By John Huber from NORA
As I write this, there are nearly six million homes without power resulting from Hurricane Isais. So, obviously, the solution to global warming is more electrification. However, global warming is a major concern, and electrification on first review seems like the solution. Many policy makers see offshore wind delivering massive amounts of electricity at low prices, and heat pumps delivering 300 percent efficiency. It’s almost like there is a free money truck in the neighborhood.
So, we as an industry, have two major tasks. One, provide an option for heating homes and businesses that is low carbon, accessible and cheap. Second, provide more and better information on why electricity from wind and solar may be great for lighting, and many other uses, but may be less than ideal for heating.
The answer to the first issue is biofuels, with biodiesel being the leading edge of that wave. Biodiesel is widely available and the price largely mirrors petroleum prices. Respected agencies such as the California Air Resources Board have shown that biodiesel provides low carbon fuel to trucks, and thus to heating oil consumers. It is widely available in the United States. And perhaps most significantly, the research at the NORA lab has shown conversion costs from pure petroleum may be as low as $0. That will be the case for most houses with basements, and with most commonly used burners. In extreme cases, the burner and/or pump might need to be replaced.
However, the biggest operating concern in Maine is whether it will be usable in outdoor tanks. Maine has a strong kerosene market, which probably indicates the product is stored outside. Thus, we may be in a situation where biodiesel will need to be stored outdoors. NORA will be undertaking studies of heaters, retrofit sheds, and insulation to examine whether biodiesel will be able to respond to these challenges. A freezer is being installed at our lab in New York, and we will install multiple tanks in it, and various heating approaches to determine whether they will work. We are confident that a reasonable solution is available.
Additionally, NORA has been working with Biofine to develop a cellulosic based biofuel. NORA has successfully converted burners to this fuel and had successful test runs in Maine. We like the fuel, because it has a great carbon score, it performs well at low temperatures and will be made in Maine. That would be a home run for us, and we are committed to making it a reality. However, there are no plants making the fuel in the United States, and they will not be able to make sufficient volumes of this fuel for many years, and thus, at this point our best option is biodiesel.
Can electricity really fill the need for heat in New England and in Maine. Offshore wind does look very promising, both on a cost basis and the ability to meet demand. However, trying to provide all thermal heating in Maine may be more of a challenge than they want.
Typically, local distribution companies want to have well established user patterns which enables them to contract for power at good rates. For a typical household, power use peaks between 4 and 8 p.m., and the utilities can smooth that out by providing cheaper rates at different times of day. Essentially asking consumers to charge their Tesla in the middle of the night or middle of the day, and doing the same thing with dishwashers and washing machines.
However, as you know the thermal load will not be so easily tamed, and heat pumps will show their weakness. First, when it gets severely cold is unknown, will that big cold snap be in November, January, February or March. How long and how deep will the freeze be. How many extra windmills will you need to build or how much battery backups to ensure the house stays warm. And remember, when it gets cold, heat pumps are not working much better than oil, when they are on resistance which occurs around 25 F, they are 100 percent efficient, versus 86 percent for oil.
Now when it gets cold, customers worry about running out of oil, and customer who you are scheduling for delivery still have 80 to 90 gallons of oil in the tank. So, can batteries fill the gap. Well how many days of backup would you want when it gets cold. If your heat pump is providing the same amount of heat to your home as a boiler working at 75 percent efficiency and burning .75 gallons, would be supplying about 75,000 Btus of power. To replace the oil in that tank with equivalent power would require 22kWh of power. A Tesla powerwall can output 5kWh with total capacity of 14kWh. So, to get heat for three hours would require 5 powerwalls, or around $50,000. Well, you can do the math if it is going to be cold all night. The alternative is to build twice as many windmills as you need, and have them sit idle most of the time.
The simple answer though, is we have a good solution. And yes, petroleum is most likely also a better solution than electricity. However, that is being taken off the table, and we need to respond and give a solution that works for homeowners, and the state.