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Texas Power Outages Highlight Heating Electrification Challenges
You’ve probably heard about the power failures in Texas. Much has been written about the suffering it caused and the lessons to be learned around resiliency and reliability. However, the ordeal also underscores the stark challenge presented by decarbonizing the heating of building stock.
Part of Texas’ challenge has been that peak electricity demand typically happens in the summer when sweltering temperatures necessitate air conditioning. Generation capacity and transmission and distribution lines are all designed to ensure that the grid doesn’t collapse under the strain of the summer heat. But the technologies that can decarbonize buildings may shift this peak demand from summer to winter.
How to Decarbonize Heat
To meet net zero targets, space heating needs to be carbon neutral. The first priority is using more and better insulation so that less heating is needed. But the way we heat buildings will need to change. Using heat pumps shifts the fuel needed from natural gas, propane, and fuel oil to electricity. This switch, combined with electrical generation based on renewables, translates to heating without creating CO2.
The other pathway to decarbonized heating is shifting the fuel to hydrogen. Hydrogen can be created using renewable electricity and burned in boilers and furnaces, which would be a less disruptive shift to building occupants but would require a profound shift in infrastructure. Though, shifting infrastructure between hydrogen and natural gas has been done before.
The Implications on the Grid
The challenges posed to the grid by heating electrification seem small. Because electrical grids are designed to accommodate the large load of air conditioning, there should be capacity in winter for cooling-dominated locations. However, the capacity required to fully electrify heat could exceed what is needed for cooling. According to the US Energy Information Administration's Residential Energy Consumption Survey, the West South Central census division (which includes Texas) uses more energy for space heating than for cooling. But residential space heating in the region is predominantly provided by propane and natural gas.
Despite the infrastructure challenges, heating electrification will be part of a pathway to decarbonization. The technology is available and is rapidly becoming more cost-effective and more reliable than fossil fuel systems. Guidehouse Insights expects the market for electrified home technology to grow at a compound annual growth rate of 20% over the next decade. As the power outages in Texas demonstrated, investment in the electrical system is needed just to keep the lights on. This investment must also accommodate the decarbonization of heating.