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Electrification and Backup Power

The term electrification frequently appears in discussions of energy trends. This technical brief evaluates electrification and its relationship to backup power systems.

Electrification Defined

Historically, electrification has referred to the process of bringing electrical service to communities that had none. For example, in the United States in 1935, only 11 percent of farms were connected to an electrical power grid, in part because utility companies were unwilling to construct electrical distribution systems over great distances to reach relatively few customers. With the enactment of the Rural Electrification Act, subsidies helped extend utility power to rural users, connecting 80 percent of US farms by 1950.

This type of electrification continues today in parts of the globe. According to the International Energy Agency, approximately 800 million of the world's people still do not have access to electrical power. It is one reason why Schneider Electric, of which ASCO Power Technologies is part, continues efforts to bring electricity to people in underserved areas.

In today’s energy discussions, electrification takes on a second meaning. It refers to the practice of using electricity to power loads that traditionally relied on fossil fuels. The US Energy Information Administration's (USEIA) report entitled Electrification of Buildings and Industry in the United States examines the potential for electrification of building loads in residential and commercial applications. For commercial buildings, it describes the current uses of fuels for a range of purposes using the following figure, where fuel types at left are mapped to their uses at right:
The figure shows that the largest opportunity for electrification of building loads (according to the 2012 data on which it is based) is in the conversion of space heating systems from natural gas to electricity.

Electrification is presently impacting the transportation sector. Efforts to electrify heavy-duty vehicles, such as commercial trucks (click here and here) and even battery-electric locomotives (click here and here), have produced some results, but are, as yet, far from mainstream. However, the sales of electric vehicles for personal and commercial use is increasing globally. Vehicles that charge at homes and businesses become building loads, but could also serve as energy storage devices in distribution systems that feature sophisticated control and storage schemes.

Potential Benefits and Challenges

According to the USEIA report, electrification of building loads could bring a range of benefits. These include:
  • an ability to use electricity derived from any of several sources, such as a utility feed, an on-site generator, and/or an alternative source such as wind or solar
  • the development and application of advanced smart-grid technologies for optimizing electricity distribution, control, and use
  • opportunities to use energy storage systems to optimize the generations and distribution of electrical power
  • environmental benefits from reduced overall emissions from fossil fuel combustion
  • Reduction in susceptibility to price fluctuations for fossil fuels
Potential challenges to electrification include:
  • Low costs for other fuels: When natural gas is less expensive, adoption of electrical power could slow.
  • Capital/conversion costs: The costs to install electrically powered equipment can be higher than their fossil-fueled counterparts, particularly if a building converts existing systems. (Nevertheless, electrification can sometimes offer lower equipment costs, such as when a single heat pump can be used instead of separate space heating and space cooling equipment.)
  • Building codes and equipment standards: Requiring new technologies and smart features could support electrification, but not all stakeholders may be supportive.
  • Electricity delivery infrastructure: While electrification could result in lower overall energy use, increased electricity usage will require infrastructure upgrades.
  • User acceptance, familiarity, and risk aversion: Users may be concerned that new equipment will not perform in the same ways as the devices they already use.
Implications for Backup Power

While these developments hold promise, vulnerability to utility outages becomes greater with increased reliance on electrical power. For instance, if an electric vehicle cannot be charged, or is even drained, because of a power outage to a building, then the user’s access to transport will be affected in a way that does not occur with a gasoline-powered car. If industrial processes are increasingly electrified, then power interruption impacts could grow beyond current levels. If an electric boiler is used for space heating instead of an oil-fired unit, backup power requirements for keeping such a system online will multiply.

The electrification of building loads promises many benefits. Nevertheless, increasing reliance on a single form of energy will make its continuous availability more important. As more loads become essential for business and personal activities, they may seem less optional. Electrification will bring new and larger loads to buildings … loads that will make backup and emergency power as important as ever.

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