Rural Power Designing the Future Too

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PUF 2.0 - February 15, 2018

PUF's Steve Mitnick: Keith, tell me about the phrase "beneficial electrification." What does it mean?

Keith Dennis: Beneficial electrification is the electrification of end uses that would otherwise use another fuel, generally a fossil fuel, and replacing that with electricity, which can reduce emissions and save costs.

Replacing gasoline in vehicles with electricity, replacing fuel oil in home heating with electricity, replacing natural gas in water heating with electricity. All those things would be considered beneficial electrification. Other phrases that mean the same thing include smart electrification, strategic electrification, or efficient electrification.

PUF: Is it really beneficial, or is it only marginally beneficial? Would the benefits be great for society?

Keith Dennis: It depends on the situation, and it depends on what your objective is. This is a trend nowadays because folks are focused on finding ways to reduce carbon emissions.

Many studies say that to achieve steep greenhouse gas reductions you need to electrify more things. So, it's a necessity. The idea that you can continue to burn fossil fuel in millions of vehicles and to heat millions of homes, and still achieve greenhouse gas reduction goals is just wrong.

In terms of electric vehicles right now, if you electrify a vehicle in any state in the country, you're going to reduce greenhouse gas emissions.

PUF: What are the big opportunities for beneficial electrification?

Keith Dennis: The biggest opportunities are with vehicles, space and water heating, and other transportation options, including buses. There's also opportunity with anything that uses diesel, such as diesel agricultural pumps.

People think about vehicles first, because it's something that they can easily see. But there are huge opportunities with space heating and water heating. We now have very efficient heat pumps, for example.

Equipment has gotten incredibly efficient. Heat pumps are two- to three- hundred percent efficient at turning electricity into heat. And, the emissions of electricity itself are decreasing.

We have achieved a twenty-five percent reduction since 2005 in the emissions intensity of a kilowatt-hour. You've got very efficient electric products on the end-use side of the equation, and more carbon-efficient generation on the production side. 

PUF: How do you get something that's more than a hundred percent efficient? That sounds really good. Two hundred- to three hundred-percent efficient?

Keith Dennis: Yes, and geothermal can be even four-hundred percent efficient. There's heat in the air that surrounds us.

A heat pump in your house will take heat from outside and pump it into your home. Since it uses a refrigeration process, it actually multiplies the power of the electricity to supply heat. It's similar to how your refrigerator works, but backwards.

PUF: How did you get into this technology? What are you doing in this field?

Keith Dennis: I was working on energy efficiency standards, and trying to figure out how to make policies better. I noticed that there are a lot of changes happening with electricity, but some of the tools and metrics that are used to evaluate electricity haven't kept pace.

The factors regulators and analysts use to measure the emissions of electricity could be two, three, four years old, and calculated in old ways. When there's been a lot of change in the industry but little update to the analyses, that can make a big difference.

Just making people aware of the developments, saying, "Hey, have you looked at the new numbers?" can increase the accuracy of the measurements of the benefits of using electricity.

PUF: What essential characteristics make electricity useful for many different applications?

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Keith Dennis: Technology is changing and it is more efficient, more effective, and more environmentally beneficial to use electricity as a result. And the trend in this direction continues. Just as we do not use gas for lighting anymore, or whale oil, electricity will continue to be the best option for many more functions, and it's not just lighting. And in the future, it will not just be cars that make the leap.

In regions where it hasn't been cost-effective to build gas infrastructure, we are questioning whether there is still a good reason to bring in gas, even when the costs go down. With the environmental concerns and trends in cleaner electrification, the landscape changes further. 

That's a big reason for this new wave of interest in electrification. Electricity is seen as an environmental solution.

PUF: What are some of the biggest developments? Are we going to have a rapid wave of electrification?

Keith Dennis: We have crossed a line where the technology is now seen as environmentally beneficial. For decades, folks were saying, "If you have the choice of just directly burning natural gas, or directly burning a fossil fuel, you should do that," because that was seen as the more efficient option.

Now, folks are realizing the benefits of a transition to electricity. That change by policy makers can happen very fast.

You've got the National Renewable Energy Lab conducting an electrification future study. You've got the California Pathways Project, you've got the European Union talking about electrification, and Stanford University, and many more.

You have all these folks realizing we need to go electric. But the average consumer's going to take longer. Folks still have equipment that lasts a long time. They have in their minds certain ways they're going to be driving cars, for example.

The actual transition of the physical assets will probably take longer than the policy change, but the policy change can be very quick.

PUF: Where are we going to be in the year 2030? How electrified might our society get?

Keith Dennis: There's going to be an optimal place where you electrify what you can. Certainly, people will be trying to find ways to use electricity when renewables are available, for instance, or when prices are low.

Policy folks on the left will increasingly say it's good to use more electricity, which is a big change. By 2030 this will be very obvious, much more so than today. When you have available renewable energy with no carbon dioxide emissions, it's going to be a real change in how we do things.

PUF: The rural cooperative movement, from its beginning, has had a tremendous legacy of electrifying the country outside of the cities. What do people in the rural community feel about this initiative?

Keith Dennis: We definitely have electrification in our DNA. It's close to our heart. We brought the first light bulbs out to the rural areas.

You have some co-ops who see smaller and smaller electric loads. There's more pressure on the business.

The idea that you could use more electricity while reducing greenhouse gases and keep cost down provides a win-win situation that nobody can complain about. It provides a lot of hope for the future on where we are going with electricity.

PUF: Cooperatives are probably having meetings about this. Have you heard some stories about how the consumers are reacting to this?

Keith Dennis: The idea of beneficial electrification is going to appeal to a more policy-oriented crowd. Some of what we're talking about is kind of wonky.

The average person is either going to want an electric vehicle, or not going to want an electric vehicle, and the co-op is completely fine with what folks want to do. When this technology becomes available, and we've seen it over time, they can communicate about the benefits of electricity.

For instance, switching out to an electric irrigation pump can save a lot of money, and for a farmer, saving a lot of money means it's good for business.

Electric vehicles are going to be the same way. A consumer can charge their car for a fraction of the cost they would pay for the gasoline. The average person isn't thinking about electrification policy, they're thinking about driving to work.

If our technology in the electric industry is better and we can improve the lives of our members, I think that they appreciate that. But I don't know that they're so interested in the messaging around electrification policy.

There's a lot of work to do between making the policies and then getting the technology out there. It's a matter of education and making sure people are aware of the good products that are available in our industry.


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