July 8, 2020
The June 29th panel event launched a new Boston Green Ribbon Commission and A Better City report, Thermal Electrification of Large Buildings in the Commonwealth that analyses the current feasibility of thermal electrification in large buildings in the Commonwealth. With 51.6% of greenhouse gas emissions in the City of Boston in 2017 from commercial, industrial and large residential buildings, thermal electrification is considered a key pathway for reaching carbon neutrality goals by 2050.
Yve Torrie, Director of Climate, Energy & Resilience at A Better City provided an overview of the report that included the best technologies for our climate zone, barriers to adoption, and policy options and strategies that could be considered to overcome these barriers. She also introduced the five case studies in the report – four in existing buildings and one in new construction that show applicability across use type, at different stages of development and in varying stages of occupancy.
Ajey Pandey, Research Analyst at Cadmus and one of the lead authors on the report provided more detail on the thermal technologies themselves: those that fit best in our climate zone; those that fit best with each type of building; the technologies’ benefits and drawbacks; and some high-level costs. He then provided more detail on the barriers to adoption that include economic, policy and regulatory, decision making, awareness, technical and building, and workforce barriers. Further detail was also provided about the kind of policies and strategies that could be considered to address these barriers that include the adoption of practices that reduce financial risk, advocating for measures to improve cost-effectiveness, and advocating for codes, standards and mandates to accelerate thermal electrification.
Representing one of the case studies in the report, Brad Campbell, President of the Conservation Law Foundation (CLF) discussed the conversion of 22,000 square feet of an existing historic commercial building in downtown Boston to a Variable Refrigerant Flow (VRF) heat pump for heating and cooling. The project was driven by a desire to act in accordance with CLF’s sustainability focused mission, while also reducing operations and maintenance costs relative to the prior system.
Representing a second case study in the report, Eli Herman, Construction Manager of Akelius Properties, discussed a VRF heating and cooling project at Carson Town, an existing high occupancy multifamily residential building of 153 units in South Boston. It is currently being renovated while the displacement of existing tenants is minimized. The building was 90% occupied prior to renovation; in-unit components of the VRF system are being installed as tenants either allow installers into their units or move out.
John Cleveland, Executive Director of the Boston Green Ribbon Commission then led a facilitated Q+A session. Brad and Eli were asked if they would do anything differently if they knew at the beginning what they know now. Brad said that overall they were happy with the decisions they had made; the one regret was a decision to reduce the number of VRF units which gives a bit less control than they would have liked. With the current partial occupation of the building, the type of fine tuning with more units would have been a plus. Eli said in hindsight it would have been better to be more proactive with tenants and move them to new units that have in-unit components installed. This would have taken the key construction out of the common areas, reduced noise impact, and not narrowed the corridors so much.
Other questions included how to handle demand in order to avoid increased demand charges, whether storage was considered for peak demand management, whether there are refrigerants that do not contribute to ozone depletion or global warming, what the reaction was from tenants to pay for electricity usage that was previously paid by the owner, what implications thermal electrification will have on utility business models, where additional information can be found on the 3 district geothermal pilots, and what policy approaches could be used. Answers to these questions and more can be found in the recording: Password: 5c=Z50#L (Note: recording starts approx. 10 minutes into event)
Kate Dineen, Executive VP at A Better City, wrapped up by reiterating the report’s key findings that show that thermal electrification of large existing buildings, in most cases, are not yet cost-competitive. It is therefore unlikely that thermal electrification will see widespread deployment without an increase in incentives and the implementation of policies and mandates that necessitate electrification. She also emphasized the need for businesses and policymakers to come together to find solutions, and that we cannot fall back on our climate goals even as we face other challenges.
Addendum: The next Boston Green Ribbon Commission event: Urban Geothermal Electric Heating and Cooling will be held on July 28 from 8.30-10am. It will look at Boston University’s experience developing the 345,000 square foot Center for Computing and Data Sciences and the 270,000 square foot King Open/Cambridge Street Upper Schools & Community Complex in Cambridge. Please register.