This piece was originally published in the July/August 2020 issue of electroindustry.
by Mike Stone, West Coast Field Representative, NEMA
Member companies have made possible the electrification of the country. What the term “electrification” has meant traditionally is to provide electricity to areas that previously did not have service. In the late 19th and first part of the 20th centuries, providing electricity to all parts of the country, including rural areas, was the challenge. The products and technology supplied by NEMA Members successfully met that challenge.
Recently, though, the term electrification has taken on a new meaning. Now it also refers to the use of electricity to power buildings, replacing natural gas, fuel oil, and other non-electrical sources of energy in buildings. Appliances and other equipment used for heating, cooking, air conditioning, refrigeration, and vehicles are all candidates for electrification in homes and buildings.
Building energy codes have historically favored the onsite usage of natural gas over electricity. These codes have been primarily concerned with the efficiency of the energy source without regard to the environmental impact of its generation. Much modern natural gas- fired equipment is highly efficient when it comes to energy usage. As a result, equipment such as electric water heaters and electric resistance heating have been less often used. Technologies such as electric heat pumps are changing that, but natural gas still is prevalent in buildings built under today’s energy codes.
Natural gas is one of the cleanest burning fossil fuels when compared to others such as coal or oil, and technology has helped improve its environmental impact. The U.S. Energy Information Administration (EIA) states that natural gas accounted for 39 percent of U.S. electricity generation in 2019, followed by coal at 23 percent. Also, in 2019, renewable energy sources accounted for 17 percent of generation and 11 percent of energy consumption. (1)
But regardless of how clean technology can make the burning of natural gas and other fossil fuels, emissions and other environmental impacts will never be reduced to zero. Renewables, on the other hand, produce no emissions in operation. Hydroelectric and geothermal are two types of renewables that have been used for generations ever since electricity was first harnessed for use. Their capacity for significant expansion, though, is limited. The greatest expansions of renewable energy have been solar photovoltaic (PV) and wind. Other technologies such as biomass and tidal energy are also promising, but wind and solar PV have been, and will likely continue to be, the primary sources of at-scale renewable electricity generation for the foreseeable future.
Various energy codes across the country are beginning to address the concept of electrification. These codes include the International Code Council’s (ICC) International Energy Conservation Code (IECC), the ICC International Green Construction Code (IgCC), ASHRAE 90.1, and California’s Title 24 Part 6 Energy Code and Part 11 Green Construction Code (CALGreen). At the 2021 IECC code development hearings last year, NEMA assisted one of our industry partners in drafting an electrification proposal which was ultimately successful. This new code language requires that any appliance location in a dwelling unit that has a natural gas supply must also be provided with an equivalent electrical circuit. As of this writing, several of the opponents to this code change have filed an appeal with ICC to have it removed. But if the appeal is denied, the new requirement will be in the 2021 IECC edition.
The State of California does not have electrification requirements in its current edition of the Title 24 Energy Code or CALGreen. However, the California Energy Commission (CEC) is currently discussing electrification, and there will likely be electrification provisions in the next editions of both the Energy Code and CALGreen, which will be effective on January 1, 2023.
In other related activities, the newly formed NEMA Solar Photovoltaic Council is working with Members and other outside solar PV industry partners on areas of mutual interest. One of the projects underway is the creation of a new Standard for PV wire connectors. NEMA involvement in the solar PV industry will undoubtedly help advance the technologies that will enable the expansion of the use of solar PV renewables.
Energy codes in various forms have existed in this country since the 1970s and have been a significant factor in the decline of energy consumption in buildings. But electrification goes beyond efficiency to address the sources of the energy that we use. Less reliance on direct fossil fuel use in buildings in favor of electricity, and cleaner fossil fuel generation augmented by a growing amount of renewable generation, means fewer overall emissions and an executable incremental step toward a cleaner environment. Through technology and innovation, NEMA and its Members continue to lead the way. ei
“Electricity explained,” Energy Information Administration, https://www.eia.gov/energyexplained/electricity/electricity-in-the-us.php