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CA34 - Is electricity really that green?
Why our local emissions factors are a bucket of lies.
Are we fooling ourselves? I think we might be.
I’ve been pretty vocal about our need to focus on embodied carbon emissions. Not because operational emissions aren’t important, but because we’ve all but ignored them in construction. That opinion hasn’t changed, what has is my view of electricity grids and our “clean emissions”.
If you’ve been reading my newsletters for a while (thank you so much!) you’ll remember this post a long time ago about electricity grids. Here in BC, Canada we boast one of the clearer grids with a carbon emissions factor of 0.011kg/KWh. This naturally leads architects to jump to the conclusion that if you electrify you don’t need to work about reducing energy use. That’s just not true.
This became clear to me while I was watching this presentation by Skylar Swinford and Zack Semke at a Passive House Accelerator event talking about the grid factors in the USA. This got me digging closer into how electricity is shared and why those beautifully clean emissions factors aren’t realistic. Why is that? Because electricity doesn’t care about your provincial or country boarders.
The really crazy thing is - this video has only 587 views, despite the fact their is pure gold in there. If you want to get right to the meat of it I’d recommend you START HERE - which is the topic of today's post about true electricity grid emissions factors.
If we take a look at the Seattle, Washington electricity grid for example, we can see a pretty stark difference. Although the local production of electricity has an emissions factor of 110lb/Mwh, the electricity generated in this area is shared with a much larger grid, known as the NWPP. The NWPP is a larger area in the Pacific Northwest that mixes its electricity production to form a larger grid. The emissions factor of this larger area is 638lb/Mwh. That is nearly 6x the local emissions factor. YIKES!
When we look at the local data it’s also contextual. The local data is from the month of May which has higher wind & solar production than the remainder of the year. The local emissions are generated by 55% hydro, 24% wind, and 16% solar where as the NWPP grid is only 40% hydro, 12% wind, and 2% solar.
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WHY IT MATTERS
Topic matters for three primary reasons:
We need to be honest about our emissions
Using less energy is still crucial
On-site energy generation is important
Let’s dig a little deeper:
1 - We need to be honest about our emissions
The reality of local emissions factors makes sense. The code requires that a standardized number be used to calculate the local emissions of a project. HOWEVER, this doesn’t truly tell the emissions story when our electricity grids are tied to each other. Being honest about our emissions is key so we can reduce them in a holistic manner that actually has an impact.
2 - Using less energy is still crucial
It’s easy to assume that in areas where there is a green grid, we don’t need to reduce our energy use. That’s just not true. Regardless of the region or electricity grid we need to make sure we are using less energy, this is fundamental to good design and high-performance buildings. Let’s not forget that.
3 - On-site energy generation is important
If you compare the emissions factors of a “green grid” and solar power it can be hard to see the value in local solar or wind. BUT having regional energy production that is very clean is so important as buildings continue to need more electricity. This also allows for more redundancy and resiliency as the climate changes.
Zach is working to accelerate the transition to healthy, zero-carbon buildings for everyone. He does this as the director of the Passive House Accelerator where they promote high-performance design and construction, provide thought leadership in sustainable design, and supports other green programs.
Explore the wonderful world of US electricity grid emissions factors. So exciting - and nerdy. 🙂 You can sort by different regions, emissions factors, and lots of other fun stuff. Happy exploring!