The Custom Conundrum: Accelerating Building Electrification

GianGabriel Masoni Dobles, Zondits staff, 6/27/2023
Valerie Nibler, Zondits contributor

Energy efficiency efforts have made a significant shift toward building electrification in recent years, as the transition to clean renewable energy sources has moved front and center. For single-family homes, the effort has focused on heat pumps for space and water heating as well as air conditioning. Electrification in larger buildings, however, remains an enduring challenge because of the complexities of the building systems and the leased environment.

Zondits spoke with DNV’s Director of Building Electrification, Valerie Nibler, about DNV’s efforts to broaden the impacts of electrification to the large residential and commercial building sectors. She leads a team of energy efficiency professionals addressing the challenge of decarbonizing larger buildings through custom measures. The team’s expertise in combining industrial engineering and operations research is deployed to tackle this issue across utility ratepayer classes.

The state of Massachusetts and DNV client Eversource are emblematic of the historic challenge utilities are facing to achieve aggressive decarbonization targets. Eversource has earned multiple awards for its energy efficiency programs, which are the tip of the spear for achieving their ambitious three-year electrification goals. DNV is one of the firms that supports Eversource and other utilities here and abroad in reaching their electrification goals. Valerie points to DNV’s advanced research in planning with state regulators on how best to tackle the challenge of electrification for large buildings. The challenge is further exacerbated for utilities, such as Eversource, that serve both electric and gas customers.

Technology Challenge

Due to the average age and the common types of HVAC systems, the building stock in the northeast represents a problematic baseline for electrification. The prevalence of high-temperature systems such as steam and hot water delivery loops make electrification upgrades more challenging and costly. Following an extensive analysis of the composition of Eversource’s programs and building portfolio, DNV prepared a set of findings and recommendations. The fundamentals of Eversource’s framework were found to be solid, but what remained unresolved were realistic paths for making significant progress toward aggressive goals. The DNV team is investigating, designing, and evaluating alternative lower-temperature distribution systems that when deployed, will better integrate with electric heat pump technologies.

The Growing Need for Talent

Design engineering teams are cross-disciplinary systems thinkers, and hard to find. They themselves are emblematic of the growing need for both white- and blue-collar clean energy workforces. Savvy utilities are increasingly aware that design engineers and skilled trades people need to be engaged as part of the process. Generally, the industry leaders who are embracing voluntary standards and setting their own net-zero goals are the most likely to successfully enlist the help of design engineers.


By creating a digital model (twin) of the building and its systems, engineers can model alternative scenarios for electric systems that deliver the desired comfort and efficiency. DNV has significant experience developing digital twins and is incorporating that process into its custom measure approach for large buildings. Utilizing and broadening this approach enables more dynamic program architecture that facilitates tailoring for specific sectors such as healthcare and critical infrastructure.

Currently, utilities get much of their information on emerging technologies for electrification from vendors. This tends to make recommendations tech-specific, at the expense of a wholistic view of buildings. The effective use of digital twins by design engineers can test vendor solutions and incorporate them into comprehensive designs. Once again broadening the scope, these same teams stress test their knowledge with industry peers at organizations like ASHRAE to accelerate electrification technology and best practice.

Interpreting Electrification and Decarbonization

Massachusetts has ambitions of achieving net emissions reduction of 30% over three years. While a noble goal, how that will unfold is viewed differently by different people. There is a lack of consensus on whether that net sum of mitigated emissions meets the intent, or whether the state will subject a utility to a purity test of sorts, with an emphasis on strictly electric building systems. The general perspective of an individual utility is typically predicated on historic posture and fierce market forces. Each utility will make their own interpretations of state regulations and how to best to implement programs to achieve their own targets. Electrification, even of large buildings, requires nuance based on regional conditions such as weather, energy prices, and regulatory dynamics.

Adding further complexity, one must consider if the pursuit of a 30% net reduction means one needs to achieve 100% electrification of 30% of the load, or 30% of buildings, or even across the entire portfolio? Those careful interpreters of regulation have the difficult job of crafting approaches that are compliant and yield results.

Industry Specificity

The patchwork perspective of what electrification means extends beyond geography, and into individual sectors as well. The university sector shows initiative for full electrification and is a leader on such projects. This is due to their tending to take a longer-term perspective but also yielding to pressure from students to be green. From elite universities like Stanford on the west coast to Harvard and others in northeastern states like Massachusetts, the demand dovetails with university ambitions to consider their energy mix as a key component in appealing to new students.

This private sector initiative is mirrored by other end-user constituencies like health networks such as Kaiser-Permanente, that have established bold goals for carbon-neutral status at their hospitals. In many ways, the composition of large buildings managed by hospital groups are great candidates for mass electrification through custom measure approaches.

The Conundrum

Utilities like Eversource feel this pressure as well and are burdened with how to make progress on accelerated timelines driven by state legislation and near-term funding opportunities from the Inflation Reduction Act. Big facilities typically require exhaustive capital planning that can span over five to ten years. One example of many is that university campuses often have fossil driven central heating plant boilers with campus-wide distribution systems. Such systems are not easy to electrify or replace. There is little hope of solving what amounts to historical engineering challenges while targeting three-year goals.

The electrification of existing large buildings is a monumental challenge that must be met if utilities, businesses, and governments are to meet their climate goals. The electrification team at DNV is accustomed to wading through exhaustive stakeholder management to bring projects like these to life, and it’s a symphony of practical solutions grounded in good science, good economics, and good engineering to help it scale. Simply adding heat pumps to buildings that are currently operating with complex HVAC systems that combine natural gas heating with electric cooling and ventilation will not solve the puzzle. Engineering teams using advanced approaches such as digital twins are able to optimize whole building approaches that take best advantage of electrification technologies. In many cases, that is likely to include incorporating natural gas systems in backup or supplemental roles. As technology advances, and as building stocks are updated, fully electric systems will become more predominant.