Across the U.S. economy, gas has now surpassed coal as a source of the carbon dioxide emissions that drive climate change.
Nationally, 25% of homes use electricity as their main heating source. But in the Interior West, only 13.9% of homes are heated by electricity, and gas and other fossil fuels are used to heat about 77% of all homes – the highest proportion in the nation. In fact, homes and other buildings account for about 12% of all greenhouse gas emissions in the United States – from furnaces, hot water heaters, and gas stoves, among other sources. Not only do these appliances emit carbon pollution into the atmosphere, they create harmful indoor air pollution and cost consumers more over time. Fortunately, there are more efficient, healthier options, and we can make a big difference simply by transitioning our homes and office buildings to electric power instead of gas.
What is Building Electrification?
Most buildings in the United States rely on several sources of fuel. Electricity powers lights, appliances, computers and other electronic devices, and often, air conditioning. Many furnaces, boilers, kitchen cooktops, and water heaters run on gas or propane. Building electrification is the shift to all-electric buildings – powered by wind, solar, and other sources of clean electricity.
But current electricity rate structures are typically a barrier in this effort to shift to all-electric homes and businesses across the West. Limited awareness of healthy alternatives and lack of financing options and skilled labor to install efficient electric technologies are also barriers. Western Resource Advocates is working with utilities and regulators to find ways to overcome these challenges by incorporating building electrification into comprehensive plans for structuring electricity rates and creating market transformation options to free up financing resources and prepare the workforce to install these technologies.
Health Benefits of Building Electrification
A growing body of research shows that indoor air pollution may be higher than outdoor levels, with serious health consequences. Gas stoves can be a big source of indoor air pollution, and studies suggest that children and low-income households are at greater risk of health problems due to emissions from gas stoves. Gas combustion produces PM2.5, one of the most harmful forms of air pollution, as well as nitrogen oxides, carbon monoxide, and formaldehyde.
According to a 2020 public health research review by scientists at the University of California at Los Angeles, those pollutants have been associated with respiratory problems, including increased incidence of asthma among children, and pose cardiovascular, carcinogenic, and neurological risks.
Barriers to Building Electrification
What’s holding us back from transitioning buildings away from fossil fuels? There is already considerable economic potential for shifting to efficient electric space heating, according to a 2018 report by the Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory for the U.S. Department of Energy. But even though electric heat pump technologies have been available for years, buildings are designed and built within a market context that has historically emphasized natural gas — which means architects, appliance distributors and contractors are more familiar with gas as the conventional technology. Plus, many people are unaware of the harmful effects of indoor air pollution and the benefits of switching to electric heat pumps and appliances.
Retrofitting existing buildings that have gas furnaces and appliances can be expensive. And even though it is cheaper to build all-electric buildings, local building codes can deter construction of fully electric buildings or may incentivize natural gas use. Even the way electric utility rates are currently designed can pose problems when planning for increased demand from electrified buildings.
To address those issues, WRA is working to implement innovative solutions in rate design such as time-of-use rates that help ratepayers with lower prices for electricity at off-peak times, incentivizing energy efficiency and “smart” home technology that allows homeowners to automatically adjust energy use by appliances and heating or cooling systems according to their needs and preferences and encouraging electricity market designs that reward flexibility by allowing home renewable energy generation and electric vehicle battery power to receive incentives or even help fuel the power grid. WRA is also collaborating on new programs to help customers finance electric technologies to replace gas, and to train the workforce to install heat pumps for water and space heating.
How Can Building Electrification Help Fight Climate Change?
Electrifying buildings can help decrease the emissions that drive climate change. For example, replacing gas stoves with electric or induction stoves, substituting electric water heaters for gas ones, and installing heat pumps to replace gas furnaces would dramatically decrease emissions from existing buildings.
Communities can also make a big difference by offering incentives or updating building and permitting standards to support construction of new buildings that are all electric. All-electric homes are less expensive and cheaper to build, according to recent study by Synapse Energy Economics. Another report, commissioned by Community Energy, found that the upfront cost to build new residential buildings with electric furnaces and water heaters is about 25% cheaper than using natural gas. Using all-electric equipment in new building construction avoids the need for gas line installation, metering, piping, and venting equipment. Heat pumps also increase energy efficiency, which helps consumers save on their utility bills.
As we work to reduce fossil fuel emissions that pose health risks and contribute to climate change, building electrification will be an important part of a multi-pronged effort that includes transitioning electric utilities toward renewable energy and expanding the acceptance of electric cars, trucks, and other vehicles.