California Electrification – what buildings, the grid, and the environment need in an age of energy transition and climate change

Tarroja, B., F. Chiang, A. AghaKouchak, S. Samuelsen, S.V. Raghavan, M. Wei, K. Sun, T. Hong. 2018. Translating climate change and heating system electrification impacts on building energy use to future greenhouse gas emissions and electric grid capacity requirements in California. Applied Energy 225(1):522-534.

Beyond the individual lifestyle, cities and municipalities are beginning to take responsibility for their climate impacts and make changes to become more environmentally-friendly. As policy-makers and elected officials learn more about climate change and the power they wield to change environmentally-damaging practices, we are seeing robust action coming from municipalities to actively fight climate change. One of the most important ways in which a municipality can reduce its impact on the climate is by reducing its’ greenhouse gas emissions.

Over the past several years, the severity of climate change has become increasingly plain. Everything we do in our daily lives seems to have an impact on the climate and the environment around us. From driving our cars, eating a hamburger, throwing away a plastic water bottle, or forgetting our reusable bags at the grocery stores, our impact on the environment is significant. As individuals, we can take small and important steps to change our habits to live in a more sustainable and climate-friendly way. Small actions, such as replacing a plastic water bottle with a reusable one, eating a veggie burger once in a while, supporting our local environmental non-profits, or reading an article about climate change in a peer-reviewed journal, are all important and influential.

Skyline of Los Angeles, CA

There are many ways a municipality or state can go about lowering their greenhouse gas emissions including purchasing electric cars for their municipal fleet (think police cars and official vehicles owned by the city or state), reducing waste and improving recycling and composting programs, and maintaining an efficient public transportation system to reduce the number of cars on the road.

Another significant way a municipality can improve their greenhouse gas emissions is to encourage energy use to become increasingly more renewable and sustainable and move away from fossil fuels. In a paper by Tarroja and colleagues, the state initiative to reduce greenhouse gas emissions in California (CA) was studied in an effort to understand the complexities of building energy transition on a state-wide level.

This study was unique from other building electrification studies because the authors focused beyond the scope of the direct impacts of electrification on buildings, such as energy cost savings and energy efficiency measures. A majority of studies on electrification efforts focus on impacts to the buildings themselves, things like the energy consumption of the building, its efficiency, or the peak load. However, in this study, the authors wanted to focus on a broader scale, so they analyzed the effects of building electrification on the wider electric grid in an effort to simulate the future environmental impacts of electrification along with the needs of an expanded electricity system.

By approaching this research from a wider electrification lens, the authors projected what a future electric grid would look like in the year 2050, when climate change impacts and broader reliance on electricity would likely occur. These analyses made this paper one of the first to provide a robust assessment of future electrification scenarios and an understanding of how climate change will affect electrification in CA at a broader scale. With their analysis, the authors hoped to provide useful insight for CA policy-makers to help them reach the state’s greenhouse gas reduction goals.

In order to complete this complex analysis, the authors used a building modeling software called EnergyPlus that, among other useful tools, allowed them to simulate changes in energy demand and peak loads due to climate change in future projected scenarios. From their study, the authors found that changes in peak electrification demand due to climate change would likely not cause an increase in greenhouse gas emissions if more renewable electricity generation was brought onboard to help meet electricity demand. Additionally, the authors found that electrifying the heating systems in buildings alone, provided a 30-40% reduction in greenhouse gas emissions, if there were significant and renewable improvements made to the electric grid.

Renewable energy technologies, solar and wind

Results from this paper provided useful information for the development of state climate policy goals, both for renewable energy development and for understanding the changes to the electric grid that are necessary to successfully bring many more buildings onto it in the future. This research demonstrated the importance of investing in the CA electric grid, both to optimize its infrastructure and to incorporate renewable energy sources, in order to create a future where the state’s greenhouse gas emission reduction goals could be met, even in the face of climate change. Although this research was focused in CA, similar methodology and approaches could be used for other states and/or municipalities looking to understand more about the future of their electric grids in the changing climate.

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Jessica Wright

I am a fourth year PhD. student in earth sciences at Boston University in the Department of Earth and Environment. My research focuses on urban infrastructure systems and energy transition policy, specifically focusing on the role of natural gas. I completed my undergraduate studies at Connecticut College in Biology and have worked with a lot of non-profits in and around the Greater Boston area on energy transition policy-making. I love to swim, do yoga, and travel!

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