By Rick Reynolds
It’s been 112 years since the first all-electric bungalow style house at 1155 Avon Road in Schenectady, NY, made its debut. Known as the house without a kitchen chimney, General Electric’s Harry W. Hillman built the experimental demonstration home in 1905 to prove that electricity, alone, could power all the energy requirements of houses. At the time, rudimentary, single-circuit wiring permitted only basic lighting and a primitive appliance (if you first unscrewed the bulb), and relegated heating and cooking to the combustion of coal and wood. Hillman’s all-electric home with two circuits did it all.*
Why did Hillman believe electricity was the future? He saw electrical energy as a way of lessening the toil of everyday chores, realized its immediate on-demand potential, and had inside knowledge of its universal ability to run a wide variety of appliances and applications being developed at the time by the Edison Electric Company.
It’s interesting to note that at the dawn of the 20th century, less than 2% of fossil fuels (natural gas, oil and coal) was used to generate electricity.** A century later, 30% of our use of fossil fuels was devoted to electrical power. Today, 65% of our electricity is generated using fossil fuels*** notwithstanding the mitigating impact (35%) of nuclear and renewable energy in offsetting that increase in fossil-fuel-generated electricity and its attendant carbon dioxide production.
Clearly, given today’s imperative of reducing atmospheric carbon, Hillman’s unfulfilled vision of the all-electric home, when combined with today’s high performance building envelopes, is more essential than ever. Why has it taken so long?
Much is misunderstood about the all-electric house, and these misperceptions have fostered a certain amount of skepticism. Most were formed prior to the new technologies that increasingly make it the logical choice for today’s new-home buyers. This is due to the 1) significantly lower energy demands of today’s high performance houses, 2) vastly improved electric heating, cooling, venting, cooking, and lighting technologies, and 3) offsetting, supply-side economics of solar energy.
Though these are primarily economic arguments, it turns out that what’s good for our bank account is also good for our health, our comfort, and critically, for our environment, for it is these same strategies that curb the greenhouse gasses that are accelerating global warming. The generation of sustainable electrical energy for our buildings (i.e. without the combustion of fossil fuels), along with the creation of all-electric, high performance houses, will increasingly enable a livable future. But even given the current mix of electrical generation, the all-electric, high-performance houses available today are usually more economical, and certainly more sustainable to operate than those burning fossil fuels.
So what are we waiting for? As Albert Einstein once said of the atomic bomb and the threat of nuclear annihilation his theories inadvertently helped to usher in:
“The release of atomic power has changed everything except our way of thinking …”
Einstein lamented letting the atomic genie out of the bottle. Today, it’s the unrelenting release of carbon into the atmosphere and its existential threat of climate change that has changed everything, and despite the latest advances in homebuilding science and electrical generation, our thinking here in the US has yet to catch up.
Builder Tedd Benson has described homebuilding in America as, “two hundred years of history, unimpeded by progress.” Without ticking off the industry laggards and their lobbyists, let’s tick off the eight main consumer misperceptions about the all-electric home impeding that progress, and then correct them to today’s realities.
Misperception # 1
At the end of the day, electric power costs more than fossil fuels, and cost ultimately drives consumer preferences.
The high performance houses available today use far less energy to heat and cool, so price per kWh is less relevant than net cost to the homeowner, which is much lower. Having said this, the cost of electric power varies around the country. In the Northwest, electricity is relatively inexpensive due to its primary generation source: hydro. Conversely, the Northeast has some of the highest kWh costs due to its reliance on fossil fuels and nuclear energy. But it’s important to note here that going all-electric is the only way to rely on wind or solar renewable energy.
The long payback period for higher cost, high performance homes make little economic sense.
The payback period for high performance home cost premiums is getting shorter every year, and could soon disappear altogether. The energy savings over the life of the home, however, will never disappear; a savings that is transferable to new owners when the home is sold.
Heat pumps don’t work in colder climates.
Today’s air source heat pumps work efficiently to -14 degrees F, plus, they heat and cool so, in essence, they provide a ”free” AC system. In addition, heat pump, point-source heating/cooling solves the energy loss problem that occurs throughout ducts and pipes. Ground source heat pumps are also effective and economical in some parts of the country.
Heat pumps produce lower temperature heat than fossil fuel combustion, and are therefore less efficient and less comfortable.
Heat pumps do produce lower temperature heat than, for example, forced air systems, which scorch and dry out the air in winter, making things less comfortable. But with human thermal comfort in the range of 70deg F, superheated air is unnecessary. This is because in tightly-sealed, well-insulated houses, cool pockets are eliminated and floor-to-ceiling and floor-to-floor temperature differentials are slight, leading to greater overall thermal comfort.
Serious chefs prefer gas cooking over electric, to better control heat.
Many professional chefs now agree that inductive heat from electricity is best for precision cooking. As for safety, induction stove tops are cool to the touch immediately after cooking.
Power outages and/or cloudy/windless days leave all-electric homeowners, especially those using renewable energy, vulnerable.
Only all-electric, high-performance houses without battery backup (or generators) are vulnerable. Those utilizing today’s advanced lithium batteries as backup can handle essential electrical needs during protracted periods of dense cloud cover or windless days. Moreover, it’s important to note that high-performance houses can better maintain thermal comfort during power outages by virtue of their well-insulated, tightly-sealed envelopes. When grid power is restored, it serves as the battery backup.
Since 65% of electric power is generated through the combustion of fossil fuels, it’s a false argument to imply that all-electric house performance is carbon-free.
While this may be partially true today, the 65% of electrical energy currently generated by fossil fuels is rapidly being offset by renewable energy**** and nuclear energy. Moreover, solar and wind, with battery backup, can supply 100% of demand of the all-electric, high performance houses, going forward. Since only all-electric houses can be carbon-free, we need to lobby for and invest in a renewable-based energy grid. Beyond this, it’s important to note that the refining of fossil fuels, itself, requires massive amounts of electricity. Using the gasoline-powered car as an example, the amount of electricity required to refine a gallon of gasoline alone is equal to the amount of electricity needed to propel the electric car the same distance as that gallon of fuel. So, simply using that electrical energy to directly fuel the car eliminates the gasoline (and its pollution) from the equation, in effect halving the pollution. ***** As with electric cars, all-electric houses, too, offer the opportunity to change the current reality by eventually eliminating fossil fuels altogether.
Supply-side economics dictates that the cheapest fuel wins the day, and that is fossil fuel.
Contrary to supply-side economics, the extremely low energy loads of high performance houses bolster the conservation side of the energy equation. In other words, where a penny (think kWh) saved is a penny earned, fewer pennies need to be earned. Beyond this, when factoring in the true $ cost of fossil fuel combustion, the impact of atmospheric pollution on climate change and human health needs to be included in any comprehensive view of the economics. Indeed, these costs have been quantified and a range of values, published.****** At the end of the day, it’s important to note that renewable energy systems, once they are invested in, continue to produce, unlike fossil fuel, when once you burn it, it’s gone, while its attendant pollution is not, continuing to do damage along the way.
Clearly, it’s propitious that the all-electric, high performance house has come of age at a time when transformation to a clean energy economy can help forestall the worst calamity facing the health of our planet since Einstein lamented the specter of nuclear annihilation: human-induced climate change. Indeed, since the unleashing of fossil fuel power, our buildings have consumed more of it than any other sector (nearly as much as industry and transportation combined). As such, the building industry must play an outsized role in drawing us back from the precipice.
So in conclusion, Einstein, finished his thought regarding everything changing but the way we perceive things, with this somewhat tongue-in-cheek comment:
“…the solution to this problem lies in the heart of mankind. If only I had known, I should have become a watchmaker.” (Albert Einstein, 1945).
Or a home builder. Time is ticking.
*The following year, in 1906, Hillman wrote a novel imagining an all-electrical future realized within six years of publication, entitled: “Looking Forward: The Phenomenal Progress of Electricity in 1912.” In the book, he imagines the world populated with all-electric houses, cars, ships and aeroplanes.
****It’s important to note here that renewables, once they are invested in, continue to produce, unlike mineral extraction, where once it’s burned, it’s gone, doing environmental damage along the way.
*****A widespread misconception about electric cars is that, because the electricity they use is largely generated by fossil fuels, they are therefore just as polluting as gasoline-powered cars. In reality, however, about 6 kilowatt-hours of electricity are needed just to refine a gallon of gasoline. Moreover, one gallon of gasoline will propel an average US car about 24 miles and that is approximately the same distance a typical electric car can travel on 6 kilowatt-hours of electricity. So, the electricity used to refine gasoline could be used instead to power electric cars, leaving no need to refine and burn gasoline. Electric cars are a win-win. Similarly, so are all-electric houses.