Massachusetts is one of the states at the forefront of promoting environmentally-friendly building standards, but its focus on “electrification” misses out on a great opportunity to utilize an alternative fuel source that would help solve its problems. States looking for greener options in construction need to help builders and architects recognize and promote propane as a practical, affordable, safe and clean option for homeowners.
New Stretch Codes for Construction
Massachusetts recently passed a new law that will, among other things, be a step toward new stretch codes for construction. These stretch codes will act as guidance that municipalities can use to enhance environmental responsibility in new buildings, move to “net-zero” buildings and push toward electrification. The idea is to eliminate natural gas and heating oil as fuels for heat and hot water in homes and buildings in favor of using electricity from power plants. While there is always a benefit to being better stewards of the environment, moving to full electrification for new buildings is not the panacea Massachusetts legislators probably believe. Electricity is not clean enough, not efficient enough and not reliable enough. Better and more environmentally-conscious approaches to new construction in all states must embrace and promote a variety of low-carbon energy sources.
One of the issues that municipalities in Massachusetts have been dealing with is a desire to end the use of natural gas in their communities, apparently due to an aversion to the delivery system via pipelines. In 2019, Brookline, Massachusetts, tried to ban natural gas for new construction entirely, but the ban was overturned in 2020 by the commonwealth’s attorney general. However, this new law might allow municipalities to ban natural gas intake for new construction in an effort to promote full electrification.
The Problem with Electrification
The problem with this approach is that electrification is not always a good idea. First of all, the electricity comes from fuel, mostly fossil fuels—and not always the clean type. In January of this year, more than 85% of electrical power generation for Massachusetts came from the burning of natural gas, so whether or not Massachusetts towns like natural gas and natural gas pipelines, it is flowing into their region and being burned as their fuel. In cold winters, the fuel breakdown is often worse, and power plants can burn significant amounts of oil and even coal. Currently, Massachusetts is among the five states with the least amount of electricity consumption per capita. Because summers are temperate, heating has traditionally been sourced from oil or gas, and there are relatively few factories. However, with this proposed change—if building heating and hot water boilers are moved from natural gas and heating oil to electricity—that will all change, and the commonwealth electricity demands will rise.
Electrification of New Construction is Not Carbon-Free
Building policies that make electricity the only option are simply misguided. In 2019, 24% of all electrical power generation in the United States came from burning coal. Burning oil and natural gas accounted for more than 38%. In other words, electrification of new construction is not the carbon-free, net-zero solution its proponents seem to believe. In some regions, as in parts of the Midwest, coal power can account for half of all electricity at times.
Air Source Heat Pumps vs. Traditional Boilers
In addition, these all-electricity policies promote the use of air source heat pumps with claims of efficiency and cost-effectiveness in comparison to natural gas or fuel oil heating systems in cold climates. Air source heat pumps are better at heating air and water than traditional heat pumps but are not as effective as traditional boilers. In fact, in colder regions, they must be combined with another source of heating, such as underfloor heating, which adds to cost and energy usage.
A Better Energy Plan
New construction planners must adopt an energy plan that involves multiple fuel components based on the particular situation and needs. Propane is a smart component of any such plan. Propane is used in buildings for heating, water heating, cooking and generators. For towns scared of natural gas intake and the pipelines that carry the natural gas, propane is a great option as it is generally delivered via truck to an on-site tank. In the rare case of leakage, propane is not hazardous and does not degrade the environment, and unlike natural gas, it is methane-free. It is also relatively inexpensive because it is plentiful and produced in the United States.
When states commit to building electrification, they commit to powering those buildings with whatever power plants use to generate electricity. If Brookline is against natural gas, it is in for a surprise when it finds out that electrified heat pumps will be powered largely on natural gas—or worse when the weather gets cold and energy demand ramps up. In many communities—especially those further out from urban centers where space is more readily available—propane would be a wiser and greener solution than simply plugging into power lines.
About the Author
Ellen R. Wald, Ph. D. is a nonresident senior fellow with the Atlantic Council Global Energy Center and the president of Transversal Consulting. She is the author of “Saudi, Inc.: The Arabian Kingdom’s Pursuit of Profit and Power,” a book on the history and strategy of Aramco and Saudi Arabia.