Home Energy Management Flip the Switch: Healthy Buildings Key to Climate Success

Flip the Switch: Healthy Buildings Key to Climate Success

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Alejandra Mejia Cunningham

Buildings—including our homes and places of work—are responsible for one third of the fossil gas (a.k.a. “natural” gas) consumed in the United States each year. We burn gas and other fossil fuels like oil and propane inside buildings largely to heat the rooms and the water inside them. That adds up to 12 percent of the country’s yearly greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions. Fortunately, efficient electric technology is readily available to replace our old, dirty fossil fuel-burning heating appliances. An NRDC fact sheet released explains how this transition that is crucial to fighting the climate crisis can also make our communities healthier and more economically robust.

Because America’s electricity supply is cleaner than ever and is expected to become even less polluting in the coming years, replacing fossil fuel-powered appliances and equipment with versions that run on electricity is the most effective and economic way to eliminate GHG emissions from buildings. And the technology to do this already exists. Today’s advanced electric heat pump equipment is three to five times more efficient than typical gas equipment for heating water and indoor spaces—and readily available to serve home heating needs across the country.

Switching to efficient electric heating systems and appliances powered by pollution-free electricity could cut U.S. carbon emissions by 1 billion tons annually. This switch—replacing gas furnaces, boilers, water heaters, stoves, and clothes dryers with highly efficient electric appliances that can run on 100 percent clean electricity—alongside efforts to continue reducing energy waste in buildings, is known as “building decarbonization” or “beneficial electrification.”

Beneficial electrification can even drastically reduce the energy demand of older buildings that were already built all-electric and ease stress on the electric grid during the extreme weather events that will become increasingly frequent as climate change intensifies. More than two thirds of home heating in the Southeast of the United States is provided by inefficient electric resistance heaters. Weatherizing those homes and upgrading them to highly efficient heat pumps would drastically cut residential energy demand, helping avoid blackouts like those that recently happened in Texas the next times a winter storm sweeps through the area.

What Needs to be Done Today

The transition away from using fossil fuels in buildings will take many years, but because buildings and the equipment within them can last for decades, we must begin making the right policy decisions now.

  1. Lead with equity: Ensure Black, Indigenous, and People of Color (BIPOC) and other marginalized communities are part of the decision-making process and receive sustained and sufficient direct support, so that historically underserved communities are prioritized and benefit from the transition away from fossil fuel appliances. The transition to healthy all-electric buildings will benefit everyone only if it also comes with improved affordability and stability for under-resourced communities.
  2. Stop digging the hole: Adopt building energy codes that reflect the health and cost advantages of all-electric new construction; avoid wasting resources on new fossil fuel infrastructure that is at odds with meeting climate goals and could saddle Americans with decades of unnecessarily high energy costs.
  3. Support clean heating technology market development at all levels of government: The federal government should make investments and set standards to accelerate the deployment and further development of highly efficient clean heating technologies. State and local policy makers can complement these efforts by realigning energy efficiency policies to focus on longer-term emissions-reduction goals and establishing other sources of support for transforming existing buildings to cut energy waste and reduce emissions in their communities.

A Bright, Healthy, and Equitable Future

All-electric buildings are key to addressing the climate crisis. They will also make our homes and families healthier. Gas stoves release air pollutants that can exacerbate existing respiratory and health conditions. If stoves are not properly vented, studies have found, cooking with gas can increase by as much as 42 percent the risk that children living in the home will experience asthma symptoms.

Moving away from fossil fuel use in our buildings can be especially transformative for the BIPOC communities that currently bear disproportionately higher energy cost, pollution, and health burdens. Shifting to highly efficient and cleaner energy sources will reduce their overall energy needs while improving the indoor air they breathe.

Those groups have been left out of clean energy programs in the past—a pattern we cannot afford to repeat. To ensure that communities of color and low-income communities fully partake of the benefits of healthier, all-electric buildings, policies must be coupled with real efforts to partner with affected communities to address energy insecurity and close America’s clean energy affordability gap. Prioritizing BIPOC households in this way will ensure that historically underserved communities can reap the most good from the transition to cleaner buildings and the new clean energy economy that will benefit us all.

Alejandra Mejia Cunningham focuses on the decarbonization of buildings across the United States, working closely with stakeholders and policy makers to design and promote innovative policies to transition buildings from fossil fuel use to electricity powered by clean, renewable energy. She has years of experience in advancing building decarbonization and energy efficiency in California and elsewhere. She has worked on electricity policy in the Midwest, Northeast, and at the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission. Mejia Cunningham holds an undergraduate degree from the University of Chicago and a Master of Public Policy from the Goldman School of Public Policy at the University of California, Berkeley. She is based in NRDC’s San Francisco office.

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