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First electric cars, now electric buildings!? Not so fast.


This is going to by far be my most controversial video. I know I'm going to get a ton of hate mail.

Electrification of buildings. Pretty much everybody from the government to non profits to the technology world, even the utilities, are incentivizing and promoting the idea that all buildings are going 100% electric. 

The reality could not be farther from the truth. Let me explain why.

When we say electrification of buildings, instead of burning oil or gas to heat water to heat a building, we use what's known as a heat pump. What is a heat pump? Well, it's really just an AC turned around. It's taking the heat from outside and pushing it in.

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Electrification is actually a really compelling idea.

First off, just on a surface level, who wants to live in a building that's physically combusting, burning oil or gas in their basement? Totally dirty, gross, bad for the environment. Why would anybody want to do that when you can just heat the building with clean electricity? Plus, you can get electricity from a million different sources, whether it's wind, or solar, or nuclear, or whatever, it creates competition around the fuel source.

So, why wouldn't buildings all go electric immediately?  Well, there are some very core problems with electrification that nobody seems to want to talk about right now. And the most important one is cost.

The cost of electrification in cold places is far higher than it is to use an efficient gas fired boiler. When it's 10 degrees outside, there's not a lot of heat outside to move inside. So that heat pump has to use a ton of electricity to get that little bit of heat inside.

You're basically asking people to spend tens of millions of dollars to switch over to heat pumps, to then spend three times as much every month on their electric bill. It's just not practically going to happen.  

The second problem is not just a cost problem, it's an electric grid problem.

In the video I show a chart of our energy use in the United States. It's very basic simplification, but you can think of it as a third goes to transport, a third goes to general electricity, and a third goes to heating.

Cars, as we know, are becoming electric ASAP. Now we're going to move heating to electric as well. What that means is that the electrical capacity of the grid needs to multiply, and it's not by three.

It's more like six to ten. Because when it's really cold out, everybody needs electric at the same time. You still need to drive, and you're still going to run your lights, and now you need to run your heating. The second problem is that the grid, right now, is overwhelmingly dominated by fossil fuel burning sources.

Meaning, the electricity we would get for heat pumps actually comes from burning gas! So what we're literally telling buildings to do is instead of burning gas at your building, we're telling them to burn gas a hundred miles away, then send the electric a hundred miles where half of the energy is lost during transmission, then run heat pumps that are less efficient than the boiler itself.

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You end up with two to three times the carbon output of just using the gas fired boiler in the building.

These are all major problems. And they haven't been addressed yet. So does that mean we're never going to move to electric buildings? No, of course we're going to move to all electric buildings.

I can't imagine in 30 years burning oil or gas in the basement of my future modern high rise. However, I also can't imagine next year every building in America going electric. What has to happen to make this a reality is we need to shift the electric generation in our country over to clean, sustainable, renewable, cheaper sources.

That will happen. Electrification is the future. It is a radically better way of heating buildings. It is also a future that is farther off than many people will have you believe today.