Technological innovations are creating new ways to use electricity as a substitute for on-site fossil fuels like natural gas, propane, gasoline, and fuel oil.

The concept, called “beneficial electrification,” is gaining currency among electric cooperatives and environmental advocates. Frequently promoted as a means to reducing greenhouse gases and helping the environment, beneficial electrification is a business strategy that can help co-ops adapt to an evolving regulatory landscape that seeks to reduce greenhouse gases.

Beneficial electrification is a departure from the conventional wisdom, which held that appliances fueled on site, such as gas water heaters, were more efficient and easier on the environment. Adherents of gas appliances argued that generating and distributing electricity is less efficient than burning fuel on-site.

But that old argument is crumbling, and one of the biggest drivers of this trend is the flexibility of the electric grid itself. As utilities shift to renewable technologies and make existing generation technologies cleaner, electricity uses less fossil fuel per kilowatt-hour of energy produced. Electric appliances become “greener.” Appliances themselves are also becoming more efficient due to technological improvements, and gas appliances aren’t keeping up.

“Over their life, electric products can support the integration of renewable energy generators, on-site renewable generation, and thermal and battery storage programs. The same cannot be said of appliances that require fossil fuel on-site,” says Keith Dennis, NRECA senior principal of end-use solutions and standards. “This applies to electric vehicles, systems that heat and cool buildings, agricultural pumping, and many other end-use technologies.”

Opportunities for beneficial electrification are increasing, but many impediments to adoption persist. Dennis says federal policies haven’t kept up with advancing technologies and new ways of thinking about efficiency, and rules continue to favor on-site-fueled appliances.

Failure by regulators to overhaul standards and recognize beneficial electrification, Dennis says, could have long-term negative impacts for consumers and the environment.

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