Good, Thoughtful Hosts #201: Electrification with Alex Russell

In this episode of Good, Thoughtful Hosts, we’re talking with mechanical engineer Alex Russell about the process of electrification. We’ll discuss how moving from traditional systems, such as gas, to electric systems can mean making shifts throughout the building or community — not a one-for-one switch. Plus, Alex walks us through some of the work Cushing Terrell did with Romney Hall at Montana State University, which was modernized as part of the school’s efforts toward its sustainability commitments.

About Our Guest
Bozeman-based Alex Russell serves as Director of Energy Services for Cushing Terrell and is a licensed mechanical engineer. Focused on creating healthy, innovative environments, Alex is a LEED-accredited and Green Globes professional with more than a decade of experience with all facets of HVAC mechanical design. When not working, the Montana native can almost always be found seeking outdoor adventures.

Episode #201 Transcript | Listen on SoundCloud

Sarah Steimer 00:00
Hello and welcome to the first episode of the second season of Good, Thoughtful Hosts. I’m Sarah Steimer. And today we’re talking about the process of electrification, which typically means shifting from technologies that use fossil fuels to those that use electricity as a source of energy. An example that caught quite a bit of attention recently was news that the US Consumer Product Safety Commission is considering a ban on gas stoves. What we’ll talk about today is that this isn’t usually as simple as a one to one swap like a gas stove to an electric stove. There are other systems at work within a building itself that need to be considered, or even across a community. What we’ll discuss in this episode, how changing one system can set up an opportunity to move the needle and set the rest of the building or community up for success.

Producer 01:17
Today’s special guest

Alex Russell 01:20
I’m Alex Russell, mechanical engineer at Cushing Terrell, and I serve as director of energy services.

Sarah Steimer 01:27
Alex, first of all, thank you for joining us, I really appreciate it. Thank you for helping us kick off the second season here. So to begin with, we always like to start with a little bit of a definition of what we’ll be talking about today. So we are talking about electrification, it’s kind of a massive thing. Obviously, it’s a little hard to define it perfectly and eloquently maybe, but give it your best shot, Alex.

Alex Russell 01:51
Sure. Building electrification, sometimes also known as building decarbonization, is really describing the shift from the consumption of fossil fuels such as fuel oil, natural gas, or even coal, in some instances for heating and cooking in a building to electricity and using electricity and technologies that use electricity to provide those same means.

Sarah Steimer 02:16
Great, and I know that this, of course, has been in the news a little bit more than usual. Lately, there’s talk about getting people try to shift from their beloved gas ranges, for instance, to electric ranges, which is always a hot button issue, because some people insist that gas is so much better than electric for their cooking. We won’t get on that. But I do want to talk about some of the challenges in electrifying something that maybe has been heavily focused on a different sort of energy source. So can you talk a little bit about what some of the challenges that you typically have, when you are facing a new project?

Alex Russell 02:53
Gas stoves is a fantastic example. I like it, because it’s something that I think most people can either directly envision, through experience or easily picture in their mind. The goal of the all-electric solution is to reduce the carbon emissions at the building level and buildings account for about 30% of our global carbon emissions. So making the shift to electrification, it sounds simple, it’s take one out, put one in. Gas stoves would be a really good example, that you start with a stove, this gas, and then you end with a stove, that’s electric, and we call that a like-for-like replacement. Perfect. We’ve solved the problem. But we run into these cascading issues, such as what happens if that building, that house can’t handle the additional electrical load from putting a electric stove in there, this suddenly creates a financial ramifications. There’s downstream effects with grid stability, we went from a historically very stable utility in natural gas. Now we’re putting that back onto the electric grid that’s being increasingly taxed with this shift. So it’s, it’s not as simple as taking gas equipment out and putting electric equipment in.

Sarah Steimer 04:09
So there is this aspect, then everything that you’re saying is that you really do have to look at things a little bit more holistically. So it’s not just about one to one, like you mentioned, you have to think about what the entire building can manage, you have to think about what the electrical grid can manage. Can you talk a little bit more about sort of that holistic look that you might have to take at an entire building? Or maybe an entire, I don’t know, grid or area or whatever it may be?

Alex Russell 04:34
Right. Yeah, I mentioned that the goal of the electrification process is to reduce carbon emissions and to reduce co2 emissions in the environment. And buildings play a large role in that. Shifting that to the grid is one way that we can do that if we’re taking a pragmatic and progressive approach to how that energy is produced — if we’re using on-site renewables that are near zero or zero carbon energy as it’s produced. Seeing that energy for the electricity in the building, if we’re using grid-purchased utilities that increasingly are being greened up at the utility-provider level — those are great solutions. But when we only look at it from that lens, we’re not tackling the problem, which is how do we reduce the utility that’s necessary at the building level. And that’s one of the areas where I think Cushing Terrell does a fantastic job is we have an integrated approach to our design process. We have experts across multiple disciplines that work toward the best holistic solution. So when we’re talking building electrification, in order for that to be successful, we do want to shift from fossil fuel consumption of natural gas and fuel oil to electric solutions. But can we do other improvements in that building that aren’t necessarily HVAC-focused with envelope insullation, Windows operational changes, that really reduced the amount of energy we have to produce and consume at the building level to begin with, and then implement those new, more efficient technologies that lead us toward a more green future?

Sarah Steimer 06:06
Okay, so let’s talk about maybe an example of this, because like you said, Cushing Terrell has experience here. And I want to talk to you about Montana State’s Romney Hall. So this was a pretty big example of this, you know, it was kind of turning into, I think, different use than its initial purpose, but then also electrifying that building. So walk me through that process and what that project looked like.

Alex Russell 06:30
Okay, so that’s, I mean, I love that example. It gives a really great, you know, look at how to upgrade something, update something. But it is at a single-building level, you know, we’re talking about these issues, they tend to be a little bit bigger, a little bit broader, you know, in addition to not just including a number of different systems within a building, you know, sometimes we need to maybe electrify an entire campus, or maybe an entire more progressive town is thinking about something like this. So how does this scale, exactly? Yeah, shameless plug Montana State. I’m alum, myself — Go, Bobcats. This was a project that we worked on for for many years, and a lot of credit is due to Montana State’s vision for a cleaner future and some of their publicly outspoken commitments to that future. So Romney Hall was a 100-year-old building that was built in 1922. So we’ve just celebrated the 101st anniversary of this building. It was historically used as a gymnasium and and had fallen into a state of disrepair. The intent was to renovate that and make it into a modern learning environment with 1000 classroom seats, so drastically increased the amount of available classroom and classroom seats to campus. But also, we needed to make that a modern environment. So we started by looking at the basic things, right, we used steam to heat that building, it had no cooling, it did not have any mechanical ventilation or fresh air in that building. And we could have potentially, almost stopped there with okay, we’ll just make this kind of a an upgraded building, we’ll make some enhancements improvements, and switch out some technology for heating and add cooling with other technology. But by taking a holistic view of this, we were able to make sure that it was a modern learning environment in all facets in equal measure, fresh air, lighting, low ambient noise levels, and of course, appropriate temperatures for students to learn, the faculty to teach and occupants to thrive in. And we did that using heat pump technology and MSU’s energy district concept that is being developed. And we’re able to drastically shift that from natural gas solution at a steam plant and steam heating to an electric solution. We’ll stay with MSU as an example, since that’s where we left off. That’s the vision that MSU has articulated and committed to is carbon neutral by 2040. And that will have a big impact on how future buildings are designed. And it also has a big impact on how existing buildings are retrofit, renovated and brought into this vision in this portfolio of carbon-free future. Currently, historically, most of the buildings on campus are using the legacy steam system. So there’s a central steam plant that provides steam through piping network that handles the whole campus. And MSU has made a commitment that as we transition into the future, they’re going to remove buildings from that legacy system and look for electric solutions using heat pump technology, using geothermal technology to reduce that fossil fuel dependence, but they’ve also made a commitment that at the building level, they want to do everything they can to make those buildings more efficient. So when we look at a campus approach, we really need to start with the end in mind. And that’s what I admire about what MSU has done is they’ve started by saying, here’s our end goal, here’s our desire. And now we’re working backwards toward where we’re at today. So we’re able to think about, okay, we’re bringing more buildings online, are there ways to connect these buildings and create assets that share energy between them? What happens when they have similar load profiles? So they’re all heating and cooling simultaneously, we need to provide energy into that building? Are there geothermal assets we can use? As we shift off of natural gas and more things tax the grid, we increase the electricity required to power these buildings, how can they create that through renewable energy and green energy just purchased off grid? So it’s a holistic view, it’s 100,000 foot level, you start at and you work down to ground level, and you’re continuously coming back up and looking to make sure that you’re achieving the goals with each decision you’re making on a daily basis.

Sarah Steimer 11:03
I mean, that’s, that does sound incredibly overwhelming is the only thing. So I guess my last question, as far as this topic goes, Is there a way to maybe not feel so overwhelmed by these bigger projects, like trying to electrify something like an entire campus? You know, how do you sort of take this bite by bite? How do you make it piecemeal?

Alex Russell 11:25
I like that you added bite by bite, because that’s, that’s essentially how we have to do this. Going back to my earlier point, and I like to reinforce this, the goal of electrification is to reduce co2 emissions. The most impactful thing we can do at the building level, and that is the the foundational bite by bite is reduce the amount of energy required to operate that building in a stable condition. And we need to think of the emissions as part of the equation. But in equal measure, we also need to be thinking about the stable operation of the building and the health and safety of the occupants. That’s a challenge that we face in Montana where I live, we recently at the end of the year, how to spell where it hit negative 67 degrees with windchill. And when we talk about extreme cold like that, we can keep buildings warm with electric solutions. But what happens if that grid goes out, most of our standby power is generated through fossil fuel consumption, diesel generators, natural gas generators. So as we think about this building by building, we have to make decisions that make sense for the operation in that building and a stable condition, the appropriate conditions for people to thrive in that building, we can’t forget about the function of the building itself. But we really want to start by targeting, reducing the amount of energy required. And then we can continue to scale out and think about how that building can be a benefit to adjacent buildings through an energy district type approach, or how we can use site conditions to produce on-site renewables such as PV, or the green spaces that we could tie geothermal to. We just kind of move out in that concentric circle around the building, but the building is our bite-by-bite approach.

Sarah Steimer 13:09
I mean, that’s that’s kind of a perfect example of really what the theme of this entire season of the podcast is about, which is thinking about the community and how one thing affects the other. If it’s good for the entire community, it’s good for the individual vice versa. And so thinking of these individual buildings as sort of individual members of that campus community, or even any sort of community and so as soon as you start making it better for those buildings, each and every one of those buildings, it’ll start to work together more cohesively, you know, does does that sound like I’ve got that right, as electrification, bit by bit works.

Alex Russell 13:45
Absolutely. And I think if we can close your eyes and envision a progressive future that’s accomplishing a bunch of that we can think about buildings as assets. If we have two buildings that have loads that are occurring at different times, we may have an opportunity to energy shift where we have excess heat in a building, commercial office space might be a good example. During the day, there’s a bunch of excess heat that’s being generated from people and equipment in that building, is there an opportunity to take that heat that’s generated and move that down the line and potentially provide that heat to other buildings that have a need for that heat at that moment? And in that way, we’re not thinking about buildings as consistently being a drain on our system. We’re thinking about them being assets in a larger system.

Sarah Steimer 14:30
I really liked the way that you put that. I think that’s a great way to think about you know, buildings as as part of this greater community. Well, Alex, this was really fantastic talking to you about this. Was there anything though, that I didn’t ask that you wanted to add? As far as just some of the more big picture where if you want to talk about the Bobcats a little bit more anything like that?

Alex Russell 14:48
Yeah, our football team has been pretty consistent about beating our in-state rivals, which is always a good point for for especially these long-suffering Cats fans. No, I think I think our conversation is, is hit a lot. And I know that I’ve injected a little bit editorials ation with my thoughts on, we really need to start at the building level. But taking a similar approach to what this process is with electrification, it’s similar to how I described we would approach campus with what is the end goal in mind. And the angle I continuously go back to is we’re trying to reduce emissions. And if we’re trying to reduce emissions, the easiest, most efficient way for us to do that is reduce the amount of energy that the building is requiring to begin with. So I know it’s it’s easy, it’s it’s the easy button approach to try to think that we’re just going to do a bunch of like for like replacements of natural gas with electric appliances and equipment. But that’s, that’s maybe a little short sighted, not necessarily achieving what we set out to achieve with this, this audacious undertaking.

Sarah Steimer 15:50
Great. Well, Alex, thank you so much. I really think that, you know, it was helpful to be able to look at it from an individual but then greater aspect, of course. But thank you again for taking the time today. And hopefully we can talk more about this in the future and best of luck with MSU.

Alex Russell 16:08
I appreciate it, Sarah. It’s fantastic. Talk about I love talking about energy and energy projects and getting can’t, can’t thank MSU enough for their progressive view on the future and the willingness to help shape that campus. So this has been a fantastic conversation.

Producer 16:29
Music for Good, Thoughtful Hosts was written produced and performed by Sam Clapp. Our moderator is Sarah Steimer. Editing by Travis Estvold and a special thanks to our content development team Amanda Herzberg and Marni Moore. For more information about the podcast, visit Thanks for listening.

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