Exploring how the push for decarbonization and electrification can create opportunities for building design transformation

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The recently released report from the UN’s Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) made it clear that unless we achieve net-zero carbon emissions and reduce additional greenhouse gases over the next decade, we may be facing pronounced environmental changes, including weather extremes and severe weather events.

Conversations at both the state and federal level are focused on reducing our carbon footprint and optimizing renewable energy sources. New energy performance requirements for buildings, which use 70% of generated energy, are being enacted at the municipal and state level. The emphasis on efficiency in design and energy technologies will create opportunities for the building industry and its suppliers in the years ahead.

Danfoss recently convened a virtual EnVisioneering Workshop to examine issues of decarbonization, electrification and energy policy and how new policies and the demands of our planet impact will impact building systems and energy innovation moving forward.

The Need for Investment

Andrew McAllister, a commissioner at the California Energy Commission, emphasized, “We can’t avoid climate change, we need to mitigate and adapt. We need to make massive investments to decrease our carbon footprint.” To that end, California has adopted a new energy code for buildings that requires building owners to decrease energy usage and carbon emissions through efficient electrification. In particular, HVAC systems that employ gas combustion for heating will be substituted by efficient heat pumps and other low-energy components.

But change takes sustained effort. McAllister emphasized the need to get the buy-in from elected officials and the public. California has commenced several key initiatives, such as incorporating compliance credits in the building code for installing efficient, electric systems such as heat pump, developing regulations to require native load flexibility in devices where it makes sense, and funding R&D through the CalFlexHub to develop and test strategies for deployment of load flexibility. “There is an amazing amount of creativity in this space,” he said, noting the need for rate-payer incentives and public-private partnerships to fund decarbonization initiatives.

Upgrading Technologies

Ron Domitrovic, program manager for the Customer Technologies Program at the Electric Power Research Institute, emphasized the need for innovation in order to achieve decarbonization. “Until you get people the product they want, electrification could be a struggle,” he said. Similar to how LED lightbulbs, once shunned by consumers, were upgraded to an attractive product, heat pump technology will need to advance in order to increase its adoption.

Domitrovic shared data on variable speed heat pumps, demonstrating their strong performance in colder climates; during a cold snap in Nebraska last February, when temperatures fell to sub-zero levels, variable speed heat pumps were able to supply sufficient heat to meet customer needs and maintain a desired indoor temperature. Domitrovic expressed worry that the excitement over electric heat will result in installation of the current single speed pumps. “That would be a missed opportunity and won’t move us forward to better heating technologies,” he said. Furthermore, we need to focus on high lift and technologies using newer, low -GWP refrigerants.

Transforming Existing Building Infrastructure

Lindsey Falasca, the director of the Building Innovation Hub at the Institute for Market Transformation in Washington, D.C., stressed the importance of balancing the demands of building decarbonization with human behavior and focus on the actions needed within individual buildings. In her work, she asks building owners to think about how each act of energy use in a building is interconnected with the larger community to help them understand their role in improving the climate and health.

“Building operators need to have a good understanding of a building’s performance,” she continued. The increased attention on ventilation and indoor air quality as a result of the COVID-19 pandemic provides an opportunity to get owners to think about the efficiency of their systems alongside the issues of health and wellness. “We frame the conversation about decarbonization on what’s important to the people we’re speaking with and present suggestions in a way that resonates with their concerns,” Falasca noted.

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