Read part 1 first, immediately below or at this link.
When we talk about improving efficiency, we can talk about improving efficiency of our electrical system, or we can talk about improving the efficiency of our energy system. If we focus on our electrical system, we only have a limited range of solutions within that system itself. If we look beyond electricity, we can look at a much broader range of alternatives which involve shifting our use from one kind of technology or fuel to another. It may very well be that eliminating electricity altogether from some kinds of energy use will yield the biggest efficiency gains.
Asking companies that generate electricity to improve the efficiency of their systems is nice, but there are some areas where electrical efficiency will never produce really significant efficiency gains. Heating is one of those areas. Unless either the US government or the WV Legislature develop requirements to shift heating from electricity to gas or biomass (more about biomass below), we cannot make real progress on improving overall energy efficiency in our economy. All of the alternatives to using electricity for home heating also follow the principles of creating local jobs and decentralizing our power system.
The fundamental way to capture more thermal capacity is to burn your fuel in or near where you need the heat. Just like with electricity, decentralized heat power is the most reliable, least expensive and most efficient.
As with most energy related issues, it pays to look at what the most advanced countries are doing. The Europeans, particularly the Germans, have made a huge commitment to eliminating electricity as a source of heating in their economies. A number of northern European countries have had requirements in place to recapture waste heat (Remember that 66% that is lost producing electricity?) and turning it into home heat for other factories and homes near power plants. In many countries now, all new factories of any kind must include technologies for recapturing waste process heat and circulating it as home or business heating.
But the Germans have made big strides in another technology. In his great book Clean Break, Osha Davidson describes wood (“biomass” if you want to be fancy) fired heating plants that provide heat for everyone in rural German towns. Fuel for these plants (waste wood and crop residue) is close by, so transportation costs are low. The advanced technologies used in these heating plants burn the material at very high temperatures, maximizing carbon combustion and minimizing emissions. The infrastructure is entirely underground and is not subject to disruption by weather. Best of all, these plants are owned by the towns that operate them, so they are completely under local control.
The German use of biomass fuel to produce only heat is far more efficient than burning biomass to fuel thermally inefficient steam turbine plants hundreds of miles from users. Biomass fuels use what is called current account solar energy, carbon based power that is stored in wood or vegetation in recent time periods and which can be regrown using the sunlight that is currently hitting the earth. While biomass is a carbon-based combustion fuel, it is not a fossil fuel, because it was not created from plants millions of years ago.
Europeans do not enjoy the fossil fuel luxury we have here in WV (a luxury only in the sense of fuel price, fossil fuel extraction is a disaster here). Natural gas is not a good fuel option for them, because Germany must import almost all its natural gas from Russia, a dependence that they want to end.
So here in WV, if we want dramatic improvements in energy efficiency, the Legislature and the PSC should be pushing for a shift away from electricity in all forms for heating purposes, to WV natural gas and biomass fuels. This is a no brainer, because the gas is here and it is cheap, and gas furnaces and space heaters are readily available to home and business owners. Longer term, WV regulators should be pushing for new centralized biomass heating plants in WV towns to create jobs and make more effective use of our abundant current account solar power, locked up in our trees.
There is a strong likelihood that the result of this shift away from electric heat would dramatically reduce the overall residential electric load in WV. Our existing electric companies should be compensated for the fixed costs they still have in their power plants and wires. Electric rates would have to rise to provide this compensation. But overall efficiency would increase so much that this rise in electric rates would be offset by significant drops in the cost of heating. So while electric rates might rise, electric bills (and heating bills) would fall dramatically.
Don’t believe me? Look at the DoE heating comparison using the calculator’s default values. The cost of electric heat per million BTUs is $36.97 for an electric furnace. The cost of heat from a gas furnace is $14.00 per million BTUs. It’s not even close. Even if gas prices double, the cost of gas heat is still cheaper at $28.08 per million BTUs. Wood, purchased at $200.00 per cord, yields a cost of $12.63 per million BTU. You can get a cord of firewood for a lot less than $200 in rural WV.