Ever since the Green New Deal became a key talking point and policy goal of progressive politicians last year, there’s been a renewed push to make American homes and buildings better for the environment. For a growing number of municipalities and local leaders, part of the answer lies in shifting homes toward relying solely on electricity, instead of gas, for cooking, heating, and running appliances.
The current movement for U.S. municipalities to eliminate natural gas from homes first gained momentum in California. In 2018, the state’s then-governor, Jerry Brown, signed a pair of laws that funded research into reducing building emissions and developing clean heating technology.
Last July, Berkeley became the first U.S. municipality to sign a law banning the installation of natural gas lines in new buildings. Since then, more than 20 other California cities have passed similar laws, and local and state governments across the country have begun considering similar laws as part of their strategies to cut building emissions. Maine passed a bill last June providing funding to install new electric heat pumps in place of furnaces across the state, and Seattle Mayor Jenny Durkan said her city will unveil a plan in 2021 to make all new civic buildings fully electric.
“This is about what kind of technology can support the cities and homes that we want and need,” says Sage Welch, a spokesperson for the Building Decarbonization Coalition.
Already a trend overseas, especially in Europe—Amsterdam plans to completely eliminate domestic natural gas use by 2050—building electrification appears to be catching on in the U.S. The trend comes right as a series of new building codes, such as those introduced by New York’s Climate Mobilization Act, seek to cut emissions. But the switch also faces some significant headwinds, especially in the form of pushback from the natural gas industry, which is worried about future profits.
What’s the environmental impact of building electrification?
Mandating that new buildings, and any large building retrofits, avoid or replace gas infrastructure and install all-electric appliances won’t completely eliminate the use of natural gas in homes anytime soon. But electrification is a great tool for those seeking to start cutting carbon emissions. Buildings account for 40 percent of the energy used in the United States, according to the U.S. Energy Information Administration, and 39 percent of energy-related carbon emissions globally, according to the United Nations. The Rocky Mountain Institute estimates 70 million American households and businesses burn natural gas, oil, or propane for heating alone, generating 560 million tons of carbon dioxide emissions a year, or a tenth of the nation’s total emissions.
“Gas use in buildings presents a significant roadblock to cutting emissions,” according to Rachel Golden, deputy director of the Sierra Club’s building electrification initiative.
According to energy consulting firm E3, which receives part of its funding from utilities, if California as a whole adopted the standard of making all new and rebuilt buildings gas-free, emissions from these buildings could be cut 90 percent by 2050.
It’s important to note that building electrification won’t clean up the emissions and other environmental impacts of generating electricity. Advocates note that it’s as much about building the infrastructure for a zero-emission, renewable power system of the future as it is cutting out sources of carbon emissions now. The Sierra Club estimates that a third of the buildings in California that will exist in 2045 will be built between now and then; electrifying now will both cut emissions and help bolster the market for electric appliances.
Others say the building electrification push in California can also be a jobs creator. A UCLA Luskin Center for Innovation study, “California Building Decarbonization Workforce Needs and Recommendations,” found that retrofitting all of California’s buildings to be fully electric by 2045 could create more than 100,000 new jobs in construction, manufacturing, and energy, even after accounting for jobs lost in the gas industry. (It doesn’t, however, note the carbon emissions generated by the retrofitting work itself.)
What’s the consumer reaction?
Research from E3 has also shown that converting to all-electric will provide cost savings for most California homeowners, and the Rocky Mountain Institute’s study of building decarbonization in different climates shows that customers who have all-electric new homes will save money over the lifetime of their electric space and water heaters and air-conditioning systems, as will many homeowners in retrofit scenarios.
Electrification has also become a bigger issue as increases in renewable power generation lead to conversations about converting and updating our energy infrastructure and power grid. To make the large leap to creating an economy more dependent on wind and solar requires investments in modern power lines to bring electricity from where wind and solar power farms are located to where it’s needed. The California Energy Commission also found that, as gas demand decreases and gas infrastructure costs increase, gas prices will rise. (It predicts SoCalGas, the main utility in Southern California, could institute a 30 percent price increase between 2018 and 2022 alone.) There’s already significant gas infrastructure in the ground; how will maintenance and upkeep be paid for if gas use, and gas industry profits, decline?
For Golden and others, swapping out gas for electricity in homes has a benefit even if residents aren’t yet able to plug into a 100 percent clean energy grid. Grid updates and a wind-down of natural gas need to happen at the same time; Golden says there’s less greenhouse gas emissions from powering a heater with electricity generated by a natural gas plant than heating your house with natural gas pumped to your home, due to both the increased efficiency of electric heaters and the leakage of methane, a particularly potent greenhouse gas, throughout gas storage and transmission infrastructure.
Building new homes with all-electric infrastructure also provides benefits to builders, according to CR Herro, vice president of innovation for Meritage Homes, an Arizona-based homebuilder that has built numerous all-electric developments. Home electrification saves on upkeep and maintenance costs—it’s easier to maintain infrastructure for one fuel source instead of two—and ends up being cheaper to install. Meritage often takes some of the savings from not having to install gas pipes and uses it to upgrade its electric infrastructure, for example by picking more upscale convection ranges.
While electrification offers a double benefit of cheaper installation costs as well as cheaper energy costs over time, Herro cautions that consumers may still be unsure about losing their gas ranges when going all-electric. Electrifying home heating and appliances doesn’t bother homebuyers, but the loss of that familiar flame for cooking can cause consumer pushback, even though induction stoves are twice as energy efficient, and studies link gas stoves to poor indoor air quality and health issues, including higher risks of childhood asthma.
“Eventually, consumers see the advantages,” he says. “An electric heat pump can run more smoothly and efficiently than a gas heater—it operates more evenly, with less high temperature peaks—but people have preconceptions. They think in terms of a 1975 house, not a new house, and those two things shouldn’t be compared.”
The gas industry fights back
The recent push to gradually eliminate residential gas usage hasn’t gone unnoticed by the gas industry. A third of natural gas in the U.S. is used by residential and commercial buildings (the rest goes to power plants and industry), but these buildings generate 85 percent of the industry’s gross revenues. Building electrification hits the industry’s bottom line.
In the fall of 2018, right as then-Gov. Brown signed bills to support building decarbonization, SoCal Gas, a large California utility, was forming a group called Californians for Balanced Energy Solutions meant to battle the new legislative momentum.
According to reporting in The Guardian and the LA Times, the company hired public relations firms to create this campaign to fight building electrification, arguing that the switch would lead to higher costs. Representatives of the energy industry front group have made presentations at local government meetings and pushed communities to back resolutions supporting “balanced energy solutions,” and rejecting the move away from gas.
“The gas industry is extremely alarmed at the progress we’ve made in the last year,” says Golden.
Gas industry reps aren’t the only ones suggesting that legislators slow down. Herro says that some of the proposed legislation that mandates retrofitting old homes with all-electric systems wastes perfectly good existing infrastructure and over the long term may not be as effective at reducing carbon emissions as hoped.
“There have been billions of dollars invested in gas infrastructure that goes to commercial and residential properties,” he says. “Environmentalists who want to scrap that and spend the resources to build new infrastructure are being really inefficient from a sustainability perspective. It’s become such a buzzword. Retrofits can be rushed, and sometimes older neighborhoods don’t have the electrical capacity to swap out all the gas-powered devices with electricity.”
Environmentalists would argue there’s no time to wait, considering the key role electrification can play in meeting emissions reductions targets. For California to meet its goal of being carbon neutral by 2045, the Sierra Club says local and state leaders need to start scaling up now, since appliances have a multi-decade lifespan, and new policies need to be put in place to help everyone, including low-income homeowners and renters.
“Gas use in homes and building is going to be a roadblock to stabilizing the climate if we don’t start switching soon,” says Golden.