Electric Heat – Thermal Efficiency Disaster, part 2: Thinking Outside the Electricity Box

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.

5 thoughts on “Electric Heat – Thermal Efficiency Disaster, part 2: Thinking Outside the Electricity Box

  1. Its also worth mentioning that there is a wide range of inefficiency within electric heating. WV has a higher than average proportion of mobile homes, all of which come with electric resistance heating, which is a total electricity hog (not to mention an economic justice issue – people living in mobile homes probably can’t afford $500/month winter electric bill). And plenty of other non-mobile homes also have baseboard electric heaters. These things are terrible, even compared to an electric heat pump. Someone recently pointed out to me that there are now “ductless” heat pumps that can be installed in houses that have electric resistance heating – there is huge potential for savings there.

    I can’t really get that excited about investing in a lot of natural gas infrastructure for climate change reasons (the idea of converting a lot of infrastructure to natural gas and then trying to convert to something else in a decade or two doesn’t seem worth it). But capturing existing waste heat and developing biomass and geothermal heat in some cases would be good to encourage.

    District heating – distributing waste heat in urban areas and towns – is a big deal all over Europe, as you mention. I wonder what the potential is to capture waste heat from the plants along the Kanawha River.

  2. Amending my previous comment here:
    The cost of electric heat for an electric baseboard heater (according to that DOE calculator with electricity at 10 cents/kWh) is $29/MMBTU. The cost for an electric heat pump is $12.20, which is comparable to the cost of a gas furnace at current (very low) natural gas prices. So there’s not much of a cost savings to switching to gas if you currently have a heat pump.

    • Cathy,

      Thanks for bringing up the housing issue in your first comment. The upfront cost of a mobile or modular home may look low, but the heating costs will kill you.

      Heat pumps that use surrounding air as their heat source are very efficient down to about 30 degrees, but they are not efficient or effective as temperatures fall lower. Most heat pumps connected to furnaces also have an electric element heating system for lower temperatures. I know, we used a heat pump system as back up to our wood heat for years. The cost you cite for air-source electric heat pump that you cite in your comment comes from the DoE heat cost calculator. If you look at the footnote to that cost amount, you will see that DoE requires you to adjust that base cost by the common winter temperatures in your area to get an accurate cost when the cost of a supplemental low temperature heat source is factored in. This will significantly increase the base costs for most West Virginians above the figure for gas furnaces. Supplementing the heat pump with gas heat instead of an electric element would significantly reduce overall cost.

      As you point out, fossil fuel heating is still subject to fuel cost fluctuations and long distance transport. District heating based on existing heat sources is almost a no-brainer where existing heat sources are near heating needs. Our problem in WV and the US is that we have done just the opposite with our industrial plants. Because we refuse to control pollution emissions, our plants have to be located long distances from population centers. Manufacturing has also been either exported or highly centralized so that small towns and cities no longer have these heat sources in their own communities.

      In the US, zero emissions technologies have always been seen as extra costs. In fact, zero emissions allows you locate in communities where you can sell your “waste” heat to recover costs of eliminating emissions. Once again, this is a lesson we can learn from Europe where it is happening right now.

      In most small towns in WV, there is no existing industrial heat source to tap for district heating. The Europeans have the technologies to create dedicated biomass district heating plants. I’d be willing to bet that it would be a lot less expensive for many towns in our state to invest in this kind of heating than it would be to continue to buy into AEP’s and FirstEnergy’s coal fired plants to run our electric furnaces.

  3. A couple things. One is to point out that along with cheap firewood in WV, we have extremely high quality firewood–the top BTU species are among our most common trees. And that wood heat in a cast iron wood stove provides radiant heat, which to me is more satisfyingly warm than heated air. On the other hand, firewood drops bits of bark over your floor, the stove needs frequent tending, and while it works fine in most of WV, firewood would create a pollution problem in cities.
    As for gas heat, it’s more efficient but I suspect the current low price won’t last long. The bubble has already popped, the enormous surge of shale drilling drove the costs this low–but industry is already idling rigs and capping wells. It has to go up–it’s below the cost of production.
    So what’s the best solution? Seems to me you dismissed better insulation, etc., much too fast. What about the other experiments in Germany–the Passivhauses that use little or no fuel, in a climate much like ours, and supposedly cost only 7% more to build? In the long run, seems to me between climate change and other environmental problems and resource depletion, we need to go for the solutions that minimize fossil fuel use and GHG emissions to the lowest possible.

    • Mary,

      I didn’t dismiss conservation investments like insulation and improved sealing. My point was directly connected to the WV practice of using them to reduce electrical use. My point was that these improvements in a house heated with electricity will only lead to small reductions in power use, compared with eliminating electricity for heating altogether. What the Germans are doing with building design is absolutely a big part of the solution and can have dramatic overall efficiency impacts when coupled with heating which maximizes system thermal efficiency.

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