Choosing electric heating source now will reap long-term dividends

Chiller heat pumps – one of a variety of electric heating sources.

By Adam McMillen 

The common view in the built industry is that gas is cheaper, cleaner, and has fewer carbon emissions than a primarily coal-fired electric grid. Indeed, in many regions of the country today, gas-fired boilers are the way to go from a cost and emissions perspective.  

However, the amount of carbon in generating power sources that supply the electric grid is getting lower every year, and the goal of many utilities is to move toward a grid free of carbon within the next 30 years. This means that buildings that install gas-burning equipment today will continue to produce carbon long after the electric source is carbon-free.  

This evolution presents a dilemma for owners who are planning new buildings or upgrades of their current infrastructure. After all, the grid still has a lot of carbon in it, electricity cost is much higher than gas, and it is difficult to predict the future. In addition, when running system options in most of the country with today’s scenarios, electric-based heating looks dirty and expensive.  

To get the long-range view, owners need to conduct both present-day and future-case analyses of the impacts of both carbon and electricity – as well as the impact of a potential future carbon tax.  

These analyses should show the electric grid to be the most economical and cleanest long-term choice. Assuming an owner has arrived at this conclusion, a variety of electric heating sources can be considered for their next project: 

  • Geothermal heat pumps (central plant or distributed) 
  • Air source heat pumps (central plant or distributed) 
  • Water source heat pumps (central plant or distributed) 
  • Variable refrigerant flow systems 
  • Heat recovery chillers 
  • Hot water storage 

Industry leaders who today move toward full electrification of their buildings, including the heating source, will see their carbon footprint “disappear” over time without any additional work or investment. As the utility cleans up the grid, the owner’s carbon will be cleaned up along with it.  

To learn more, read this action plan by Northeast Energy Efficiency Partnerships.