In light of this spring’s passage of the Climate Solutions Now Act, Maryland developers may want to conduct an additional type of planning as they plan new commercial construction projects.
The final version of the bill did not include an all-electric building code. Instead, it directed the Department of Labor to present recommendations in 2023 about the possible development of an electric building code and about the fastest, most feasible ways of decarbonizing building operations.
However, the act’s requirements that commercial, multi-family and state-owned buildings over 35,000 square feet lower their greenhouse gas emissions (GHG) 20 percent by 2030 and achieve net-zero emissions by 2040 means it would be prudent for developers to strongly consider electric systems when they plan new projects, said Ben Roush, Principal, FSi Engineers. That assessment, he added, may even produce some pleasant discoveries.
FSi regularly conducts energy conservation measure (ECM) modeling for planned projects. The process models out the energy-use impact of different equipment selections for HVAC, hot water, lighting and other building systems. Models can also assess the energy-use impact of insulation and window selection, alternate floor layouts or other design changes. FSi hands off the models to the general contractor for the project to determine the ECM cost of construction for the different options.
“We always throw in some all-electric options in our models because we want our clients to understand those possibilities,” Roush said.
In some cases, those all-electric options prove to be financially attractive.
“In the commercial world, we’ve done side by side models on office, warehouse, dorm and assisted living projects, and found no added operating cost for all-electric buildings and even reduced operating cost with the 40 percent increase we’ve seen in natural gas prices this winter,” Roush said. “This is based on using simple heat pumps to replace the gas heating, easily in the realm of current technology.”
Furthermore, eliminating the need to install a natural gas service to a new building also lowers total construction costs in most cases, he said.
The operational savings in electric buildings stem from equipment efficiencies.
“Heat pumps do not create heat from scratch. They move heat from one place to another using a refrigerant cycle… Because they are not creating heat from scratch, they are upwards of 300 percent efficient. In other words, for every one unit of energy you put in, you get three units of energy out, in the form of heat,” Roush said.
By comparison, systems powered by natural gas must generate heat. Consequently, they are substantially less efficient – usually, 80 to 96 percent.
Given that an electric heat pump uses just one-third of the amount of energy used by a gas system, “it is already, right now, today cheaper to use electric rather than natural gas for the same unit of energy output,” Roush said. “That is not the narrative that people have been hearing.”
The scenario only works in some circumstances. It can work, Roush said, for developers who plan to own their building long-term and pay the building’s utility bills. Specific, onsite needs for natural gas – such as for industrial operations or a commercial kitchen – would almost entirely eliminate the construction cost savings even if the rest of the building systems were electric. And buildings that have large, hot water demands still currently need to install gas-fired water heaters because “the industry just isn’t there yet for large heat pump water heaters, but it is rapidly improving,” he said.