Building Electrification: Why It Matters to Your Wallet, Health, Comfort, and the Environment
What is Building Electrification?
Building electrification might sound complicated, but the concept is actually both simple and critically important. Electrification means using electricity to power buildings instead of fossil fuels, which are primarily used in structures to power heating, cooling, water heating, and cooking. Electric vehicle charging capacity has also become a part of building electrification considerations, as the related charging equipment is part of a structure, and part of a wider transition to lower emissions, even if the actual vehicle itself is not part of the building. Significantly, electrifying just vehicles and heat pumps would result in saving about one third of all emissions, globally. By switching away from on-site fossil fuel combustion, building owners, operators and occupants can save money and energy through energy efficiency gains, increase building control and comfort through technological advances, reduce indoor air pollutants and thereby increase occupant health, and better protect and preserve the environment. In new construction, electrification means that there is ideally no fossil-fuel burning equipment in a building. In existing buildings, electrifying means looking for opportunities to replace existing fossil fuel-burning equipment with electric equipment.
Source: 51% Studios Architecture
Reducing emissions as a part of electrification is a key part of decarbonization, or the effort to reduce greenhouse gases from the atmosphere, with carbon used as a proxy since it’s most prevalent and remains in the atmosphere longer than most other gases. Along with electrification, top decarbonization and energy consumption reduction strategies strategies include increasing energy efficiency through weatherization (insulation, weather stripping and related measures to keep energy from leaking from our buildings) and deep energy retrofits, continued technological improvements, increasing the amount of renewable energy, changing behavior and reducing consumption to the extent possible, and continuing efforts to make electric grids and off-site energy production generally cleaner.
“The need for electrification is well understood by climate and energy experts, but I’m not sure it has filtered down to the public yet…”
-David Roberts, Vox (2017)
While 100% all-electric is clearly ideal for lowering emissions and increasing energy efficiency and health outcomes, it’s important to understand that electrification can also be an improvement process. Each decision to purchase electric equipment instead of burning fossil fields onsite produces some if not all of the outlined benefits. And many key building equipment decisions are made one at a time, as equipment fails and needs to be replaced. Therefore, viewing electrification as an all-or-nothing decision might result in less optimal results. Additionally, each of these individual decisions have lasting/magnified consequences over the lifetime of a piece of equipment or potentially of a building. Meaning, it’s also worth thinking carefully about major energy and fuel-related decisions, and ideally planning major equipment replacement in advance for existing buildings, as well as carefully for new buildings; once a potentially significant decision has been made, it can be difficult, expensive, or not even realistic to retrofit if minds change or future decision makers wish to pursue different outcomes.
If we can save money, better control technology for increased comfort, lower indoor air pollutants, and generate fewer greenhouse gas emissions, it would seem that electrification would become (or would have already become) an unstoppable movement. Indeed, and despite some remaining hurdles, it would appear we’re entering what will be known as a decade of wide scale electrification. According to the UN, 115 countries representing more approximately 80% of the world’s economy have committed to achieve net zero emissions by 2050 (and China by 2060). In the US, President Biden made this 2050 net zero commitment by executive order and has also committed to 100% clean electricity by 2035, after rejoining the Paris Agreement as one of his first presidential actions. President Biden’s climate plan also aims to cut the carbon footprint of US buildings by 50% by 2035. Additionally, 33 states and 600 mayors have also passed some kind of climate plan that includes greenhouse gas emissions inventories and/or reduction targets, and a growing number of cities have passed additional emissions related measures including natural gas bans on new construction.
The number of emissions and climate change commitments is a moving target in a positive direction. But to make the size of the challenge clear, it would take a 45% reduction in global emissions from 2010 levels to cut emissions by half by 2030, on the path to reach the stated 2050 goals. There is little or really no time to spare to educate, and to move as quickly as possible. Every new connection to fossil fuels in a new building, or replacement of equipment with a fossil fuel burning appliance means 15-25 or more years of a locked in, inefficient and suboptimal decision. David Robert once coined the phrase, “Electrify everything.” We now likely need to insist that we also “educate everyone,” so we can work together to get gas and other fossil fuel out of buildings, and to therefore reduce our total energy consumption and emissions to safer and healthier levels for people and planet.
Source: Energy Innovation
Electrification and the Environment
The environmental case for building electrification is clear. Buildings are an essential part of climate change mitigation strategies, as buildings consume approximately 16% of energy globally, and almost 40% in developed economies such as the United States. Including materials and the construction process, buildings generate almost 40% of global greenhouse gas emissions. Environmental experts and responsible policymakers access the globe generally agree that we need to cut carbon emissions in half by 2035 or even sooner, and reach net-zero carbon emissions by 2050 or sooner, to prevent the worst effects of climate change. Put simply, it is not possible to meet Paris Agreement goals of limited global temperature change to 1.5 degrees celsius above pre-industrial levels and other key emissions targets without changing the ways we design, build and operate buildings.
Framing the environmental impact of onsite fossil fuel consumption with respect to climate change and greenhouse emissions is accurate but not complete. Environmental risks associated with the production and transmission of fossil fuels, particularly natural gas, include air and water pollution at mining facilities and in surrounding communities and beyond, wildlife and ecosystem disruption throughout the supply and delivery chain, potential increases in seismic activity due to fracking, and environmental degradation throughout the mining, transmission and delivery process due to significant methane leakage (Up to 4/9% globally), some of which is deliberate.
Both new and existing construction are critical to address in meeting climate goals. For new buildings, consider that half of the buildings we will occupy in 2060 are not yet built. This means there’s an incredible impact opportunity to build more efficient, less carbon-intensive buildings now, and that these better choices now will have a lasting impact since a building typically lasts over 50 years. According to Architecture 2030, about 2/3 of existing buildings will remain standing in 2050, at an average age of 70 years old. Given the current state of building emissions and the need for drastic reductions, this figure shows that we can’t reach our goals without significantly renovating and retrofitting existing buildings as well. These buildings provide a current and future reminder of why we should not miss opportunities to save and implement better technology now - it’s just more difficult and costly to make changes after the fact. Missed windows of opportunity also hold for appliance replacement - with average gas equipment often lasting 15-25 years or more, every decision between gas and electric equipment means a longer-term win, or loss.
Reducing energy consumption also has benefits beyond the property line. According to the Building Efficiency Initiative, for every unit of energy saved onsite, as many as ten units of energy are saved in the generation and transmission processes. So all of the effects can be magnified, and these effects can also grow over the life of a building. The impact of making a cleaner choice is magnified by the amount of time the structure stands and the degree to which the grid becomes cleaner and more efficient over that period of time. This is again a reminder that the consequences of inefficient choices are also magnified.
Building Electrification and Health
Burning fossil fuels onsite to power buildings has both indoor and outdoor implications. Given that we spend up to 90% of our time indoors, indoor air quality is critical to human health. Awareness of air quality and healthy building factors have been growing in recent months due to the additional time spent indoors and largely in homes by much of the population due to the global COVID-19 pandemic. Inside buildings, gas combustion produces a mix of nitrogen dioxide, carbon monoxide, nitric oxide, formaldehyde, and other chemicals and particles, some of which are known as PM2.5 or ultrafine particulate matter. These chemicals and particles, many of which are carcinogens, contribute to respiratory challenges including asthma, lung and heart problems and diseases, diabetes, factors such as birth timing and weight, and additional serious medical conditions which can also result in death. The elderly and children can be particularly vulnerable to these pollutants. Poorer conditions are also likely more common in smaller and more crowded spaces, and older and less well ventilated buildings, which may have a disparate impact on lower-income occupants. Asthma is already at an increased risk for this population.
In the United States, the EPA sets outdoor clean air standards, but the federal government does not also regulate indoor air quality, despite the clear risks associated with fossil-fuel powered appliances and the general importance of indoor air quality. A study by Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory found that 60% of the studied homes with gas stoves had levels of indoor air pollution which would be illegal if outside. In 2013, the International Journal of Epidemiology reported that children in homes with gas stoves have a 42% increased risk of experiencing asthma symptoms. A Rocky Mountain Institute review of decades of research found that homes with gas stoves have levels of nitrogen dioxide levels 50-400% higher than homes with electric stoves.
Alarmingly, according to MIT research, building sector combustion emissions now contributes to the largest share of air pollution deaths, at 37%. In fact, the NRDC has reported that fossil fuel related pollution kills 1 in 5 people prematurely, globally, two times previous estimates and equal to the population of London or New York, annually. We may think first of factories, power plants and vehicles as pollution sources, but particularly during winter heating seasons, gas-burning appliances are a significant source of air pollution. Surprisingly, gas appliances in buildings in California produce almost 7 times more nitrogen oxide than power plants, as reported by the Sierra Club in 2019. Nitrogen oxide contributes to smog and PM2.5 particulate matter, contributing to asthma, lung cancer, respiratory diseases, and not surprisingly, premature death. Unfortunately, air pollution is often higher in low-income communities and in communities of color, and building operations are a contributing factor.
In addition to the health problems caused and exacerbated by onsite combustion itself, there are health impacts associated with the production and transmission of fossil fuels. Risks include employee and community health effects in the areas surrounding production and processing, fire and explosion risk throughout the supply and delivery chain, and health problems throughout the mining, transmission and delivery process due to the leakage of methane and other chemicals.
Finally, there are also safety arguments for electric appliances. Gas-powered equipment of course has fire and volatility risks, though actual explosions are rare. Carbon monoxide poses a threat from unattended, faulty, or misused gas equipment. And this risk tends to fall disproportionately on lower income populations, who may more likely rely on gas space heaters or even use gas stoves for heating when heat is not affordable or may be shut off. Without proper ventilation, gas stoves pollute indoor air even through regular use, as noted. Lower income households are less likely to have kitchen exhaust fans, while the majority of occupants with proper kitchen exhaust do not consistently use this equipment.
One additional positive feature of induction stovetops, which operate by electromagnetic fields, is that occupants are far less likely to get burned, as the cooktops only become and remain hot when in contact with the cooking vessel.
Public health professionals, the medical health profession, and policymakers may be starting to take notice, especially in light of some troubling information suggesting a correlation between elevated nitrogen dioxide levels and higher mortality risk from COVID-19. In 2020, the New England Journal of Medicine published an editorial recommending that new gas appliances be banned. The Massachusetts Medical society also formally resolved that gas stoves contribute to childhood asthma. The California Air Resources Board (CARB) also adopted a resolution in support of updating building codes to improve ventilation requirements, and to begin a transition to electric appliances. Additionally, more than 40 US cities have already passed a ban on natural gas in new construction.
Source: Health Direct
What is surprising in some sense is that these “early” actions have taken so long. In 1985, the CPSC chair wrote to the EPA asking for assistance to determine NO2 safety and from gas stoves and appliances. The EPA wrote a report in 1986 acknowledging that “Preliminary evidence from epidemiologic and related indoor air pollution monitoring studies suggest that repeated peak exposures at concentrations of 0.3 ppm of N02 may cause health effects in some individuals and raises the possibility that such effects may occur at concentrations as low as 0.1 ppm.”
Electrification Technology - Increasing Control and Comfort
In addition to lessening the environmental impact of buildings and protecting our health, electricity offers technological advantages over fossil fuels which can impact performance, efficiency and comfort. In other words, these technologies really are better in some key ways. And these benefits prove helpful in making the case for adoption.
Programmability is one element of control. Electric equipment allows the user to program appliances to power on and off at certain times of the day, perhaps to take advantage of peak pricing or to reduce the risk of power outages, or to improve efficiency or generally reduce use. Automatic and remote shut offs, even from mobile devices, are an option with electric equipment.
Electric equipment also offers a greater degree of fine control, or precision. For example, to simmer evenly at lower temperatures, an induction stove is the better choice. According to Consumer Reports, electric cooktops also win on speed, output, and surprisingly, broiling. (More gas units won on baking evenly, but over half of the electric models tested still scored excellent.) According to Consumer Reports, “Induction ranges routinely top our performance tests.”
Heat pumps also provide steadier, controllable heat and air conditioning, with no sudden variability. Heat pumps also provide a sort of two-for-one benefit when replacing furnaces, as they provide access to air conditioning through one piece of equipment. This additional functionality is especially helpful for vulnerable populations who may have had no air conditioning or less efficient window or portable units, as temperatures rise due to climate change.
Unlike gas equipment, electric appliances can be connected with solar systems and microgrids, and storage devices, to offer greater reliability in the event of outages.
The Financial Case for Electrification
The financial case for electrification at a societal level is a moving target in a positive direction, driven by technological evolution and revolution in renewable energy and storage, which is also driving rapidly falling renewable energy prices, and in energy efficiency related technologies. According to Evolved Energy Research, the cost to decarbonize has fallen by half in the past five years. Consider that the price of a watt of solar generated energy fell from $4 in 2000 to about 26 cents in 2020, dropping about 22% for every doubling in delivered modules. Battery storage prices drop about 20% for every doubling, so that a $1000 battery pack in 2000 would cost about $130 in 2020. These numbers change what we thought we could achieve and for what cost - or gain - even in the last few years, and they will keep improving.
In 2017, Stanford Professor Mark Z. Jacobsen and 26 colleagues from Stanford, Berkeley, Berlin and Denmark estimated that “kicking” fossil fuels could result in global energy savings of 42%. Surprisingly, only 7% of the savings relied upon energy efficiency reductions, due to the far greater efficiency of electric power over fossil fuels and the fact that so much global energy consumption is actually related to energy generation and delivery. This scenario also showed a gain of 25 million jobs, millions of lives saved, and trillions of dollars of savings in annual pollution and environmental costs.
In 2020, the 2035 Report Published by the UC Berkeley Goldman School of Public Policy, laid out a case and a path for the US to achieve 90% clean electricity nationwide at no extra cost to consumers by 2035, all while creating over 500,000 jobs annually reducing wholesale electricity prices by 10%, and also preventing early deaths and environmental harm. The challenge to this plan is that it’s not ebay and not a given; success requires aggressive federal clean energy standards, and significant technology investments, tax incentives, transition support for displaced workers, and changes to utilities markets. Some good news is that many states and cities have made a start with climate plans and related sustainable policies, and the Biden Administration is working to set an aggressive path to match President Biden’s pledges to cut electricity sector emissions to zero by 2035, and to achieve a carbon-free economy by 2035. Key to the President’s plans is tying together averting catastrophic climate change with achieving a successful cleaner economy we must be willing to strive for.
Rewiring America makes an excellent, current case for electrification in the US. When combined with producing 100% clean energy, the organization reports that the country would save $130 - to $321 billion in energy costs (not counting any environmental or health benefits), or $1050 - $2585 per year for every household, in every state, all while creating approximately 25 million clean energy related jobs. The Rewiring America team presents three scenarios, “business as usual” without significant changes to make electrification more affordable, a “good” scenario which includes regulatory changes and 2.9% financing for energy improvements, and a “great” scenario where interest rates are 2% and electrification becomes a national priority. In the great scenario, even without assuming occupant behavior change, households stand to save up to 57.8% of the current average home energy cost of approximately $4470 per year.
As Rocky Mountain Institute (RMI) reports, studies across different states and the United States as a whole are also increasingly pointing to electrification as the least-cost building sector solution for limiting climate change to 1.5C. In New Jersey and in California, results showed that going electric saved money and allowed for increased grid flexibility. RMI also produced study results that showed across 7 US cities that new all-electric single family homes are consistently less expensive over a 15-year period than their mixed-fuel counterparts. Across 7 cities (Austin, TX; Boston, MA; Columbus, OH; Denver, CO; Minneapolis, MN; New York City, NY; and Seattle, WA.) new all-electric, single-family homes were less expensive than new mixed-fuel homes that rely on gas for cooking, space heating, and water heating. Net present cost savings over the 15-year period of study were as high as $6,800 in New York City, where the all-electric home also produced 81 percent lower carbon emissions over the mixed-fuel home. Seattle won top savings at 93 percent, and Minneapolis, Columbus, Boston, and Austin all showed savings of more than 50 percent over the lifetime of the equipment. The Sierra Club’s 2019 findings of $4,000 - $10,000 savings over 20 years seem consistent with these findings. Sierra also calculated a $6000 new single family home and $1500 per multifamily building cost reduction for building all-electric.
Billions of dollars of savings of course sounds exciting, as does thousands per household, but a challenge can be that estimates and statistics compiled for society at large aren’t always as clear to everyone or as seemingly achievable at the individual level. People making decisions about their next heating system are not necessarily reading the 2035 report, and might not be motivated to make the optimal global or local environmental or even personal economically best solution if they don’t have information and if they don’t see and understand the direct, personal short and long term gains.
While electric technologies often do have higher up-front costs, it’s worth noting that lower operating costs and less frequent maintenance will most often show a net present value win for the electric decision. Financing is therefore critical to the Rewiring America analysis, as is a recognition that a decision tipping point is reached when the savings from electric equipment are greater than the cost to finance. The team at Rewiring America acknowledges the up front costs of major household system changes and addresses them head on, estimating that complete decarbonization would cost the average household approximately $70,000. For this reason, they conclude that low-cost financing is critical to the success of electrification efforts, particularly in the next 0 to 1- years. It may seem tempting to avoid people seeing this kind of a scary number, but that omission becomes a type of dishonesty in many electrification arguments, and it’s potentially harmful - as it misleads the reader trying to understand into thinking the savings are more obvious to most people and professionals than they are.
If the long term cost points to savings with electric technology, then this must be presented in a way that is appealing and gives credit to decision makers. And decision makers must be ready to learn. Electric Vehicles provide a case in point. Recent research and reporting help consumers understand that electric vehicles cost less over the lifetime of a vehicle, that many models are in fact competitive or even cheaper than gas-powered vehicles, and that they can also help reduce emissions. Armed with this information, buyers can more likely make a proper evaluation of both financial and environmental considerations. And, keeping the vehicle example, there are plenty of choices that provide win-wins, and in both the short and long term.
Overcoming Barriers to Electrification
According to Evolved Energy Research, “The actions required in the next 10 years are known with high confidence” and include the electrification of buildings and light duty vehicles as one of five core strategies on the path to net-zero emissions. “Over the coming years, we will be turning our attention and modeling capabilities towards these new research topics addressing, not just ‘what to do’ but ‘how best to do it.’" There is good reason for this confidence upon a review of recent research and reporting, and yet the challenge is clearly the “how” this transition or really transformation will occur. Thinking about it, it’s a little surprising that electrification seems to be a given among energy and policy experts, when this is also a concept the “rest of us” aren’t yet fully aware of.
A challenge is that the task of electrifying buildings is just that large. Approximately 70 million American homes burn natural gas for space or water heating. Almost half of US homes rely on natural gas as the main heating fuel, with roughly a third of homes using gas for cooking. Change at this magnitude would be difficult enough if everyone wanted to electrify, but the current lack of awareness and resistance to change remain significant obstacles. How do experts convince everyone in time to prevent the worst effects of climate change, and how do we pay for and finance this scale of change?
The convincing part should be easy enough, especially where the financing is favorable, and where politics don’t conflict with science. But lack of consumer awareness is a large barrier. Consumers most often think of changing major equipment in an emergency when it has broken down, and making a deliberative major appliance or system decision takes more time. During this equipment failure, the consumer might just find it easier to replace with a better version of what they have and not make some new change. And the consumer is likely to trust the service professional who has expertise, so awareness problems are larger if the provider isn’t informed. A recent California study illustrates the awareness problem. Although 70% of respondents prefer that their appliances be powered by clean electricity from renewable sources, 62% said they were not familiar with air-source heat pumps or heat pump water heaters, and only 53% said they were familiar with induction cookstoves. This gap shows a real current miss that can be resolved for great progress and impact.
Another problem is that people are stubborn and don’t like change. They’re used to the way they do things and learning or trying something new can seem like a lot of effort. There may also be anxiety or fear of new technologies. After being sold that gas was a better way to cook and was a cleaner fuel for decades, many consumers and even professionals do not wish to switch because they think electric cooking will not work as well for them. People are also used to their gas cars. The term “range anxiety” was coined to explain the fear of the range limits of electric vehicles. Some also worry that electric motors won’t be powerful enough to accomplish the tasks they are used to powering with fossil fuels.
Resistance to change might be an oversimplification, since there were real performance issues with HVAC heat pumps in the past, particularly that they did not operate as well in cold climates in the 1980’s. Advances in the past 10 and even 5 years have changed this equation, and some builders and consumers who are familiar with heat pumps just don’t fully trust the new technology yet. Today’s heat pumps are in fact 4-5 times more efficient than their gas counterparts.
Education is a key way to resolve problems of awareness and resistance, and there are a number of ways this can be addressed. Some states and energy related nonprofits are currently running or are soon to start consumer education programs. The ACEEE profiled 23 programs run by states, cities and utilities that focus on electric space heating alone. The Rate It Green Team reported on “MassCEC’s Clean Energy Lives Here” program as an example and a model for this type of education. As part of this awareness building, it’s important that educators introduce technologies and highlight core benefits, dispel myths, share real, inspiring case studies and examples of success, and encourage building owners and occupants with decision making power to plan in advance before equipment fails.
Education and training will be also needed for building professionals and for local building officials. These professionals are less likely to recommend or as readily approve equipment they do not have experience with or knowledge of. It will also be important to share next steps and any incentives and rebates during this type of training, so that opportunities for change are not missed. Professionals should also be rewarded for additional education, perhaps through existing or new recognition systems, such as appropriate accreditations. And finally, training should be made available for free or at reduced rates. Both the government and industry can play a role in raising the proficiency and knowledge of the workforce. Greater comfort with these technologies will translate to increased demand. Increased opportunities for training may also help with potential workforce shortages, as new electric technologies like complex HVAC systems and water heating equipment demand a new set of installer and technician skills. Additionally, even the best equipment will not be optimized if installed improperly.
The price of fossil fuels can present another barrier. Natural gas is often nominally cheaper than electricity, which is problematic as environmental and health costs society has to pay aren’t reflected in those values. Fossil fuels are often subsidized, so the comparison is not even 100% accurate. A gas line hook up that is incentivized isn’t really cheaper, as the ratepayers pay for this “discount” over time. Additionally, there can be hidden costs with fossil fuels, as rate payers have to pay to support system infrastructure. As buildings make the switch and electrify, remaining fossil fuel customers will have to pay more to sustain the system.
The calculation of costs can also often be short-sighted or just not complete. Gasoline for a car might not seem like so much per gallon, but the efficiency and lower maintenance of an electric vehicle can mean savings of about $100 per year on fuel and up to 10K saved over the life of the vehicle. A decisionmaker replacing a boiler might not know that a heat pump can both heat and cool in one piece of equipment instead of two, adding air conditioning where there was none previously, or saving significantly for new installations.
Costs are also frequently misaligned between stakeholders, and between time periods even for the same stakeholder. It’s not entirely reasonable to ask developers, builders and building owners to prioritize energy efficiency and electric systems when they do not receive all of the benefits of these improvements, and especially if their clients are not asking for these sustainable solutions. A homeowner or renter who will be paying a lifetime of higher bills might easily prefer a solution that is cheaper operationally, if they can pass the up front cost hurdle, but a builder will logically prioritize up front costs, as these are what they actually have to pay. The challenge between up front and the longer term also comes into play with equipment switching decisions. If a gas water heater seems more affordable “now,” the long-term energy savings may not matter as much to someone who has to manage what they can pay up front. A combination of financing and education, perhaps with some incentives, and help lead this decision maker to a more environmentally and even financially beneficial decision.
As critical as the need is to reduce dependence on fossil fuel use in buildings as as much as possible, and as quickly as possible, instant electrification isn’t likely or even feasible. First, the educational efforts for professionals and consumers need to work their magic, combined with incentives and sufficient financing, to increase demand significantly. This is aside from the question of when it makes the most sense to change currently working equipment in existing buildings. Next, there is a question about how easily and soon the electric grid can adjust to and maintain 100% electrification. Note that although electrification reduces total overall energy consumption, and by up to 21% by 2050 according to one estimate, it does increase electricity consumption by 38%, which is a significant system shift.
As an example of possible increases, EVs use a lot of energy, surprisingly about the same as the energy to power the average home. So if everyone fully electrified, or even just bought an EV, the load on the electric infrastructure would double, which would not work. Though it does seem that our electrical system might in theory be able to handle the load, the system would need significant upgrades to handle this capacity, both in the transmission lines that deliver electricity to buildings, and in the buildings themselves. The lines that feed most buildings are not large enough to deliver this much electricity, and countless individual electrical panels must be enlarged and services upgraded, a process which is costly and can not happen overnight.
The limitations of the speed of complete and immediate electrification explain why energy efficiency measures and increased renewable energy adoption are critical tools in support of and in partnership with building electrification. Fossil fuels don’t belong in buildings, but removing them as a part of a systemic solution makes the change possible and makes the most sense in terms of lowering emissions, reducing overall energy consumption, and protecting human and environmental health, in addition to the technological gains.
Electrification and Equity
Implementing equitable solutions for all is essential both for mitigating climate change and also to take needed steps to transition to a more just society. Put bluntly from a societal perspective, there is no meeting climate goals if everyone isn’t on board and able to do this work. From a social justice perspective, everyone deserves to benefit from a more sustainable and healthy place to live.
Lowering energy bills for low-income households is especially important as these residents spend a disproportionate amount of income on energy bills, averaging 13.9% of total annual income in comparison to 3% for other households. This disparity means that energy spending competes and often understandably loses to basic living, comfort, and health needs, including food, healthcare, and childcare related expenses. Additionally, lower income homes are more likely to be older and not in peak condition, and often need basic repairs in addition to energy efficiency upgragrades, and before energy efficiency improvements can even be fully leveraged. The best electrification and energy efficiency programs will therefore create win-wins where properties are improved for occupants, owners, and the public good all at the same time. Weatherization measures such as insulation and air sealing are a good example of improvements that reduce energy consumption and emissions while also improving occupant comfort.
It’s also important that the electrification process itself not cause a negative financial impact on lower income communities in a systemic sense. One risk is that as fewer buildings rely on gas infrastructure, customers who can not transition as rapidly will be left with the burden of higher fossil fuel infrastructure costs they are less likely to be able to pay.
Source: Resources Magazine
Every nation and department or level of government across the globe has a role to play in actively supporting electrification efforts and related energy efficiency and renewable energy measures. As the IPCC (Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change) made clear in its widely-known Special Report on Global Warming in 2018, to limit warming to 1.5 degrees, global greenhouse gas emissions must be reduced by about 45% by 2030, and reach 0 by mid century. Again, this transformation can not take place without significant electrification of both new and existing buildings. Current long-term emissions pledges by Paris Agreement signatories, if kept, would result in an approximately 2.1 to 2.5, or even 3 degree change. These numbers may be better than some previous 3 to 4+ degree estimates, but they still represent a significant concern as most countries, including 4 of the 5 top emitters are currently not on track to meet 2030 climate goals, and G20 countries, which represent more than 2/3 of global greenhouse gas emissions and approximately 80% of global GDP, have not revised their 2050 commitments or even backed up their 2030 targets with sufficient policies, funding plans, or actions.
Some experts have publicly doubted that stated 2030 Paris Agreement emissions reductions goals can be met. Bill Hare of Climate Analytics offers a challenge: “Short term targets are not a little bit off, they are totally off. Near-term action and policies need to be ramped up considerably.” But UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres seems fully ready to take up the charge. At the end of 2020, Mr. Guterres spoke optimistically about the near future, stating, “I firmly believe that 2021 can be a new kind of leap year — the year of a quantum leap towards carbon neutrality… "Every country, city, financial institution and company should adopt plans for transitioning to net zero emissions by 2050." Mr. Guterres reiterated his call recently, identifying 2021 as a “make or break” year, and asking for “credible, coherent plans” to cut emissions by 45% compared to 2010 levels, by 2030.”
Source: The Conversation
There are some reasons for optimism. Although the COVID-19 pandemic has been catastrophic to the global economy and has justifiably commanded the attention of policymakers, and the United States spent the past four years led at the federal level in a state of climate change denial, approximately 115 countries (and growing) have committed to becoming carbon neutral by 2050, including Britain, Japan and South Korea. The European Union has made the pledge, as has US President Biden. In 2020, China set a net zero goal of 2060. Net zero commitments doubled in 2020 despite the pandemic, and as a result more than 65 percent of global CO2 emissions, and over half of global GDP, now fall under these pledges.
Additionally, many US states and cities stepped in and took a leadership role during the previous administration. 33 US states have released a climate action plan or are in the process of developing or revising one. Further, over 8 US states, ten counties, and 170+ US cities have made 100% renewable energy commitments. Perhaps somewhat surprisingly, 1 in 3 people in the US already lives in a state or city transitioning to 100% clean energy. And starting with Berkeley California in 2019, over 40 cities now ban natural gas in new buildings, though this will be a politically contentious issue and faces challenges in some states.
With the federal government on board, US environmental and climate changes policies will only grow more responsible and stronger. President Biden is expected to make an announcement imminently on significant infrastructure and clean energy investments and a sustainable pandemic recovery, totalling in the trillions of dollars. To meet both federal and state priorities, there are a range of policies and actions that can properly require and further support electrification and related measures. Top mechanisms require further study and will continue to evolve, and priority may vary by level of government and location, but it’s clear that significant direct financial support, financing, and tax incentives are going to be key tools. It’s also important not to underestimate the power of giving people information and credit, so they can make informed decisions. Education campaigns will matter to drive adoption, as will professional training initiatives. Perhaps most important is a reminder that we must prioritize lower-income occupants and communities, and those impacted negatively by energy industry changes. Electrification and energy efficiency provide substantial benefits for society and communities, and there’s every reason to make these efforts only a win.
Top electrification policy options include, from politically easier to perhaps more challenging (comments welcome):
- “Educate everyone:” Education and training programs are essential, for building professionals, building occupants, and related government officials. More knowledge, tailored to the specific audience, will lead directly to increased demand. Special care should be taken to create opportunities for the hundreds of thousands of energy efficiency related workers who have lost jobs during the pandemic, as well as workers who will be displaced by a transition away from fossil fuels. Fortunately, clean energy jobs can often be a match for their energy related skill set and experience.
- Provide direct support to lower income occupants and for others who may be less able to take advantage of energy efficiency and electrification opportunities. Support might be in the form of service delivery or funding. Continue and expand the federal Weatherization Assistance Program and the State Energy program. Support efforts like the one in Maine to deploy over 100,000 heat pumps, with a focus on low-income homes. California also funded a $50 million pilot project to electrify appliances in 1,600 low-income houses. Another California program awarded $60 million in financial incentives for all-electric low-income housing. New York approved $500 million in heat pump incentives through 2025.
- Invite utilities to be part of the solution. Incentivize utilities to electrify and deliver energy efficiency. Utilities are already a part of
- Provide rebates and other financial incentives for building owners to electrify, upgrade, and weatherize existing buildings
- Provide highly favorable financing in the form of low-rate loans for electrification and energy efficiency improvements. New York offers three financing options for renewable and energy efficiency projects, including a creative on-bill option.
- Enable property assessed clean energy (PACE) loans, which act like a mortgage for long-term energy related improvements, that will become part of a building
- Consider electric rate benefits for those who install electric and efficiency equipment
- Provide incentives for builders and building developers to make electric and energy efficiency choices. It must be more beneficial for these professionals to make better energy and climate decisions.
- Fund additional research and development for electric and energy efficient building technology
- Protect and fully account for asset value. Make sure building owners have tools and information for evaluating electrification and energy efficiency related improvements. Make it easier for building owners to work with qualified, trained sustainable appraisal and real estate professionals.
- Support appliance and equipment efficiency standards that are in line with climate goals
- Support building and energy codes which are also consistent with climate goals. For example, California is considering going all-electric for new buildings (which may save up to $1 billion in gas infrastructure).
- Remove old policies which discourage fuel switching, where they exist. In many places, energy efficiency funds are not available when there will be a fuel type change.
- Increase transparency, also as a part of increasing or encouraging increased asset value. Require or support building energy scores or ratings, such as the Department of Energy’s Home Energy Score or RESNET’s HERS rating.
- Stop incentivizing any fossil fuel consumption in buildings. For example, gas connections should not be discounted.
- Support natural gas bans for new construction
- Consider gas appliance bans
- Do not build with gas for government buildings
- Put a price carbon: Once certain behavior becomes more expensive, change will be immediate and new investment will flow to lower-carbon solutions. Pricing carbon should be a bipartisan solution.
Get Ready to "Electrifify Everything"
Clearly, business as usual is not an option for building construction and operations. We can not reach carbon neutrality if we’re not actively decarbonizing, improving energy efficiency, and adding renewable energy, while we continue to improve the electric grid. This means that it’s time for every stakeholder to get on board. Governments at every level have to be willing to utilize a combination of carrots and sticks, to drive market demand and also require certain actions and minimum acceptable standards needed to ensure that commitments are met. Builders need to take advantage of opportunities to get educated about these new and exciting technologies and teach their clients in turn. And, consumers and occupants must also absorb this information and make responsible choices. It’s not enough to ask builders to carry the burden when they must make a living, but consumers simply don’t have information they have not been exposed to. We need to all join together to make and share the case for electrification and better and healthier buildings generally.
This shift has started and represents considerable opportunity for every stakeholder. This really is the decade of electrification, and the transformation is going to be impressive. It’s important that some experts sounded the alarm about missing goals. Now it’s up to policymakers, building professionals, and building occupants (all of us) to accept the challenge and make the changes needed to electrify buildings, as a critical component of building back a strong, sustainable economy for all, protecting human health and the environment, and saving people money in the process.
Thumbnail image: Guidehouse Insights
“We can have cleaner air, cleaner water, a livable climate, and save money while improving our user experience. It’s really that easy of a choice….Running our energy system on renewable electricity will save every family in America thousands of dollars per year, create tens of millions of jobs and make our lives way more awesome.”
-Saul Griffith, CleanTechnica (2018)
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Thanks for publishing this - the more we can get out about the need for electrification, the steps to take, and the perceived (and some real) obstacles, the better we will all be.
What I have experienced is a true lack of awareness of the need to move to electric. There is even a pervasive attitude that since the laws (e.g. the Climate Law in NY state) are aspirational there is no reason to do anything. now. It's as if the lack of step 1 step 2 requirement listing means we don't have to worry, yet.
We need MASSIVE innovations to occur to get to the level of climate responsible work we need in all sectors. We can only see our path forward by taking some steps, now. The law needs to remain aspirational so we are not limited. And we need to start doing the work on this immediately.
This is a great article and the headline shows what the benefit is to the consumer! I really like the term "electrification decade" too!By azdesertgreengal I Mar 30, 2021
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