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August 07, 2008

It’s Time for Electricity to Come Out of the Closet and Go Into Storage

Way back in 1991 during a previous housing slump we had moved to Vancouver and had to sell our house in Vermont. "Replace the heating system or no one'll look at the house," the realtor said. The offending system was fairly new; it was in good shape; it was comparable in operating cost to what other people had; it was extremely low maintenance; but it was politically incorrect. It used electric (shudder) storage heat!

In the 1970s when electricity from nuclear plants was going to be "too cheap to meter," electrical everything was the rage. When nuclear power went out of fashion, so did electricity. It became the energy form that environmentalists love to hate. This distaste for electricity predated concerns about CO2 concentration in the atmosphere but was intensified by global warming concerns and the undeniable fact that a huge percentage of electricity is generated by burning coal. Reducing electricity use is still an environmental mantra. A whole generation of utility executives have grown up in an era in which they are measured by how much of their product they can manage NOT to sell.

Now it's time to sell electricity. Energy independence requires increased use of electricity. Reducing atmospheric CO2 without an economic meltdown also requires increased use of electricity.

The quickest and easiest target for electrical displacement of foreign carbon-based fuel is in home heating. In 2006 we in the United States burned 62 billion gallons of oil to heat our homes. To put this number in perspective, all on highway use of diesel fuel was only 29 billion gallons that year. Total imports of oil and petroleum products for that year were 155 billion gallons so taking home heating oil out of that would make a dent.

Now it's true that we burn even more oil for transportation than for home heating. Gasoline use in 2006 was 143 billion gallons (the number'll be lower this year). And plug-in hybrid electric vehicles (PHEVs) are very cool and will help reduce that number. But we are still at least a year away from commercial introduction of PHEVs and they won't be available in volume for a while after that. They will raise new problems (which will be solved) of disposal of lots of very toxic batteries. For some reason PHEVs ARE politically correct but maybe they'll be less so once they're widely available.

So back to home heating. It's a lot easier to get electrical energy to a house sitting still on the grid than to a car that's moving along the highway. You don't have to store electricity in a house or buy or carry around heavy batteries to use electricity in a house. But, for some reason (could it be a "electricity is evil" mindset?), there is very little discussion of converting our oil-heated homes to electricity.

"The reason is obvious," you say. "You said it above. A huge portion of electricity comes from burning fossil fuels." From an energy independence POV, that's pretty irrelevant. The fossil fuel of choice for electricity is coal. We mine that here. Second choice is natural gas which is cleaner (and more expensive) but comes from the North America in almost all cases.

From an anti-CO2 POV, heating with electricity also makes sense provided that either electricity is used to capture geothermal heat (very practical but only if you have a well or room to dig one) OR that electricity not generated from fossil fuel is used (very widely practical).

So we're back to that electric storage heat system we refused to remove from our house for sale (it sold eventually anyway). Much off-peak electricity – the so-called baseline supply – comes from non-fossil fuels, especially in areas where not much coal is used like New England. This electricity comes from hydropower and nuclear plants; an increasing but still tiny amount of it comes from solar and wind generation. The trick is to heat with these "good" electrons rather than the "bad" peak time electrons ones which are more expensive and produce more CO2 per kWh.

Electric storage heat is simple and not very expensive. All of the technology is old and tested. It requires some mechanism for storage of heat – usually special tiles. These are heated off-peak. On-peak, you use a fan to pump heat out of the tiles and into the house; even the electronics are simple. This IS a method of electricity storage but it's cheaper and more efficient than battery storage; installed correctly there is almost no energy loss because heat that "leaks" is used to warm the house.

The economics of electric storage heat only work when the consumer pays a different price for on and off peak usage. Many areas of the country do have dual rates although special meters are required. Other areas of the country are moving to "smart metering for a variety of reasons.

Groton, South Dakota is a leader in reducing costs to both its consumers and electric utility by SELLING electricity. From its website:

"The City of Groton is proud to offer Heat Storage Units and Furnaces…. There is no up-front cost for these units. You pay for the installation of the units or furnaces. Then, for the next four years, you will pay 1¢ extra on your dual fuel meter as a partial pay-back of the units or furnace. After four years, the unit is yours to keep. All the while, you will be paying the low dual-fuel rate, which is lower than the fossil fuel rates."

Political correctness has never been big in South Dakota.

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