All-Electric Laboratory Buildings: Why and How

by Matthew Fickett

November 18, 2020

Exterior of the ZEN Building

Cities and towns concerned about climate change are developing ordinances that ban fossil fuel use in buildings. How does this affect your projects? Is it practical to build an all-electric laboratory? Is it actually better for the planet?  The answer to both is yes: all-electric lab buildings are possible, much more sustainable, and often cheaper too! But perhaps you have a few more questions:

Isn’t electric heating wasteful and expensive? You may be thinking of electric baseboards or space heaters, which are both forms of electric resistance heating. With this approach, you get one unit of heat for each unit of electricity, which is known as a Coefficient of Performance (COP) of 1. Instead, think of an electric heat pump. Heat pumps use electricity to move heat from one place to another. You are already familiar with appliances that use heat pumps: a window air conditioner uses one to transfer heat from inside your house to outside, and a refrigerator is similar. A heat pump can have a COP of 3 or 4, meaning that you get three or four times as much heat for each unit of electricity you spend. For district or campus-scale heat pumps, the COP could be above 6, leading to significant savings on your energy bill.

Even better, a suitably designed heat pump can run in either direction, so one piece of equipment can be both your air conditioner and your heater. Having just one machine instead of two reduces construction and maintenance costs.

Is an all-electric building reliable? We’ve all experienced power outages at home. But power loss in a laboratory building could be catastrophic for sensitive equipment or environments, so labs are usually provided with backup generators that run on natural gas or diesel fuel. For limited outages (hours or days), the solution is simple: replace that generator with a battery. While batteries used to be prohibitively expensive, prices are now so reasonable that some utility companies have begun to replace peak generation plants with enormous batteries. A building-scale megawatt-hour battery is now an off-the-shelf solution.

However, if the power outages are likely to last many days or weeks, it may not be practical to install enough batteries to last the entire outage. In that case, a backup gas or diesel generator is a reasonable decision. Even then, making the building all-electric is worth it! The building is still zero-emission for all the days it’s connected to the grid – far better than a building that is burning natural gas in normal operation.

Will this approach actually help the environment? Even if my building is all-electric, aren’t I just shifting the same pollution to some power plant somewhere else? No! Even in the worst case, where the electricity is generated by burning natural gas in a power plant, the power plant is much more efficient and pollutes much less than natural gas appliances in your building. Plus, the electrical grid is consistently moving towards clean energy. Solar power is so cheap that utility companies are shutting down their gas power plants and replacing them with solar farms. In the future, electric utilities will be fully renewable, not because they want to save the world, but just because it’s cheaper for them.

How will going all-electric affect my building infrastructure? Your building will be simpler and easier to maintain. With no natural gas piping and no exhaust flues, you’ll see reduced construction costs. Reduced shaft areas and ductwork will result in more available floor space. With heating and cooling united in one system, there will be fewer mechanical systems to maintain. And the air quality inside the building will be free from carcinogenic combustion exhaust, creating a better environment for your occupants.

The future is all-electric. Even in our most complex buildings, it’s better for the world, better for the owner’s budget, and it’s possible today.