The Decarbonization Triad: Building Science's Vital Role in Electrification

Maiven Energy, Inc.
April 21, 2024

In the midst of the urgent push for electrification, to achieve net zero emissions by 2050 and stave off a 1.5degC temperature increase, there are two critical and increasingly ignored aspects of building decarbonization: building performance and electricity supply. 

Building performance, specifically weatherization, is fundamental to comfortable, safe and healthy homes. Yet electrification technologies, particularly heat pumps, grab headlines with their promises of instant efficiency - while the less glamorous world of building performance is sidelined and overlooked. The truth is, we need all three.

Building performance upgrades, also known as weatherization upgrades, focus on sealing the building envelope, controlling ventilation, eliminating efficiency losses and improving health and safety. Weatherization strategies include air sealing, insulation, weatherstripping, and vapor barriers, in addition to many other energy and cost saving measures. These home upgrades can result in as much as a 30% cost and energy savings - while also improving the indoor air quality, overall health and safety, and comfort of the home.

So how do you go about weatherization? It starts with a comprehensive home energy assessment to evaluate your current energy usage. Normally this requires a certified home performance auditor coming to your home and spending up to 4 hours collecting utility bills, taking measurements, noting observations, and running tests. If you use a contractor partnered with Maiven, however, this audit takes less than 30 mins! 

The assessment will identify areas for improvement, and the data collected is used to create a custom energy model of your home, your baseline load profile, and calculate the savings associated with potential upgrades.

Moreover, numerous incentives and rebates exist to support weatherization efforts. Recognizing the profound impact on quality of life and resource efficiency, federal, state, and utility-specific incentives make weatherization upgrades affordable. Programs like Mass Save or Energy Smart can make these upgrades substantially lower cost (up to 75% off); and if a family qualifies for the federal Weatherization Assistance Program (WAP), upgrades are 100% covered.

Building performance upgrades are quite unlike the straightforward allure of installing a sleek heat pump. Yet, neglecting building science can render electrification efforts less effective and even counterproductive.

To that end, the ACEEE found that moderate home envelope upgrades reduces the lifetime cost of owning and operating a heat pump by $3,000 - $11,000, while deeper upgrades that include insulation lower the heat pump costs by $8,000 - $22,000. Additionally, the Cadmus Group found that homes that are well insulated require a less powerful, and less expensive to purchase and operate, heat pump. The recommendation from a responsible, resource steward then, is to always weatherize before pursuing electrification, since it will save the resident in more ways than one.

The second leg of the decarbonization triad to consider is electricity supply. While electrification is pivotal for decarbonization, it also increases electricity demand. Today, since most electricity is generated using fossil fuels, electrification does not yet equate with decarbonization. 

Today, home electrification reduces a home’s scope 1 emissions, but does reduce scope 2 carbon emissions. Until electric generation is divorced from fossil fuels completely, the way to support building decarbonization is to pair electrification with both weatherization and renewable energy sources at the same time, and at the individual level.

By prioritizing building performance upgrades alongside electrification and renewable energy choices, residents can optimize energy efficiency, reduce costs, and contribute to a cleaner grid. This integrated approach lays the foundation for decentralized decarbonization, empowering individuals to drive meaningful change. 

Renewable energy choices do not have to mean putting solar on your roof. Having spent many years in the solar industry, we know that not every home is a good fit for solar. Especially for those living in a multifamily building, or without control of their roof. As of late, community solar, community wind, and community choice aggregators have become more widespread. These avenues empower both homeowners and renters to opt for renewable energy, aligning with energy upgrades and electrified living, often with minimal expense.

The current home electrification process, promoted by well intentioned electrification contractors, inadvertently results in an ultimate reliance on utility or centralized grid decarbonization to drive carbon emissions reductions. That is: the carbon reductions associated with electrifying a home is limited to, and dependent on, the generation of the supply of electricity. 

With interconnection processes as slow as they are (meaning that “greening” electric generation could take decades), Maiven advocates for a decentralized-driven decarbonization process. 

To achieve decentralized decarbonization, support the following:

  1. Building Performance Focus: reduce a home’s required consumption by improving efficiency. Treat the home as a system by sealing it tight and ventilating right. By weatherizing a home you can reduce energy costs and consumption by up to 30% as well as removing many health and safety concerns.
  2. Electrify & Choose Renewable: It is important that these changes are made hand in hand. Electrification without electricity source control can be counterproductive.
  3. Enroll these electrified, distributed energy resources, into a demand response or utility program that enables load reduction when the grid is particularly stressed (and reliant on carbon-intensive) fuel sources. 

As more of these smart, distributed, electric devices are installed in homes, utilities are able to develop what is being called a “virtual power plant.” These virtual power plants (VPPs) are a collection of smart devices which can be curtailed when the grid is experiencing particularly high demand. Enrolling in a VPP can reduce your energy costs, help drive lower carbon emissions from the grid as a whole (by deferring use of peaker plants), and even generate additional revenue or energy credits for your home. 

Whereas jumping to electrification relies on VPP management and renewable energy to replace fossil fuels at the utility-generation level, choosing to pair your home’s electrification with renewable energy at the individual level can drive decarbonization faster and more cost effectively.

A great first step, whether you’re ultimately interested in heat pumps or improving indoor air quality in your home, or enrolling a smart device in a VPP, is to have a home energy assessment. Building performance contractors are professionals, trained to DOE-approved standards that will help you understand all of your options. And if your HPC of choice is partnered with Maiven, the entire assessment will take you less than 30 minutes. 

After your assessment, you’ll be equipped with a report and personalized decarbonization roadmap that will make all subsequent savings decisions simple. 

We hope that whether you pursue a heat pump and the associated rebates, or an induction stove and EV, that you will weatherize and opt to offset the increased electricity consumption with renewable generation at the same time.

If you have any questions or want to discuss your particular home, contact Maiven. We make decarbonization simple and help residents navigate the multitude of incredible incentives and programs offered by utilities to improve home performance and drive beneficial electrification.