EPRI Chief Executive On Efficient Electrification


Combines CEO and DIY Roles

PUF 2.0 - November 15, 2017

Electric Power Research Institute (EPRI) CEO Mike Howard is guiding the institute's broad initiative examining the potential gains in efficiency, economics, environmental impacts and customer value that can be realized through what EPRI has named "Efficient Electrification." In this interview with PUF Editor-in-Chief Steve Mitnick, Howard's hands-on experience with residential energy technologies sheds light on how they are assessed and adopted - why an Integrated Energy Network identifies efficient electrification as a significant outcome in the pathway to the future. 

PUF's Steve Mitnick: Set the stage for us. What is Efficient Electrification?

Mike Howard: First, momentum is building to achieve unprecedented efficiency in every aspect of energy production, delivery and use. And as we move toward an integrated energy network we see all forms of energy are becoming more interdependent. Customers are increasingly more concerned with convenience, choice, and comfort rather than the form of energy. And we must bring a more concerted R&D effort to the various technologies and opportunities we see. 

We can get to peak efficiency only if we're fundamentally agnostic about the energy source, and the technology. In a variety of scenarios EPRI sees opportunities to replace higher emitting and less efficient end-use energy sources with electricity - as it becomes cleaner and is combined with more efficient technologies. That is what is meant by "efficient electrification". 

PUF's Steve Mitnick: So, seeing a growing role for electricity, EPRI has initiated an "Efficient Electrification initiative."

Mike Howard: Technology is driving us in that direction. Our Efficient Electrification initiative already encompasses industrial energy use, residential uses, transportation and agriculture. But remember, the first word in the initiative is "efficient." Regardless of the energy source, its production, delivery and use must become more efficient - meaning using less of it to do the same work as before. 

PUF's Steve Mitnick: I was interested to learn that you've taken a hands-on approach to some residential technologies that EPRI has researched and helped develop. You installed new heat pump technology that is prominent among the technologies your initiative has focused on. Tell us about that.

Mike Howard: I've always been a hands-on tinkerer. I grew up on a farm. If the horse broke the fence down, it was my job to go fix the fence. So, when my wife and I bought a house in the North Carolina mountains we dug into making it energy efficient.

We started with the basics; putting R70 insulation in the attic; sealing around canister lights, and sealing and insulating around doors and windows. Once the house was sealed, the next step was making our heating and cooling more efficient.

Advanced heat pumps have significant benefits over traditional heat pumps and gas furnaces, and are perfect for mountain conditions. With older heat pump technology, the colder mountain climate could be a challenge. Ron Domitrovic and his team in our Knoxville lab had tested the latest Carrier unit, called Greenspeed. It's an ultra-efficient heat pump system. I contacted the Carrier distributor in Asheville, and they told me this was so new, they had just gone to school to learn about it.

PUF's Steve Mitnick: As a consumer, what do you think of its performance?

Mike Howard: We've used it for almost a year now. The unit not only keeps the temperature steady, we can adjust the humidity for more comfort. I used to have to empty the basement dehumidifier every three days or so. Now I may empty it every couple of weeks.

You can't even hear it running. The comfort and convenience of the system is significantly better than older models, and it automatically adjusts the fan speed to what's needed.

PUF's Steve Mitnick: So - bottom line - how do you see this technology as a consumer, a researcher and executive?

Mike Howard: It's much more efficient. In fact, heat pumps are 300% to 400% efficient because electricity is only used to circulate the refrigerant between copper coils to extract heat or cold from one place and move it to another. Thus I have both a heater and air conditioner in the same unit. One of our research teams uses it as one of their test facilities. They're monitoring outside and inside temperature, humidity, air speed and electric efficiency. The total energy savings was more than $3,000 for the first year.  

As heat pump efficiency increases, they can extract heat from much colder air. That opens a much broader swath of the U.S. for heat pumps. Today, a heat pump with a natural gas furnace for emergency heat (replacing less efficient supplemental resistance heating) is often used in climates that face extreme cold.

So my experience - and EPRI's research - show how this and other electric technologies can improve efficiency, savings and comfort. We're continuing to quantify these benefits. Just as important, we're launching research to look more broadly at the implications for consumer markets, utility loads, environmental benefits and overall efficiency gains for the economy.

PUF's Steve Mitnick: What does that say about going all-electric?

Mike Howard:  There are more contractors to help you do it. But to get to where you need to go from an efficiency and emissions reduction perspective, you have to tackle both space heating and cooling, plus water heating.

PUF's Steve Mitnick: What's the future for electric water heating?

Mike Howard: Heat pump water heating, which combines two familiar pieces of hardware - a heat pump and a tank of water - this is an efficient and cost effective option to consider for some residential applications.

PUF's Steve Mitnick: EPRI has focused research on heat pump water heating, and you have put it to work in your own house. Safe to say you made an informed choice. Why the switch?

Mike Howard: I installed the heat pump water heater to replace a propane water heater in our basement. This accomplished multiple things. It's more efficient and delivers 50 percent savings on the water heating share of the energy bill. The heat pump water heater takes heat out of the air and puts it into the water. Because the exhaust is drier, cooler air, this helped reduce the need for dehumidification in our basement.

PUF's Steve Mitnick: Is it practical? Ready for consumers now?

Mike Howard: Yes.  And it's not that difficult to install. I ordered a GE GeoSpring from a local "big box" store, had it drop shipped to our basement and cut out the old water heater. Just a few copper tubing solderings, add a 240-volt connection, and away you go.

PUF's Steve Mitnick: You really are a do-it-yourself guy. And how has it gone?

Mike Howard: The costs have come down significantly, and I found other savings. In my case the North Carolina code had been updated, which could have required me to relocate the vent. 

I didn't want to have to punch another hole through the wall, but with the heat pump I could use the existing pipe. And, the heat pump just vents cold air 
so I don't have to worry about carbon monoxide. 

PUF's Steve Mitnick: It's generally agreed that natural gas still has a great future, but these technologies indicate that we may see a changing role.

Mike Howard: Natural gas and electricity combine very well. They can serve multiple purposes with versatile technologies and applications - from generation to end-use. Customers can chose different technologies based on their needs and the particular installation options or requirements. In EPRI's Efficient Electrification initiative we are researching applications that can drive greater energy efficiency overall.

PUF's Steve Mitnick: I looks like you're taking the "whole house approach" to efficiency, so it's about more than just "gas versus electric"?

Mike Howard: In one sense I started at the top - with the roof, the attic, the doors, heating and cooling, and then the water heating, and just kind of worked my way down from there. I changed all the lighting to LED. Next, I wanted to control the lighting.

I went with Lutron to control the lighting. I just changed out the light switch itself with the new hardware.  They make it easy to do.  Now, I can control the lighting from my smart phone.

I can also control the HVAC system and I can even control my water heater. When we're not there, I lower the temperature of the water heater and lower the temperature of the heating or cooling on the heat pump, the HVAC system, and turn off the lights.

PUF's Steve Mitnick: This new level of control is a key to electrification's efficiency gains, isn't it.

Mike Howard: I'm also monitoring the amount of energy I'm using that is coming into my panel.  When we're not in the house my goal is to get energy use down into watts, not kilowatts. In the winter we don't want our pipes to freeze, when we're away, and with precision and remote control we can do it more efficiently.

PUF's Steve Mitnick: Do you think you've overlooked anything?

Mike Howard: I'm a researcher who likes the do-it-yourself approach. There was a koi pond on the property.  Nothing had been done for 10 years so I had to clean it up. It had a motor that pumped the water up the hill, about a 12-foot rise, then it flows back down and over a little waterfall.

It's a nice feature of the property, but I realized that was one of the bigger energy drains because the pump did not use an adjustable speed motor - it was either on or off. EPRI had just tested a variable speed pump, so I checked it out and installed it. I cut the koi pond's cost of energy in half. And yes, I can control the variable speed motor remotely from my phone, I can increase or decrease the flow or turn it off altogether.

PUF's Steve Mitnick: Is your house the house of the future?

Mike Howard: These technolo­gies are available now. This is why it's important to draw much more attention to electrification across the board. I'm an engineer who likes to do a lot of the work myself. What I've done with this house just makes it clear that technologies are coming on the market that you can install in your own house, to make it much more efficient, improve your comfort and convenience, without spending a lot of money.

I want my example to make it easier for people to see the lower risk, the potential payback and the benefits for today's efficient technologies. And understand that this increasingly applies to industry, business, transportation and agriculture.

So it's not really about the house of the future, it's about customer value and comfort. Maybe we can call that the wave of the future.