Most building decarbonization targets have not accounted for seasonal fluctuations in heating and cooling demand, which makes it difficult to calculate what a transition to clean energy could mean for the grid during peak use times, according to research from several academic institutions.
The study from Boston University School of Public Health, Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health, Oregon State University, and the nonprofit Home Energy Efficiency Team looked at multiple building energy scenarios. It found that building energy consumption varies substantially and is generally highest in the winter months.
Because of that, buildings should transition to the most energy-efficient technologies possible, such as ground source heat pumps. Switching to low-efficiency electrified heating will likely not be enough to meet a surge in energy during the winter months, according to the study.
The research was published in Scientific Reports. It analyzed building energy data from March 2010 through February 2020 and showed the lowest demand occurred in May and the highest in January. The use of cooling systems created a secondary peak in July and August. Lower demand times also occurred in September and October.
The researchers also calculated the amount of renewable energy to meet the peak demands for buildings. Without storage or demand response systems to manage the grid loads, buildings would need an increase of 28-times the wind energy generation and 303-times more solar energy to meet winter peaks.
With technologies like heat pumps, the report says wind demand would need to increase 4.5-times with 36-times more solar energy generation.
The Department of Energy says heat pumps can reduce the electricity required for heating by as much as 50% compared with electric-sourced heating. Part of recently proposed legislation in the US Senate that addresses energy programs calls for $500 million toward the Defense Production Act to produce heat pumps.
The DOE recently announced plans to start distributing $225 million to state and local governments from last year’s infrastructure bill to improve energy efficiency. Additionally, concerns regarding energy demand during peak times have caused grid failures in places like Texas, which saw major outages during a winter storm in February 2021 and two separate calls for energy conservation during summer heat this year.
Buildings account for nearly 40% of the world’s energy consumption, according to the World Economic Forum, accounting for about one-third of the total greenhouse gas emissions. Much of that is due to inefficient heating and cooling systems, which the study says nearly 10% of US emissions come from fossil fuel consumption from water heaters, furnaces, and other heating sources.
The study says that using energy both on the supply and demand side can have an impact on decarbonizing buildings. These include geothermal building heating, renewable energy, long-term energy storage, and distributed energy resources.