Converting to All-Electric Comes with Challenges
As more people embrace an all-electric home and some jurisdictions ban natural gas in newly built homes to reduce dependence on fossil fuels, homeowners and utility companies need to figure out how to manage increased use of electricity.
The all-electric movement is amped up these days as more builders, remodelers, and homeowners realize that eliminating gas from homes is an effective way to reduce their carbon footprint. Approximately 25% of all homes in the United States were run entirely with electricity in 2015, according to the Energy Information Administration , but that number is growing with the recognition of the damaging impact of gas-powered systems and appliances on the planet and on people’s health.
As homes switch to all electric, nearby transformers, and other equipment may need upgrades or replacement. Who will pay?
For example, not only are induction stoves twice as energy efficient as gas stoves , which saves on utility bills while reducing carbon output, but they also contribute to better indoor air quality. However, what happens when a home buyer or homeowner chooses a heat pump run with electricity, an electric water heater, and electric appliances, then buys an electric vehicle that needs charging? If you’ve looked at an older circuit breaker box in your house, you probably have an idea: Your house may not be up for the challenge.
“We’re working with KB Home to install 200-amp Energy Control Centers in some of their new home communities that coordinates what would have been three, four, or five circuit boxes into one panel,” says Brad Wills, director of strategic customers and programs for Schneider Electric. “These Energy Control Centers can be retrofitted into most homes by an electrician.”
A bigger potential electrical storm looms over the future. The possibility of a grid overload is very real when you think of homes across an entire community converting from a mix of power sources to relying solely on electricity, too. Power grids are regulated by federal, state and local authorities and operated by utility companies that may not have the capacity to quickly upgrade their systems to manage a new heavy reliance on electricity.
“When you take a house that was cooking with a gas stove and heating their water with gas and convert both to electricity, that’s adding two big new demands on the electric grid,” says Wills. “Then if they want to add an EV charger, that’s another big load. That home may need a 400-amp panel to manage their electricity.”
While existing infrastructure may be in place for one home in a neighborhood to make this conversion, Wills says that if multiple homes did this at once it would put pressure on the need to upgrade the infrastructure for the entire community.
“That’s a hidden ‘gotcha’ to upgrading to an all-electric house,” says Wills.
Approximately $73 billion was included in the recently signed infrastructure bill for upgrades to the power grid to carry more renewable energy, but it can take years for projects to be approved and funded. In the meantime, customers and utility companies will need to adapt their equipment and prepare for future consumption increases.
Managing Multiple Sources of Power
Most existing homes have a circuit breaker box that was set up with the mindset that the home would need one circuit breaker for the home’s one source of power, says Wills. The introduction of solar power on homes means that circuit breaker boxes need to handle more than one power source.
“A lot of people with solar panels have been confused when their power grid went out that they didn’t have power from their solar panels,” says Wills. “They didn’t realize that their solar power was connected to the grid and wouldn’t provide electricity unless they had a battery to store the power generated by their panels.”
For homeowners with solar panels and a battery, their circuit breaker needs to manage three power sources including electricity from the grid, solar panels and a battery, says Wills.
“If you get a Ford Lightning truck with back-up power, then that functions like a mobile generator and that’s another source of power to manage,” Wills says. “You may also have a gas-powered generator for emergencies, which would be a fifth power source for your home.”
A Square D Energy Center, such as the ones Schneider Electric is installing in some KB Communities includes an all-in-one main panel and back-up panel, Wills says, which is ready to integrate a generator and a battery.
“Of course, this is easier to do in new construction or a tear-down, but an energy center can be retrofitted in an existing home, too,” says Wills. “It just takes more work to prep and repair the wall. Our goal is to have the Square D Energy Centers available in every state by the end of 2022 or early in 2023. These smart control panels will vary, according to each utility company.”
In addition, Schneider is developing an Energy Center that is optimized for retrofitting, and would require less surface work to mount.
Smart Controls to Reduce Energy Consumption
Switching to an all-electric house is an important step to reduce your carbon footprint, but ultimately your goal is probably to reduce your overall use of electricity, too. An Energy Control Center can be easily connected to your internet to provide a readout of your total energy use and to see how much you’re using energy for individual devices.
“People need to understand where they’re using their energy in real time so they can address a problem,” says Wills. “I was attending a meeting in Las Vegas one time, and I got an alert on my smartphone that our refrigerator was working overtime. I called my wife and asked her if she had left the refrigerator door open. She thought I had a camera installed in the kitchen, but it was just our energy control center alerting me.”
You can also set up monitoring for someone else’s house, which could be helpful in allowing elderly parents to age in place.
“You can quickly check to see if they’ve turned on their coffeemaker in the morning or turned on lights without the intrusion of a camera,” says Wills.
An Energy Control Center can calculate how many amps of power you would consume if every appliance and system is simultaneously working, says Wills. By giving you insight into which appliances are in use and how much power they’re using, the system can also help you determine what should be shut off if you’re close to your capacity limit.
Monitoring individual appliances and systems can also make it easier to proactively address a potential safety or functional problem.
“We all know it’s not good if an appliance keeps shutting on and off by itself, but you may not know it without a monitor,” says Wills. “You can call in your contractor to have something checked out for predictive maintenance.”
Eventually products will be launched that allow you to schedule your electrical use and control it remotely. For instance, Wills says, if you notice that the electrical outlet where the Xbox is plugged in is getting too much use, you’ll be able to shut off just that outlet.
Typically, installing an Energy Control Center linked with less than 10 smart devices costs $1,200 to $1,500 for the materials, Wills estimates. However, the simplified installation process may save some money compared to an installation of one or more standard circuit breaker boxes.
Over time, Wills anticipates costs will be reduced for the system, which typically happens as new technology is widely adapted.
Electric Conversion Blues
Our Scottsdale remodeling project offers a case study view of the growing pains of going all-electric in an existing home.
By Steve Easley
As part of his plan to modernize and “decarbonize” the ReVISION House Scottsdale, Steve Easley converted the home to all-electric, heating, water heating, and induction cooking.
Achieving this, however, raised some unforeseen and potentially widespread roadblocks.
”In our remodel,” Easley explains, “I switched gas to heat pumps for space conditioning, water heating, and induction cooking. We have one EV in the garage, and a deposit on a second. With this scenario, I found that I could not get electrical permits with my existing 200 amp panel. Instead, I had to upgrade to 400 amps to meet my code, which assumes that you are going to be using almost everything at once. Our house is far more energy efficient, and the outdated codes that determine the panel sizing requirements don’t reflect that.”
The last few miles of electric distribution will be the most challenging as entire neighborhoods look to electrify. As ReVISION Scottsdale owner Steve Easley learned when he had to upgrade to a 400-amp home to accommodate his electrical load.
“There are four homes on the same transformer on the street,” he adds, “and at first my utility was doubtful it was large enough to handle all four homes, given my increase to 400 amp service. They said I would have to pay $10,000, or possibly more to replace it.”
He says the utility eventually calculated the transformer loads, and determined he did not need an upsized transformer, but the threat still looms. “What if my neighbors want to do the same thing and upgrade to all electric?” he asks. “The clock is clearly ticking, and this is a national issue.”
“It’s the last couple miles of distribution that could make wide scale electrification challenging,” he explains. “With this house, we’ve had to upgrade to 400-amp home service panels. Think about it. You have fully loaded 200 amp panels common across the country. How many will need to be upgraded?
Some utilities may expect you to pay for a new transformer, as well as new service entrance conductors,” he adds. “I’ve reached out to five large utilities, and a large Midwest Coop, and had discussions with two so far to figure this out. But it’s not looking like the utilities are preparing much for electrification, other than to acknowledge it could happen. On the generation side, many utilities are looking to switch to more renewable energy for power generation, but what are they doing to make your local grid ready for the increased demand, when electrification becomes widespread?”
“Apart from uncertainty about who pays for new local wiring infrastructure, most homes that switch over from gas to electric will draw a lot more power, and could need extensive service panel upgrades,” he explains. “New construction is not so much an issue, but for the 100 million existing homes it will be. More and more municipalities nationwide are banning gas hook ups, and California’s new Building Standards require that single family homes be electric ready.”
Easley says utilities must wake up quickly to the change that’s coming. He’s also optimistic that “smart” power management systems can help reduce the infrastructure needs. For example, 200 amp panels with 100 amp sub panels with load prioritization technology could work in many applications.
“I've been studying Schneider Electric and its Wiser power management products and their smart service entrance panels, for instance,” he says. They have developed smart panels, breakers and other equipment, plus some game-changing AI that can prioritize home energy use and even load shed. This means homes could have smaller and less costly panels as well as connections to the feeder conductors, transformers etc. We’re going to need every piece of technology available to make this happen on a grand scale.”