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City electric water heating restrictions not plugged in to affordability, climate reality

Monday, March 4, 2019 by Ryan Thornton

The Joint Sustainability Committee is asking the city to reconsider an outdated prohibition on electric water heating as part of the upcoming code rewrite process. The committee passed a resolution Feb. 27 claiming the prohibition is a barrier to affordability and a constraint to the city’s energy goals.

The resolution came out of an initial proposal dating back to August 2017 that would have promoted alternatives to using natural gas furnaces in new planned unit developments. The idea was cut off by an appeal to the city’s energy code that currently requires residential units to make use of natural gas infrastructure for heating water if it is available adjacent to the residential development.

Committee member Kaiba White said the decades-old requirement is based on antiquated electric heating systems that were more expensive and less efficient than those available today. In addition, while the code makes exception for units using highly efficient electric heat pumps, White said that electric systems on average are now more cost effective and environmentally sustainable than gas heating systems.

That assertion is based on a recent analysis by the Office of Sustainability, which concluded that modern electric heating systems are more affordable and emit less greenhouse gases than natural gas systems over a period of 15 years. Cavan Merski, a senior analyst with the sustainability office, said the data comes directly from the National Renewable Energy Laboratory and reflects market costs as they are today.

Merski also conducted a separate analysis indicating that electric water heating systems would still result in lower greenhouse gas emissions even if Austin Energy did not move forward with its 2027 Plan and capped renewable energy production at its current rate. Assuming the city kept pace with its plan, however, the analysis indicates that electric heating emissions would drop dramatically before flatlining at optimum efficiency in 2027.

Environmental activist Paul Robbins said NREL’s numbers were not reflective of his own research into the real costs of electric heating systems. He said the price of electric heat pump systems alone would make them significantly more expensive than the analysis indicates.

Robbins said he personally asked a number of air conditioning contractors about the price comparison between gas and electric and got much different results. “You need to redo the model with real-world costs to get an economic bearing on what really is going on,” he said.

Merski said Sustainability had been “super transparent” from the start about the fact that all estimated costs came from NREL and not from any internal study of real costs. “If some were high and some were low, they were all inaccurate in their own way because they were all what NREL suggested,” he said. Though in agreement with Robbins, he added that Sustainability had considered conducting a real costs analysis to verify those numbers.

Merski also addressed Robbins’ comment about the cost of electric heat pumps compared to natural gas furnaces. “The reason why the cost is similar is that when you have a heat pump, all you have to do is buy the heat pump,” he said. “When you have an air conditioner and a furnace, you’re buying two pieces of equipment, so those two things total up to cost more than what the heat pump costs.”

Cost, however, is only one part of the resolution’s purpose and an electric heat pump system is generally twice as efficient as the older electric resistance heaters referenced in the energy code. As the city moves toward renewable electricity generation, electric heaters will theoretically gain an even greater advantage over natural gas.

With that long-term goal in mind, committee member Joep Meijer proposed an amendment that would make removal of the prohibition on electric energy one part of a systematic overhaul of the city’s energy code.

“We just stumbled across one of these limitations in Austin’s city code,” he said. “There is going to be a larger code update in 2020 and I would like to use the climate plan as a ruler to put against the current city code to see if there are other barriers like this one.”

Meijer said city staff intended to make this specific update in the last code update but it never made it to the priority list. White said one particular stakeholder was responsible for keeping the item from moving forward.

The Resource Management Commission has also discussed removing the requirement, but has not yet taken action. Joint Sustainability Chair Jim Walker said there is “a value to sustaining the supporting of boards and commissions once they take action and not getting out in front of them.”

White, also a board member of RMC, said the board is anticipating action by the Joint Sustainability Committee in this case because that’s where the discussion began. Nonetheless, White said RMC will likely vote on the resolution in late March.

The resolution passed 9-2, with Walker and committee member Michael Osborne and opposed.

Photo by Behrat [CC BY-SA 3.0], via Wikimedia Commons.

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