A lot of what I do has to do with the past and the rest of what I do has to do with the present, like bringing in equipment for a rush job. But this column is going to be about the future. Not Dick Tracy wrist watch radios and flying cars like in the future of my youth, but the future of my old age. This is the future that our industry will be doing business in.
Full disclosure, my predictions will be based on pure speculation, since who knows what will happen in the next 25 years? This is inspired by the proposal from California that bans fossil fuels from being used for heating or cooling. I’m not sure, but it probably applies to domestic hot water also. I could look it up, but why let the facts get in the way of a good story?
As a Midwesterner, when I first heard of this, I had our typical reaction. “Here’s another nut job idea from our friends on the left coast.” We enjoy low natural gas rates here in the farm belt and have always considered heating our homes or our domestic hot water with electric to be a foolish thing from an economic standpoint.
Just this week, a contractor was asking if there was an electric boiler option for a job where we had quoted a high efficiency gas boiler. He couldn’t understand why the homeowner (who drives a Prius he told me) would want to use electric. I told him he was preparing for the future, where heating is done without fossil fuels. He thought I was kidding.
Why would consumers change from low priced fossil fuels to more expensive electric? They wouldn’t unless they are compelled to change. Change is hard for most people and the reasons to change have to be pretty strong for any action to take place. The people of California want to legislate the change by 2045, perhaps in their minds to stimulate their economy—think Tesla Manufacturing in Fremont CA—or perhaps to save the planet.
It would be a challenge to make electricity less expensive than gas because there is an ample supply of natural gas in North America according to industry experts. The price of natural gas is not likely to drop anytime soon. The utilities mostly use fossil fuels right now to generate the electricity we use in our homes, businesses, grocery stores, etc. at their giant power plants. They do it as efficiently as currently possible and then send it over wires that are terribly inefficient, which never made sense to me.
I also have a lifelong bias against high voltage transmission wires and their towers. Not exactly sure what set me against them, but whenever I see one, I think we can do better. Every time there is a big ice storm or hurricane, all the utility workers get in their bucket trucks and head for the downed wires, most times driving towards dangerous working conditions.
How about if the future can provide fossil fuel free electric power at a reasonable cost and eliminate the inefficiency of the electric grid at the same time? Well, maybe this is how it will happen. Smart people at Tesla Manufacturing with the help of Artificial Intelligence finally figured out how to miniaturize the process of electrical generation, eliminate the traditional electrical grid, and take fossil fuels out of the process.
Electricity is now generated on demand in a completely decentralized system. In other words, everybody makes their own electricity. There aren’t any overhead or underground power lines since there is a separate electric generating system is in every home, factory, place of worship, etc.
Every building has its own generator made by the established brands that supply HVAC or electric equipment. The generator uses a high temperature fluid to create steam that drives a turbine that produces the electricity. The turbine modulates to meet the fluctuating demand of the individual building. Therefore, no energy is wasted transferring power from the central plants to the point of use. I hate waste.
The high temperature fluid is delivered to the building in power packs that are about the size of a propane tank and hooked up to the generator. It is not much different than having the Culligan Man deliver jugs of water or, if you’re old enough, the milk man delivering fresh milk. We have everything else delivered. Why not power?
Heat being exchanged to generate electricity reduces the temperature of the fluid in the power pack. The replacement power pack is ordered automatically via the internet when the temperature drops too low. Yes, we still have the internet in the future. It wasn’t just a fad as first thought. (At least the way I thought it would be.)
The power packs get recharged at a remote site by the magnification of the sun, which shines more than enough energy towards the earth. The other traditional methods of generating electricity with renewable resources, like PV, wind or hydro, are still used where it makes sense. However, the majority of applications still can’t make use of them.
We’re still selling, servicing and installing boiler systems. What we’re not doing is running gas/oil lines, installing flue pipe, adjusting combustion, troubleshooting ignition problems, burying propane/oil tanks, etc. I’m sure you can think of a few more things that you not going to be doing in the fossil fuel free future.
As a wise man once told me, “People will always need heat.” This was before everyone needed air conditioning, or he would have said “heating and cooling.” Everything hydronic contractors do now they can do without gas, oil or coal being burned. Pumps, relays, t-stats, controls and zone valves already only use electricity. Yes, even boilers can be electric powered. No need to worry about the flue size leaving the boiler, worry about the wire size hooking up to the boiler.
The future still looks good for the industry. I’m ready to embrace the change. Let’s get ready for it rather than fight it.
Patrick Linhardt is a thirty-five-year veteran of the wholesale side of the hydronic industry who has been designing and troubleshooting steam and hot water heating systems, pumps and controls on an almost daily basis. An educator and author, he is currently Hydronic Manager at the Corken Steel Products Co.