There is a growing movement in the U.S. — and around the world — to transition away from fossil fuel-fired appliances such as furnaces, water heaters, and ovens and instead employ electric equipment to meet the needs of end users. While proponents claim that electrification is necessary to reduce global warming, critics say that it limits choices for consumers and that some electric technologies may not be as efficient or reliable as their fossil fuel counterparts.
Then there is the issue of cost. Replacing gas-fired equipment with electric alternatives will be expensive not only for the appliances themselves, but also for the electric panel and other infrastructure upgrades that many customers will require. In fact, one study estimates that electrifying the entire U.S. would have a price tag of between $18 trillion and $29 trillion in first costs.
But consumers may not have much of a choice, as more and more areas around the country are banning the use of natural gas in order to meet their decarbonization goals. There is also pressure from the federal government, as seen in the Environmental Protection Agency’s (EPA’s) decision to no longer recognize efficient furnaces or boilers in its Energy Star program. Starting this year, the only HVAC products that EPA will recognize in its “most efficient” category are air-source heat pumps and air conditioners, geothermal heat pumps, and room air conditioners.
Government relations manager, ACCA
Many in the HVAC industry are skeptical of the electrification movement, noting that it could limit choice for consumers, as well as contractors, who should be able to choose and have access to whatever fuel source makes the most sense from a business perspective.
“We support options for consumers and businesses that enable them to make the best financial decisions for their families, companies, and energy goals,” said Chris Czarnecki, government relations manager at ACCA. “We find the push towards electrification only troubling, as it will almost certainly fail to meet the energy needs of all Americans — especially those in areas that rely heavily on natural gas. Removing access to natural gas can prove costly for businesses and consumers alike. The Consumer Energy Alliance (CEA) estimates that New York City's proposed ban on natural gas hookups would cost every household roughly $25,600.”
Czarnecki noted that ACCA has supported legislative efforts that protect fuel choice for businesses and consumers, including H.B. 201 in Ohio, which was signed into law by Governor Mike DeWine last July. This bill prevents local governments from limiting the use of natural gas and propane and ensures individuals access to distribution services or retail natural gas services. “This law is part of several states’ broader, ongoing effort to protect access to natural gas in response to local governments across the country who have moved to limit and even ban access to natural gas,” he said.
Joel Long, CEO and president of commercial divisions of GSM Services in Gastonia, North Carolina and president of PHCC-National Association, is also extremely concerned about the push for electrification that is taking place across the country.
“This doesn’t make sense to most contractors, because we have built this industry in large part based on giving customers choices,” he said. “Choice and competition lead to lower pricing and better options for consumers, particularly those in low-income housing and the middle class. This political push to stop the use of natural gas in such a swift timeframe will have far-reaching negative effects on our economy. Sure, I can say contractors could adapt to a switch to all electric, but most of our contractors want to be good stewards for our communities, and this swift political push seems unscientific and not founded in economically sound data.”
Not as Advertised
Indeed, the data can be problematic, as analysis shows that electric alternatives such as heat pumps may not provide the efficiencies promised under certain conditions. At an educational session at the AHR Expo in Las Vegas, Ben Lipscomb, PE, director of engineering and utility programs at National Comfort Institute (NCI), pointed out some of the challenges that will arise as a result of electrification, particularly as they relate to the growing use of heat pumps.
Lipscomb is a fan of heat pumps, believing that they are the future of most home heating in the U.S. That’s because they emit fewer greenhouse gases than any of their fossil fuel counterparts and that will only improve over time as the grid transitions to more renewables. They can also save consumers money, under the right circumstances, he said. If they're thoughtfully designed and selected for the conditions in which they’re going to operate and the type of backup heat is selected carefully and applied judiciously.
“Electricity costs a lot more than natural gas on a dollars per Btu basis, and it's really the efficiency of a heat pump, which is 300% to 400% efficient, that can start to bring those two sources of heat into competition with each other,” he said. “But heat pumps are often marketed as a way to save a lot of money, and I have some issues with that. That’s because a lot of times the comparison is to a more expensive fuel like propane or fuel oil, or it’s compared to electric resistance, and the marketing industry doesn’t say that upfront. You have to read the fine print.”
So Lipscomb did just that, conducting an analysis that compared the cost of heat pumps versus furnaces on a dollars per Btu basis with today's pricing. Using the average electric and gas rates for each state, and adjusting the efficiency of heat pumps based on ASHRAE design conditions for the climate of the most populous city in each state, he determined what it would cost to heat a house with a heat pump compared to a furnace.
What he found was that when an 8.2 HSPF heat pump is compared to a 90% AFUE furnace, customers in the majority of states will end up spending more money to heat their homes with a heat pump (see Figure 1). In only a few states, which include Florida, Hawaii, and Arizona, will it be much less expensive for consumers to use a heat pump. When a 14 HSPF heat pump is compared to a 98% AFUE furnace, the case for heat pumps improves, but a large chunk of the Midwest would still pay considerably more with a heat pump (see Figure 2).
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FIGURE 1: When an 8.2 HSPF heat pump is compared to a 90% AFUE furnace, customers in red states will end up spending more money to heat their homes with a heat pump. (Courtesy of Ben Lipscomb at NCI)
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FIGURE 2: When a 14 HSPF heat pump is compared to a 98% AFUE furnace, much of the Midwest would still pay considerably more with a heat pump. (Courtesy of Ben Lipscomb at NCI)
“Compared to electric resistance, fuel oil, and propane, heat pumps do save money pretty much everywhere, so there’s a bit of truth in those marketing pieces,” said Lipscomb (see Figure 3). “But that’s a far cry from claiming that customers will save money with a heat pump, because the truth is, it depends.”
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FIGURE 3: When compared to electric resistance, fuel oil, and propane, heat pumps do save money just about everywhere. (Courtesy of Ben Lipscomb at NCI)
Heat pump performance is another a consideration, as the environment in which the heat pump is installed is a much bigger factor than it is with a furnace. To illustrate this point, Lipscomb offered a common scenario for a heating-dominant climate that has a 15°F design temperature. In this example, the home has a 48,000 Btuh furnace with a 3-ton blower that supplies about 1,300 cfm to the space in heating mode and 1,200 cfm in cooling mode. The 16-inch round metal supply duct is in good shape.
“Let's take a look at what happens when you replace that furnace with a heat pump,” said Lipscomb. “Since it’s a 48,000 Btuh furnace, most would replace it with a 4-ton heat pump. Heat pumps are rated at 47°F, so at 47°F, it's rated to supply 48,000 Btuh. As it gets colder outside and the difference in temperature between outside and inside gets larger, the capacity of that heat pump is going to go down. At the design temperature, it's only going to be able to provide about 25,000 Btuh — or a little over half — of what it needs to provide for the house.”
Additionally, the 4-ton heat pump requires about 1,600 cfm of airflow to operate properly, whereas the furnace it replaced only required 1,300 cfm. The 16-inch duct is not adequate to deliver 1,600 cfm of air, which will further reduce the performance of that heat pump, said Lipscomb.
“So now there’s a pretty big gap at that 15°F design temperature, which has to be filled with something,” he said. “And more often than not, that gap is filled with electric resistance heating, which is far more expensive than natural gas — or any other fuel, for that matter. That increases greenhouse gas emissions beyond what policymakers are anticipating, and it increases grid peak loads beyond what utilities are planning for.”
Lipscomb noted that performance can be improved by using a cold climate heat pump in areas where a standard heat pump is not going to deliver what is needed to keep occupants warm and comfortable. He suggested consulting the NEEP (Northeast Energy Efficiency Partnerships) website, which includes a product list of cold climate air-source heat pumps.
Another factor that needs to be considered when replacing a furnace with a heat pump is longevity. Heat pumps are more complex machines, as they have many more moving parts than furnaces, and because of that, they will usually not last as long as furnaces.
“It’s an unfortunate reality, and really, the only thing you can do as a contractor is encourage your customers to maintain their equipment,” he said. “Offer service agreements and explain the importance of maintaining that heat pump — help it last as long as you can.”
Grid reliability is another concern. The U.S. power grid depends heavily on fossil fuels, with natural gas being an integral part of that grid, said Chuck White, vice president of regulatory affairs at PHCC—National Association.
“Moving the end users’ needs to a total electric source will increase demands on the fossil fuel power generating facilities and add stress to the electrical distribution grid,” he said. “To get to a ‘clean’ power grid, additional renewable energy sources will need to be added to carry not only the existing loads but also be expanded to carry the additional demand shifted from fossil fuel products. The costs to develop this capacity, bolster the distribution infrastructure, and ensure reliability will be burdensome to consumers, especially those with limited resources or those with fixed incomes.”
With more demand and additional stress on the grid, power outages could occur more frequently in a number of areas around the country. In the winter, this is extremely serious, as people can die from exposure if they don’t have heat, not to mention the property damage that can occur from pipes bursting. As a result, many homeowners use backup heat sources like propane fireplaces, natural gas fireplaces, or even wood stoves to keep the house warm in an emergency situation. Or they invest in generators that can keep their furnaces operating — an option that is not always possible with a heat pump.
“A gas furnace can operate on a portable generator for just a few hundred dollars,” said Lipscomb. “But a heat pump draws a massive amount of power when it's running — and even more when it’s starting up. To run an all-electric home with a large heat pump, homeowners would need a huge natural gas generator. Or, they’re going to need a $50,000-plus solar panel array with backup battery in order to stay comfortable and safe in case of a power outage.”
That’s why Lipscomb is a fan of dual fuel options, where homeowners can use a heat pump for most of their heating needs, but on really cold days — or if the power goes out — a gas furnace (or fireplace) can keep occupants warm and comfortable. The problem is that many incentive programs require homeowners to remove their fossil fuel appliances before they qualify for a rebate.
“I’ve seen incentives for heat pumps that require customers to take out their gas furnace, gas fireplace, or propane fireplace to be eligible,” he said. “Unless you're in a climate that is not going to experience cold weather, or you're on a grid where the power never goes out, I think it's the wrong policy. It shouldn’t be all or nothing. Dual fuel is not the evil that it's made out to be by some of these programs. We need to think about health, safety, and comfort, just as much as we need to think about saving our planet.”
PHCC—National Association has been on the road this winter, helping its chapters advocate against decarbonization efforts in their state Capitols. In the most recent visit, director of legislative affairs, Mark Valentini, joined Senate leaders at a press conference in Albany, New York, to protest a plan to eliminate affordable sources of energy, including natural gas hookups.
“PHCC has been tracking this issue as it evolves across the country,” said Valentini. “In every case where gas ban policies were introduced or passed at the local and state levels, there has been little regard by policymakers and a lack of consumer awareness for the impact electrification policies will have on the energy grid and capacity, and discussion about the astronomical costs associated with retrofitting a home or commercial building to be all-electric have been dismissive at best.”
In a recent position paper, PHCC—National Association stated that “while the objective of carbon-neutral energy production is laudable and well-intended, it is apparent to PHCC that decarbonization policies calling for natural gas bans have not considered their consequences.” More from the paper:
- Right now, more than 70 million American homes use natural gas to stay warm in the winter, prepare food, and heat their water. Because it is three times more efficient than electricity, natural gas is an affordable energy source that keeps electric bills low, has low carbon emissions, and reduces overall use of electricity, which in turn, reduces dependence on the more carbon-dependent energy sources that provide electric power, resulting in net reductions in carbon emissions.
- While the technology exists that proponents of natural gas bans hope will power a carbon-free energy grid by the middle of this century, such as solar and wind farms, existing capacity is not sufficient to power the grid exclusively on these technologies nor is the infrastructure in place. Electrification would increase the average residential household-energy related costs by almost 50%. Shifting to 100% electricity dependency, especially when the wind and solar infrastructure is not in place, will stress electric grids while increasing both energy costs for consumers and the carbon impact to the environment.
- If a forced conversion to electric appliances were to be mandated in existing structures, low-income households would be hit the hardest, as they would struggle to afford replacing furnaces, water heaters, and other fixtures that people depend on for a healthy, comfortable quality of life; subsidies and grants for such upgrades would increase costs for taxpayers.
- The plumbing and HVAC contractors of PHCC understand their responsibility as stewards of the environment. Gas utilities have added tens of millions of customers over the past half-century with virtually no increase in carbon emissions. We believe a healthier environment can be achieved by reducing carbon emissions generated by fossil fuels for electricity while allowing consumers to choose natural gas to offset electric costs and maintain a high quality of life.