Electric Buildings: The Next Step Toward a Clean Energy Future

To create a 100 percent renewable energy system, we know we need to generate electricity with renewable sources like the sun and wind and switch to electric vehicles, but there's another place where big changes are needed: our homes and businesses. To the detriment of our health and climate, more than half of all energy used in homes and over a third of commercial energy comes in the form of fossil fuels we burn directly in our buildings.

Transitioning from gas and oil to electricity is our best chance to reduce the pollution that comes from heating air and water and powering appliances in America’s buildings. Our new report, Electric Buildings, finds that the technology to transition to 100 percent electric buildings exists today, though strong public policies will be needed to make the switch in time to address climate change.

Today’s electric appliances and heating systems are vastly improved from those that proliferated during the energy crunch of the late 1970s and early 1980s. Modern, highly efficient heat pumps have largely replaced electric resistance heaters in powering homes and are now effective in temperatures as low as -12°F. For cooking, the glowing coils of electric stoves are being supplanted by induction stovetops that heat food by flowing an electric current through the metal in pans. Cooking on induction stovetops has been shown to be more precise, faster and safer than cooking on gas stoves. It’s no wonder that Michelin star restaurants around the world are installing induction ranges.

The development of these new electric technologies could not have come at a better time. Our electricity grid is getting cleaner at a rapid pace. Today, America produces 40 times more solar power than in 2009 and three times as much wind energy.  Energy from the wind and sun now makes up nearly 10 percent of the nation’s electricity supply. With nearly unlimited potential, falling costs, favorable incentives and improving technologies, renewable energy is poised to transform America’s energy system.

Yet, three out of four American homes currently use fossil fuels for heat, hot water cooking and other purposes – threatening the environment and our health. Replacing the fossil fuel systems in those buildings with systems capable of using renewably generated electricity will be a heavy lift, but it will also bring tremendous benefits.

Gas stoves emit a variety of unhealthy pollutants, such as nitrogen dioxide, carbon monoxide and formaldehyde, which can exacerbate respiratory issues and lead to heart disease and cancer. Boilers and heaters also produce air pollutants, and it has been estimated that burning fossil fuels in our buildings produces 12 percent of urban particulate pollution in the U.S. Particulate pollution has been linked to permanent lung damage in children, increased risk of certain types of dementia in older Americans, premature death and more. 

Beyond the health effects, the system of extracting, transporting and burning fossil fuels in our buildings is a major contributor to climate change.  In 2017, fossil fuel combustion in U.S. homes and businesses produced 533 million metric tons of greenhouse gases, accounting for 8 percent of total U.S. greenhouse gas emissions and equivalent to the annual emissions of over 115 million cars.[1] This number does not capture the total lifecycle impact of fossil fuels use in homes and businesses. Methane, the main component of natural gas, is a greenhouse gas up to 84 times more potent than carbon dioxide over a 20-year period, and more than 14 million tons of it leaked in 2015 throughout the oil and gas supply chain.[2]

We no longer have to settle for the health and climate impacts of burning fossil fuels – especially within our own homes and workplaces. Electric systems and appliances are here today and can efficiently and affordably heat and power our buildings. Indeed, for new construction, all-electric homes are now cost-effective in many places compared with gas. It is no wonder that cities across the country, such as Berkeley, California, are adopting bans on natural gas in new construction. Still, with tens of millions of existing buildings operating on fossil fuels, it will take aggressive public policies to repower our buildings with clean electricity at the pace the climate crisis demands.

It is time for our homes and businesses to be included in the transition to a 100 percent renewable energy system. With smart public policy, we can create a healthier present and a more secure future.  

Photo credit: Kristoferb at English Wikipedia [CC BY-SA 3.0]

[1] Car equivalent was calculated by dividing 533 million metric tons by the EPA estimate for annual emissions from a typical passenger vehicle (4.6 metric tons). This figure does not include emissions from the extraction, processing and transportion of fossil fuels used in homes and businesses.

[2] Note: Number of tons leaked was calculated by converting teragrams to U.S. tons using the conversion multiplier of 1.102e+6.