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Electric buildings: Replacing fossil fuels for the public good

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In his first few weeks in office, President Joe Biden has signed a slew of climate-related executive orders, cancelling pipelines, protecting public lands and creating task forces. After four years of resistance to climate action, it’s a breath of fresh air.

But America’s dependence on fossil fuels and our contribution to global warming can’t be signed away with the stroke of a pen. Decarbonizing America will have to happen town by town, block by block and home by home over the course of years or decades. Electrifying our buildings is a key step along the way.

In the United States, direct combustion of fossil fuels accounts for more than half of all energy used in homes and at least 34% of all energy used in commercial buildings. In 2018, fuel combustion in U.S. homes and businesses produced 590 million metric tons of CO2 equivalent, accounting for almost 9% of total U.S. greenhouse gas emissions.

All those emissions are not just contributing to global warming – they’re literally killing us. The air pollution produced by equipment like gas stoves and furnaces increases the risk of developing heart disease, respiratory problems and cancer. Air pollution has even been associated with increased risk of contracting and dying from infectious diseases, and has been shown to increase the spread and mortality rate of COVID-19. One study found that cooking on a gas stove could result in air quality that would be illegal under outdoor air quality standards.

But there is a solution. Every fossil fuel-burning appliance and system in our buildings has an electric alternative – an alternative that is often more effective, lasts longer, and can even save owners money on utility bills. Heat pumps, which use electricity to move thermal energy into or out of a building, are several times more efficient than fossil fuel-powered furnaces. Heat pump water heaters are similarly efficient, and often last longer than fossil fuel versions. And new induction stoves cook faster and are more precisely controlled than gas stoves, without the pollution or the risk of explosions or gas leaks.

As a study by the Rocky Mountain Institute showed, building new homes with all electric systems is cheaper in every region of the country than building them with fossil fuel systems, and retrofitting homes when oil or gas systems need replacement can often save owners money.

Okay – so going electric in our homes and businesses can make us healthier and make our lives easier. But how much does it do for the climate?

In Electric Buildings, our report on the benefits of building electrification, we analyzed National Renewable Energy Laboratory estimates of the amount of energy used in various electrification scenarios over time. That analysis showed that switching to electricity to power our homes and businesses could cut more than 306 million metric tons of CO2 in 2050, or more than 50% of the emissions from buildings in 2018. If we simultaneously switched to renewable energy as we electrified buildings – thereby zeroing out emissions resulting from the generation of electricity – we could cut out a staggering 416 million metric tons of CO2 in 2050.

We also found that electrifying buildings could reduce our consumption of gas by more than 7 trillion cubic feet in 2050, a reduction equivalent to 82% of the gas consumed by the residential and commercial sectors in 2019. Along with the health benefits already discussed, cutting gas usage also means less risk of injury and death associated with transporting it across the country and through our communities, and means we don’t have to pollute our land, air and water to extract it.

But governments and policymakers have an important role to play in hastening building electrification. There are almost 140 million housing units in the U.S., and about 5.6 million commercial buildings. Lack of awareness about the benefits and effectiveness of current electric technology, high upfront costs and outdated regulations are slowing down and discouraging the transition to electricity. Policymakers at the local, state and federal levels need to:

  • Require all-electric systems in new construction;
  • Implement rebate programs, incentives and low-cost financing;
  • Improve utility rate design and allow utility energy efficiency programs to incentivize electrification and support fuel-switching incentives to cover electric options;
  • Create and expand tax incentives for electrified buildings;
  • Require building energy transparency and implement building performance standards that limit carbon emissions;
  • Educate developers, contractors, retailers and consumers about options for, and benefits of, electrification, and;
  • Update appliance efficiency standards.

Building electrification is good for everyone: saving many consumers money, making people more comfortable, protecting public health, reducing emissions and eliminating many of the harmful effects of fossil fuel extraction and transportation. Smart public policy can help us all enjoy the benefits of building electrification more quickly – and make a big contribution toward fighting global warming.

A heat pump compressor on the outside of a home. Photo credit: Gary Cziko via Flickr, CC BY-NC 2.0