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Woman is checking to see if the air conditioner is cooling. She is holding the remote to the air conditioner and raised her hand to check temperature.

How Congress Can Accelerate Zero-Emissions Homes

Major Federal Infrastructure Bill Offers Key Opportunity to Invest in Clean, Electric Buildings

The Biden administration has set an ambitious goal of cutting greenhouse gas emissions at least in half by 2030 to help avoid the worst impacts of climate disruption. As a result, 2021 may be the year the federal government finally acts to curb one of the largest sources of those emissions: the gas used for space and water heating and cooking in millions of buildings across the country.

Meeting this climate commitment requires a major transition away from gas equipment to efficient electric alternatives in both new construction and retrofits across the US buildings sector. As negotiations intensify over a major federal infrastructure package, Congress has a prime opportunity to help accelerate the transition to clean, electric appliances. US Senator Martin Heinrich is leading the charge with a new bill that addresses a key policy gap: incentives for efficient electric homes and appliances.

 

Getting Homes to Zero Emissions

As the weather recently boiled over in the Pacific Northwest with deadly consequences, Americans became interested in installing heat pumps for air conditioning. The efficient two-way devices are an attractive option because they can cool, heat, and reduce climate-disrupting pollution. Electric appliances like heat pumps, along with deep retrofits for improving efficiency and enabling grid-interactivity, are the key to decarbonizing our buildings. However, the upfront cost of these upgrades is often a barrier for consumers.

A typical home might need four categories of upgrades in order to decarbonize:

  1. Health and safety repairs (lead, mold, broken windows, leaking roofs, etc.)
  2. Energy efficiency and weatherization (building envelope, insulation, windows, lighting, etc.)
  3. Electric system upgrades (wiring, circuit breaker box, etc.)
  4. Appliance replacement (space heater, water heater, stove, dryer, etc.)

While these investments will pay immediate dividends through reduced energy costs, improved comfort, superior performance, and tremendous health benefits, the upfront cost can be intimidating. Enter Heinrich and 11 Senate cosponsors, whose Zero-Emission Homes Act supports the shift to electric appliances and decarbonized homes.

The Zero-Emission Homes Act would help consumers by providing up to $10,000 in rebates, or $14,000 in the case of low-and-moderate income (LMI) households, with a particular focus on the space heater, water heater, and electric system. The contractor performing these upgrades would also be eligible for $250 to $500 in bonuses. These incentives are critical to accelerate investment in high-performing homes and appliances and ensure that households without the capital needed to transition off fossil fuels by themselves can act.

As we detailed in a recent blog, a suite of tax credits could spur the creation of family-supporting jobs through climate-aligned new construction and deep retrofits for affordable housing and low-income families. Heinrich’s bill would supercharge that market by making rebates available to every family across the country for upgrading and electrifying their homes and appliances, with increased incentives available for LMI households.

 

Cheaper Bills, More Jobs, Better Health

The impact of the Zero-Emission Homes Act across the country would be staggering. A recent report from Rewiring America compiled data for each of the 50 states and the District of Columbia:

  • 103 million households could save $37.3 billion a year on energy bills if they were using modern, electrified space and water heaters instead of their current heating appliances.
  • Electrification would create nearly half a million installation jobs in the United States. In addition, it would further generate 80,000 manufacturing jobs and 800,000 indirect and induced jobs.
  • Electrifying these appliances would help address the 42 percent increased risk of asthma symptoms for children who live in homes with gas stoves. Lower-income households may be disproportionately impacted, with increased pollution exposuredue to smaller and older homes.

Congress can include funding for a program to capture these benefits in budget reconciliation discussions, along with the suite of tax credits. But such incentives are just a start, particularly for those households and communities that have been subject to discrimination like redlining and that are most burdened by high energy and housing costs.

The Biden Administration has committed to a “goal of delivering 40 percent of the overall benefits of relevant federal investments to disadvantaged communities” through the Justice40 initiative. Funding through policies like the Zero-Emission Homes Act need to go at least that far to ensure overburdened and underserved communities can be first to transition off gas and other fossil fuels while reducing energy and housing costs.

A major federal investment in US infrastructure must prioritize safeguarding our communities against the impacts of climate change, with a particular focus on these underserved communities. Helping consumers live and work in buildings that operate free from fossil fuels is an important step forward that deserves the support of Congress at this critical juncture.