Danfoss symposium explores how the push for decarbonization and electrification can create opportunities for building design transformation

Monday, October 4, 2021

The recently released report from the UN’s Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) made it clear that we urgently need to combat climate change. Without achieving net-zero carbon emissions and reducing additional greenhouse gases over the next decade, global warming is expected to increase, resulting in 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. Buildings, which use 70% of generated energy, will be at the heart of any grid transformation, with new energy performance requirements 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 implications for future building design and for power systems manufacturers. How will new policies and the demands of our planet 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, in alignment with the state’s goal of reducing carbon emissions to zero by 2045.

To reach state decarbonization goals in both commercial and residential sectors, McAllister estimated that a minimum of $35-40 billion will be required over the next 20 years. New technologies and materials to increase insulation, store energy and pre-cool commercial buildings and multi-family housing units will be necessary to store and save energy. Load shifting and flexibility are key to increasing the reliability of the power grid. “We need to store energy,” said McAllister. “As the grid cleans up, load flexibility will become ever more important, as shifting loads is something we can do in real time. Energy storage strategies such as batteries, grid-responsive water heating and space pre-cooling on hot days will allow buildings to enhance the reliability of the grid.”

McAllister sees a future in which load flexibility is required in both building systems as well as end-use appliances for both residential and commercial customers such as water heaters, pool pumps, thermostats and EV chargers. Management platforms – largely cloud-based - will tune energy use down to the device level based on time-responsive electric rates, grid congestion or even momentary carbon content of the power mix. Such systems will enhance reliability while reducing the overall cost of operating the grid, ultimately saving consumers money.

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.

McAllister was optimistic on the potential of decarbonization and energy efficiency to advance equity across the population. “Energy policy can help make society more just by ensuring that multi-family housing offers more efficiencies.”

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. “There is a tremendous amount of inertia in the heating and cooling business,” he said. “Until you get people the product they want, electrification could be a struggle.” He drew comparisons to the introduction of more energy-efficient lightbulbs: initially, customers did not want to use CFL or LED bulbs because they did not present the same quality as incandescent lightbulbs. Now that LED bulbs have become an attractive product, both in appearance and lifetime cost, customers want to buy them. Similarly, residential and commercial customers will not prefer heat pumps until they can provide the same or better performance as their current heating system.

As new building standards are debated, retrofitting older buildings is a significant consideration, Domitrovic noted. Currently, the commercial building sector’s energy consumption and carbon generation is second only to transportation; roughly 60% of a building’s energy is spent on space heating, with 20% devoted to water heating. “Electrification requires substantial upgrades in the grid and heat pump technologies,” he said.

Domitrovic recognized the need for developing components for variable speed heat pumps, the next generation of heat pump technology. He shared data demonstrating the strong performance of variable speed heat pumps 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.

Participants agreed that the current challenge is to develop better heat pumps. Dual-flow heat pumps are another innovation, but right now only have about an 8% share of the market.

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. “Reaching carbon neutrality needs to be an integrated approach,” she said. 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.

To help meet the District’s goal of carbon neutrality, she encourages building owners to look at their building’s infrastructure and make decisions based on the state of their systems. “To address both energy supply and efficiency at once, electrification options should be evaluated hand-in-hand with energy conservation measures to reduce overall electricity demands before fully electrifying a building,” she said. “We have been encouraging people to work first on increased efficiency to reduce fuel consumption and then electrify where and when it is practical to do so.”

“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.

The Workshop was part of Danfoss’ EnVisioneering Symposia Series, which for more than 15 years, has sought to drive conversation and engagement on the urgent and emerging trends challenging the HVACR industry.