Natural Gas Challenges In The Northeast U.S.

Insufficient natural gas infrastructure? Variable refrigerant flow and split systems can offer a no-compromise solution.

By Michael Psihoules
From the October 2019 Issue

Recently, The New York Times reported that Con Edison—the utility company serving a densely populated suburban area around New York City—has thrown a giant wrench in the works that threatens development in its market. Apparently, the natural gas piping, which is mostly underground, is the unexpected cause of alarm. Those areas hardest hit are the ones where developers had high hopes—in markets where clusters of luxury condos are rising around commuter rail stations. Designed to lure young workers seeking easy access to Manhattan, growing communities—with new condos and planned restaurants, malls, and service businesses—are now at risk.

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Variable refrigerant condensing units installed on a commercial rooftop (Photo: Fujitsu General)

The promotion of hydraulic fracturing or “fracking” has created record low natural gas prices. Responding to these low prices, thousands of buildings converted from oil-fired heating systems to natural gas—the fuel of choice for space heating and domestic hot water.

These low prices also led to the popularity of co-generation (co-gen) systems with natural gas-fired generators that create both electricity and hot water. All of these systems need to remove heat, and many co-gen systems put exhaust heat to use to heat domestic water and other purposes in buildings.

Co-gen systems are more efficient than traditional hot water systems and also create power for the building. It’s no surprise that many buildings are converted to use these systems. Of course, interest in co-gen places further demand for growth of the natural gas infrastructure. And now, managers at Con Edison say its existing network of pipelines cannot satisfy the increasing demand for fuel. Flow through the pipes is constrained by the size of existing infrastructure piping.

To increase gas pressure within the pipes isn’t an option. Natural gas systems are designed to work with a specific gas pressure. The only solution is to increase the size of the piped network—a difficult and expensive fix. For this reason, Con Edison imposed a moratorium on new gas hookups in large parts of Westchester County, New York that also affects residential buildings planned in Yonkers, White Plains, and New Rochelle.

This news comes at a time when people in the United States, especially in the Northeast, least expect it because of the success of the growing “fracked gas” industry, availing inexpensive natural gas coming from within our own borders. Con Ed’s decision has alarmed developers and elected officials who say the moratorium has left many projects in limbo, while creating uncertainty about housing, jobs, and the area’s economic future.

Technology To The Rescue

Those of us in the HVAC industry have taken special note of this because it has a very negative affect for some, and a very positive impact for others.

The obstacles created by insufficient natural gas supply can only be overcome by using other sources of heat. Oil, yet another non-renewable fuel and once the dominant fuel in the northeast, is rapidly in decline nationwide because its contribution to greenhouse gas emissions. This leaves electricity as the best solution.

Fortunately, electric heat pump technology—that provides both heating and cooling solutions for buildings—has come a long way in the past decade. Old heat pumps used to shut down below 32°F because of limitations caused by refrigerants used at the time, and other constraints. Newer systems provide high efficiency heating operation—to -15°F outside temps; and year-round comfort control with cooling.

Using electric resistance heat is rarely an option because of its high operational cost: typically, a 1,000 square foot apartment might require $3,000 in electric usage for winter heating—with no provision for summer cooling. A heat pump, which “moves heat,” might cost residents of the same 1,000 square foot unit $600 to $750 for winter comfort, while also offering cooling for summer months.

In regions like Westchester, where the specification of heat pumps might require a late-game revision to a developer’s plan, there are benefits which should make development pros, architects, and building owners look at heat pumps first when considering building systems. For new construction, the cost to install an electrical infrastructure for heat pumps will be less than the cost of piping two separate systems (natural gas heating and electrical cooling). For retrofits, an apartment may need to be wired for heat pumps, but most buildings have sufficient power for them.

Paradigm Shift: Strategic Electrification

According to experts at Washington, DC-based EESI (the Environmental and Energy Study Institute), strategic electrification (or “beneficial electrification”) is a key strategy offered toward the decarbonization of New York and New England.

The movement is rapidly gaining popularity. Its proponents want to see the replacement of direct fossil fuel use (propane, heating oil, gasoline) with electricity to reduce overall emissions and energy costs. There are many opportunities across the residential and commercial sectors. This can include switching to an electric vehicle or an electric heating system—as long as the end-user and the environment both benefit.

The power sector is currently undergoing a period of “unprecedented transformation. Energy efficiency and demand response technologies are reducing power demand, while cheap renewable power and coal plant retirements are reducing the carbon intensity of the electric grid. As a result, electricity is becoming more climate-friendly in many places while also linked to electric utility business models that promise a clean energy future.

Strategic electrification is predicated on the assumption that the electric grid will become increasingly renewable with greater use of solar, wind, and other renewable technologies.

Meanwhile, In California…

There are similar mandates which have resulted in building codes that exclude new gas hook-ups. This summer in California, Berkeley’s city council banned natural gas hookups for new construction—the first of its kind in the state—to take effect on January 1, 2020. Calling their action “groundbreaking,” “disruptive,” and “a model for people throughout the world,” the council members declare the measure as a significant step toward reducing the threat of a disaster.

The initiative originated with Councilwoman Kate Harrison, who laments that “We’re piping a toxic, flammable, greenhouse gas producing explosive liquid across earthquake faults and into our homes.”

Berkeley’s planning department is already doing a lot of work to promote the transition to electricity in all buildings, including existing ones as well as new construction. The measure includes a commitment for a two-year period of staff support for developers and others working on implementing its mandate.

natural gasPsihoules is national energy solutions manager at Fujitsu General America. He has more than 25 years of developing and delivering energy efficiency and demand response programming for the utility industry. He has been with Fujitsu since 2014. Previously, he served with Honeywell for 18 years; his last position there was regional director for the Smart Grid Solutions group.

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