane and fuel oil heating are almost 40% higher than natural gas. However, high efficiency heat pumps for space heating or water heating will provide heat at an equal or significantly lower cost than natural gas. Likewise, an electric vehicle’s (EV) higher efficiency and lower cost to operate saves about $1,000 per year on passenger car fuel costs compared to internal combustion engines (ICEs) that run on gasoline. EVs have no oil pump/filter, complex transmission, or IC engine, so maintenance costs are significantly lower as well.
How does BEL benefit the environment?
Site emissions from renewable power generation are virtually zero and investment in renewable power is growing. Renewables are expected to represent 42% of U.S. electric energy production by 2050. Besides, CO2 emissions per MWh from existing fossil fuel electric power generation has decreased 28% from 2005 to 2017 and continues to drop. There are no site emissions from electric motors and leaking electricity doesn’t produce any air emissions. According to the EPA, the U.S. oil and gas system supply chain leaks on average 1.4% of all the gas it produces. An Environmental Defense Fund (EDF) study estimates a higher leak rate of 2.3%. According to EDF, gas burned to generate electricity loses its climate benefits when the leakage rate exceeds 2.7% of production.
How does BEL improve quality of life?
Leaking natural gas can be ignited by a spark from almost any appliance. If the oxygen supply is blocked, natural gas burns inefficiently and a poisonous gas called carbon monoxide can form. Refueling ICE engines can result in fuel spills. Tanks of fuel stored locally are a potential explosive hazard.
Use of electricity produces no particulates, CO2 or dangerous carbon monoxide site emissions. Recharging with electricity is easy. You can also recharge locally. Induction charging even enables no-touch refueling. Electric heating produces little excess heat or odor that regularly comes from burning fossil fuels for heat. Fossil fuel-powered ICEs are very noisy. Electric motors in EVs and yard tools, on the other hand, are practically silent. They’re so quiet, in fact, that many legislators in the U.S. have proposed the installation of noise-making devices on EVs to alert pedestrians that they’re nearby.
How does BEL increase grid resilience?
After-hours battery charging evens out power demand. EVs can potentially even put power back into the grid. BEL enables resilient microgrids with renewable energy and energy storage. BEL also increases diversity of power generation (solar, wind, battery storage, fuel cells).
Implementing BEL will increase customer electric bills, but that will be more than offset by reduced use of natural gas, fuel oil, gasoline and diesel fuel. BEL benefits the environment, improves our quality of life and increases grid resilience. Get the word out!