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Building Electrification: The Road Ahead to a Decarbonized Future

By Aishik Saha, Climate Writer

Buildings

Buildings are responsible for 28% of the country’s energy consumption and greenhouse gas emissions. Cutting down on these emissions is essential to meeting our overall climate goals and preventing cataclysmic climate change. The positive news is that the technology for building electrification not only exists, but it is also actually less expensive than the alternatives.

What is Building Electrification?

American buildings usually operate on a combination of fuels for heating and cooking. Most commonly these uses rely on fossil fuels. Building electrification is the shift away from these uses toward electrical alternatives to cut down on carbon emissions. This includes the use of electric equipment and appliances like induction cooktops, heat-pump water heaters, heat pump heating and air ventilation (HVAC) etc. The New Buildings Institute published the Building Electrification Technology Roadmap, which outlines 4 key end uses that can be electrified.

  • Space Heating: The electrification of building heating systems has been difficult due to the existence of a wide variety of heating systems. Heat pumps have become extremely attractive for decarbonization as contemporary models can be over 4 times more efficient than gas furnaces. The relative rise in gas prices due to market volatility has meant that the more energy-efficient models of heat pumps have longer-term economic benefits for consumers.
  • Water Heating: Heat pump water heaters (HPWHs) can also decrease fossil fuel dependence. Of the total natural gas use in California’s single-family homes, 40% is devoted to water heating. Given that HPWHs have been reliably used for decades at this point, there is immense scope for rapid electrification.
  • Cooking: Finally, induction cooking technology can reduce emissions and improve air quality at the same time. The reduction in up to 7% of residential gas usage adds to the other benefits associated with induction cooking such as superior controllability, user experience, and health benefits.
  • Clothes Drying and Laundry: In comparison to conventional gas or electric resistance dryers, heat pump dryers use only 50% as much energy. On the other hand, combo washer/dryer facilities are also promising technology that is in wide use across Europe.


The Benefits of Building Electrification

While there are some technological and logistical challenges to building electrification there are specific and tangible benefits to it in the short and long terms.

  • Reduction in Emissions: US homes produce 600 million tons of CO2 every year. This is a significant contribution to the global climate crisis, which must be eliminated for the US states and cities to meet their ‘Deep Decarbonization’ goals. Building electrification is a major step in that direction.
  • Improved Health Outcomes: In the US, gas appliances, which produce a variety of air pollutants, are found in more than half of all homes. Because of this, the air inside, where people spend nearly 90% of their time, is frequently more polluted than the air outside. Nitrogen Dioxide (NO2) concentrations in homes using gas stoves can be four times over homes with electric stoves. Children in such homes have a 42% higher likelihood of suffering from symptoms of asthma.
  • Lower Expenses: The construction of an all-electricity building already costs less than mixed-fuel buildings since a single heat pump can account for heating, cooling, and water heating requirements. In comparison to gas appliances, heat pumps also significantly reduce carbon and energy consumption, which lowers the yearly utility cost for an all-electric home.
  • Job Creation: According to a report by Rewiring America, an aggressive all-electric transition could create up to 25 million jobs in the short run and 5 million jobs that will be viable over a long time. A majority of these jobs would be in “high road” industries, which pay significantly better as workers develop greater skill sets.
  • Improved Outcomes for Low-Income Families and Communities of Color: Air pollution has disproportionately adverse effects on low-income families and people of color. At the same time African American, Latino, and low-income households pay disproportionately high energy costs. Both these problems could be addressed by equitable building electrification including low or no-cost transitions. Building electrification will result in improved indoor air quality, healthier homes, and better jobs. Additionally, it increases the availability of inexpensive clean energy and lowers the monthly energy costs for affected communities.
  • Increasing Costs of Gas Infrastructure: While it is anticipated that the price of highly efficient electric appliances like heat pumps will keep falling, the expense of maintaining the deteriorating US gas infrastructure is rising. Customers are expected to pay off these costs of the gas infrastructure for the next 50 years, though we are aware that emissions must be eliminated. States can spend more money on developing their electricity grid and renewable energy sources by phasing out gas instead of pouring billions into maintaining gas pipelines.
  • Gas Alternatives Lack Viability: While Renewable Natural Gas (RNG) like biomethane has been pitched as an alternative to the existing gas infrastructure, it cannot meet existing demands. Alternatives like synthetic methane and hydrogen are significantly more expensive than electric solutions that currently exist.

The most affordable and risk-free method of phasing out fossil fuels from buildings is electrification. Eliminating emissions is a crucial step toward a 1.5°C future, and electrifying homes and businesses also have numerous additional health and financial advantages. Electrification policies are gaining steam all across the country and many companies are offering low-cost electrification solutions. It is easier than ever to go electric.