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Eight Benefits of Building Electrification for Households, Communities, and Climate
Buildings account for 28 percent of the United States’ energy use and greenhouse gas emissions—and we need to halve our emissions in a decade and eliminate them completely by 2050 in order to meet the Paris Agreement goal to limit global warming to 1.5°C. But more than half of American homes rely on gas or other fossil fuels as their primary heating or cooking fuel, which produces carbon dioxide (CO2), carbon monoxide (CO), sulfur dioxide (SO2), nitrogen oxides (NOx), methane, and many other harmful compounds.
Building electrification is the movement to shift away from fossil fuels—like gas—toward clean electricity for heating and cooking. All-electric homes deliver climate, health, and economic benefits to Americans and are a crucial component of the clean energy future that should not be overlooked.
Below are eight facts about building electrification that can help move cities, states, and the country away from burning fossil fuels in buildings:
Building Electrification Is a Key Part of the Solution for Climate Change and Reducing Emissions
Seventy million American homes and businesses burn gas, oil, and propane for heating space and water and cooking food, generating 600 million tons of CO2 each year. Factoring in the latest estimates of methane leakage, that number rises to nearly 1 billion tons of CO2 equivalent—a significant chunk of the emissions that drive the climate crisis. To avoid the worst consequences of climate change and for US states and cities to meet their “deep decarbonization” climate goals, we must eliminate carbon pollution from gas furnaces, water heaters, and other fossil fuel-powered appliances in homes. Electrification is the only established way to accomplish this.
Building Electrification Creates Healthy Homes and Living Environments
More than half of all US households have gas appliances, which emit a wide range of air pollutants. As a result, the air indoors—where people spend nearly 90 percent of their time—is often more polluted than outdoor air. In fact, homes with gas stoves have nitrogen dioxide (NO2) concentrations that are 50 percent to over 400 percent higher than in homes with electric stoves.
Additional pollutants such as CO, particulate matter, and formaldehyde from gas appliances can all cause negative health effects, often exacerbating respiratory conditions like asthma and allergies. Children living in homes with gas stoves are 42 percent more likely to suffer asthma symptoms than those living in homes with electric stoves. Furthermore, exposure to NO2 pollution can exacerbate susceptibility to severe health outcomes during public health incidents, like the current COVID-19 pandemic.
Building All-Electric Homes Is Less Expensive Than Building Homes with Fossil Fuel Appliances
RMI research has shown that building a new all-electric, single-family home is less expensive than a new mixed-fuel home that relies on gas, regardless of location. This is because mixed-fuel homes have gas furnaces, water heaters, air conditioning, and new gas connections (which carry a median price tag of nearly $9,000). The all-electric home, by comparison, uses a single heat pump system for both heating and cooling, as well as a heat pump water heater. Heat pumps also provide significant carbon and energy savings over gas appliances, resulting in a lower annual utility cost for the all-electric home.
Electrifying Buildings Can Create Thousands of Good, Family-Supporting Middle-Class Jobs
An all-electric transition that includes electric vehicles and solar panel installation can create up to 25 million jobs in the near term and an estimated 5 million jobs sustained over time—roughly double the number of jobs supported by today’s energy industry.
A report released by UCLA’s Luskin Center for Innovation found that building electrification in California alone will boost employment in the construction, energy, and manufacturing industries, supporting more than 100,000 jobs—eight times as many jobs as would be lost in the gas sector as it is phased out. The right electrification policies can build a just transition for these gas workers as well. Furthermore, three out of every five jobs required to meet building electrification goals would be in “high-road” sectors, where firms compete on the basis of skill, experience, and qualifications, and where worker pay tends to be higher.
Building Electrification Can Be a Transformative, Positive Force for Low-Income Residents and Communities of Color
Air pollution disproportionately impacts low-income communities and communities of color. Because buildings contribute to this dangerous air pollution, building electrification can help improve indoor and outdoor air quality for these communities. Furthermore, low-income, African American, and Latino households bear disproportionate energy cost burdens—three times as high as other homes. Equitable building electrification—through programs that offer electric appliances at low or no cost, energy efficiency programs, and building upgrades—can reduce this energy burden.
Building electrification will bring cleaner air, healthier homes, good jobs, and empowered workers. It also expands access to affordable clean energy and energy efficiency to reduce monthly energy bills for pollution-burdened communities—all while helping states meet their climate goals.
Gas Infrastructure Costs Are Soaring
While the cost of highly efficient electric appliances like heat pumps is projected to continue declining, the cost of maintaining the aging US gas infrastructure is increasing. These gas infrastructure costs are passed directly on to customers, who are expected to pay them off over the next 50-plus years—long past the point at which we know we need to have eliminated emissions. It’s not only that heat pumps are cheaper—continuing to invest in gas creates a big financial and equity problem down the road. By phasing out gas, states can invest more financial resources into expanding their electricity grid and renewable energy sources, rather than pouring billions into maintaining gas pipelines.
Additionally, many states are rethinking the role of gas in their energy mix—especially gas that is burned on-site for heating and cooling in homes. Last year, states representing roughly a quarter of the nation’s direct gas usage began processes to manage a transition off of their gas systems, and even major utilities and financial institutions have announced that they no longer view gas as a long-term part of the energy mix.
Gas Alternatives Are Not Sufficient
“Renewable” natural gas (RNG) usually refers to biomethane that is created from sources such as wastewater, landfill methane, or agricultural waste and then pumped into the existing natural gas grid. RNG is expensive to develop, and at best it can only meet a small fraction of gas demand. Research overwhelmingly shows that RNG is likely to remain too limited and costly to decarbonize the buildings sector. It could only replace 3 to 12 percent of the existing demand for gas and is 4 to 17 times more expensive than fossil gas. Furthermore, because RNG supplies are limited, the best use of RNG will likely be in hard-to-decarbonize sectors such as industrial processes that cannot be easily electrified.
Other alternatives, like hydrogen or synthetic methane, have also been touted by the gas industry as alternatives for decarbonizing buildings. These technologies face steep cost and infrastructure challenges to scale up, and they would ultimately require more electricity generation to produce than would be needed for an all-electric buildings sector.
Building Electrification Is Gaining Momentum across the United States
In less than two years, 40 cities and counties across California have passed local building electrification policies to phase out gas and ensure that new homes and buildings are equipped with highly efficient electric appliances for heating, cooling, and cooking. Other cities are considering similar electrification policies, and states—including Colorado, Massachusetts, New Jersey, and California—feature electrification as a key component of their decarbonization plans.
All-electric construction is already the standard in many US states. Nearly 60 percent of new homes nationwide are built all-electric, and more new homes use heat pumps than any other technology. Moreover, the latest polls show that Americans strongly support transitioning the United States to clean sources of energy, and they believe that moving away from natural gas will benefit their communities.
As these facts show, building electrification is the most cost-effective and lowest-risk solution to phase fossil fuels out of buildings. Electrifying homes and businesses eliminates emissions—a crucial step toward a 1.5°C future—and brings an array of additional health and economic benefits. With electrification gaining momentum across the United States and cost-effective, efficient technologies like heat pumps already widely available, the future of all-electric buildings looks increasingly bright.