Transmission lines leading to a electric substation in Charles City County. (Sarah Vogelsong/Virginia Mercury)
By Chris Meyer and Ross Wood
Recent extreme weather events such as the heat domes in the Western United States directly or indirectly impacted millions of people.
Unfortunately, these events will likely become more frequent, eventually impacting Virginia as well, despite our traditionally more moderate climate. So, what can we do now to make our communities more resilient and mitigate climate change that is exacerbating these crazy weather events? The answer is electrification — the installation of appliances, such as heat pumps, that utilize electricity instead of a fossil fuel source like fuel oil, propane or natural gas.
One might think the vast majority of our electricity comes from the burning of fossil fuels.
In the past, that was certainly true with Virginia’s electricity mix, but as of 2019, 36 percent of Virginia electricity was generated from a non-greenhouse gas emitting source such as nuclear (30 percent) or renewables such as solar/wind (6 percent), with coal — one of the worst sources of greenhouse gas emissions — contributing only 4 percent. What is shocking and shows the potential of electrification is that coal fueled 48.5 percent of electricity production in 2000, just about 20 years ago. Looking forward, the Virginia Clean Economy Act has provided the legislative framework to accelerate Virginia’s electricity sector transformation away from fossil fuel sources in the coming years.
A similar change is needed now with the appliances and HVAC systems in our homes, which are replaced more frequently than power plants. In essence, many of us have miniature fossil-fuel burning power plants in our homes that we utilize to keep warm, cook our food and heat our water. While the climate mitigation impact is necessary, there are many more reasons to make changes, to increase the resiliency of our homes, make them healthier and keep many of them affordable by reducing their associated energy costs.
At the Local Energy Alliance Program (LEAP), we audit hundreds of homes a year throughout Virginia — both affordable and higher-end properties — and frequently come across problematic appliances. The most problematic of the issues we find are homes with fossil-fuel appliances such as furnaces, gas cooking tops and gas water heaters that are malfunctioning and releasing health endangering gases into a home’s ambient air. A recent LEAP client utilized a gas oven/range for heat in the winter — yes, their range was their primary source of heat — and window a/c units to keep cool in the summer. For the record, using a gas range for space heating is extremely dangerous, increasing the risk of carbon monoxide exposure and poisoning. Additional indoor air quality hazards found at this home were a gas leak behind the oven as well as the gas water heater spilling combustion gasses back into the home due to improper venting; another potential source of carbon monoxide.
All of these factors combined created poor indoor air quality for the family — more importantly, a hazardous and potentially deadly environment for them to be living in.
Another issue we routinely find during our audits is the lack of air conditioning completely. Not having air conditioning during extreme heat events can exacerbate respiratory and other health problems, especially for the elderly, which leads to many unfortunate deaths and extra trips to the emergency room.
There are readily available solutions though to these frequently found challenges. Heat pumps are a fantastic option for heating and cooling. Newer models are able to operate at various speeds, adapting to the temperature and demand needed to heat or cool the home. Additionally, an article from the Department of Energy found that “high-efficiency heat pumps also dehumidify better than standard central air conditioners, resulting in less energy usage and more cooling comfort in summer months.” For the reasons noted above and more that have not been mentioned, heat pumps are becoming more efficient and better at sustaining comfort. For those who wish to continue using fossil fuels for emergency heating, there are dual-fuel system options available, where a heat pump runs unless power is lost or extremely cold temperatures are reached. This is a nice alternative because it allows you to reduce your fossil fuel consumption while receiving the benefits of a heat pump all year round.
An important caveat to the use of heat pumps is the need to implement additional energy-efficiency measures in a home in order to not strain the electricity grid. Grid resiliency — the ability of the electricity grid to always be “on” or evade “black outs” during a crisis — is very important, and by adding more demand on it from heat pumps, it could become more prone to failure. To mitigate the additional electricity demand from the heat pumps, air sealing and adding insulation to homes, normally the most impactful energy-efficiency measures for older, affordable housing stock, is essential. Additionally and luckily, Virginia’s grid functions differently than that of Texas, which suffered catastrophic grid failures last winter. Virginia’s grid is connected to a much larger, regional grid, which allows it to add power from producers in other states when needed. This gives Virginia’s grid the ability to be more resilient in the face of extreme weather events like arctic blasts and heat waves.
To assist low-income residents in electrifying their homes will require changing at least one definition in Virginia’s legal code — the definition of an “energy efficiency program.” The definition mandates a reduction in electricity and needs to be changed to a reduction in energy — thus allowing for the likely increase of electricity usage. That change could be easily done during the 2022 General Assembly, and will allow weatherization service providers like LEAP to utilize the numerous state-regulated utility programs to electrify homes, especially for low-income residents.
Another opportunity is to utilize new funding being generated by the Regional Greenhouse Gas Initiative (RGGI) to create a new program to specifically target electrification and its unique set of challenges. The Department of Housing and Community Development controls this funding and should designate a portion of it to be utilized for electrification.
Electrifying homes is necessary for Virginia to meet its ambitious climate mitigation goals while also improving the safety and comfort of housing for low-income Virginians. The technology and know-how are available, weatherization providers like LEAP just need Virginian legislators to modify existing legislation at the next General Assembly to make it possible. We look forward to seeing this change made, for the good of the planet and our neighbors.
Chris Meyer is executive director and Ross Wood is a technical assessor with the Local Energy Alliance Program.
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