The call to “electrify everything” in our homes as a way to reduce heat-trapping-gas emissions is an important step, but it is insufficient.
By Robert Haw
Without cooling, the interiors of most buildings become hotter than the outside air temperature, and heat is the number one cause of weather-related deaths in the U.S.
Electrification alone, however, is not a solution. The transition to clean energy will cause household electricity loads to rise, meaning higher utility bills (electricity is more expensive than gas per unit of energy), magnified by the greater need for power in a hotter future.
In addition, the need for more electricity will require more energy plants. Will people tolerate ever-increasing industrialization of open-space and countryside for ever-more renewable energy?
If buildings are to be electrified, and utility bills to remain affordable, the demand for electricity must decrease appreciably. An energy transition plan should reflect that economic reality.
High performance building technology reduces demand for electricity and yields resilient buildings amenable to extreme weather and grid failures. Most of the nation’s buildings, including single family residences, are drafty and poorly insulated (even in Pasadena). Buildings with robust exterior envelopes are capable of passively maintaining safe indoor temperatures for approximately three days, thereby providing occupants with shelter during high-heat events accompanied by long power outages. Even stronger resilience is provided if accompanied by a modest solar array and an equally-modest energy storage system because of the building’s low energy consumption.
Passive House Design
Passive House Design enables building electrification and enhances resiliency; it reduces the heating and cooling demand found in legacy designs by around 90%. That remarkable savings comes about by super-insulating the building envelope, making the building airtight, and installing energy recovery ventilation. Reducing thermal losses and gains through building walls reduces energy demand and energy bills. It’s not rocket science, but it is building science and sound economics.
There are more benefits. Passive Houses are quiet. The airtight, insulated envelope attenuates outside noise rather substantially. Even next to a freeway, it’s like living on a quiet suburban street. Passive Houses are healthier because indoor air quality can be controlled. The ventilation system comes with air filters configurable by the homeowner. High quality filters can maintain superb indoor air quality even in the event of long-lasting wildfire smoke-outs.
Passive House Design can reduce carbon emissions immediately, even before building electrification, through greater efficiency. After the transition, it’s a simple way to suppress growing energy demand. That in turn will hold down power bills and minimize industrialization of the countryside.
So, guidance for electrifying buildings in support of climate action is simple:
- 1. maximize building-energy performance,
- 2. electrify everything, and
- 3. power everything with clean energy.
That first step is vital because it’s a passive way to electric demand manageable and hold utility costs down.
High performance passive building design is the single most powerful tool available to reduce carbon emissions in the built environment. It has been tested around the planet. Passive House Design started in Germany but has been widely adopted in the US. For more information see naphnetwork.org and passivehousecal.org.
Robert Haw worked at the Jet Propulsion Laboratory for 35-years. He left JPL to start a sustainability consulting business and is a Certified Passive House Consultant. He’s active with both the Pasadena Building Electrification Coalition and Pasadena 100, a group pressing for 100% clean energy in Pasadena by 2030.
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