Opinion: No time to waste. Building electrification is a battle for the planet

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An RMI range for building electrification

By Leah Louis-Prescott and Zack Subin

Especially for the examiner

Can the San Francisco Bay Area lead the state and country in building electrification and going gas-free? Maybe we’ll find out in the next few years.

Of the 54 cities and counties in California with all-electric new construction policies, at least two-thirds are in the Bay Area. Electrical appliances in residential and commercial buildings – such as heat pumps, heat pump water heaters and induction cookers – offer health, air quality and climate benefits because they do not burn polluting fossil fuels on-site. These local guidelines have prompted California to pass a new building code that encourages the use of electric vehicles in new construction.

But the Bay Area can’t stop at new construction. The bigger challenge is to electrify the existing building stock and end the use of fossil-fuel appliances, which emit over 10% of the country’s greenhouse gases.

While this transition will be challenging, it is doable. Think back to the early days of the internet. In 2000, only 1% of US adults had high-speed broadband at home. By 2010, broadband infrastructure had been rapidly expanded to provide service to 61% of US homes.

California can do the same with efficient electronics. The technology is there, awareness is growing, and the urgency is increasing. Now we need local leadership and multi-stakeholder coordination to ensure this transition is both affordable and equitable.

Financial expenses versus climate costs

Some reports focus on how expensive this transition could be if we replaced all devices overnight at current costs. However, similar to the incremental broadband rollout, the transition can begin with buildings that are ready for new equipment, have the right cabling or plumbing, or are already undergoing a major modernization, while simultaneously breaking down the barriers to the remaining inventory.

In many Bay Area homes, electrical appliances can reduce utility bills and are sometimes cheaper to install than replacing old gas appliances. In addition, residents benefit from lower healthcare costs and less air pollution. If the Bay Area electrifies all household gas appliances, it could reach over $1 billion per year of health benefits. Add commercial devices and multiply that by a device’s 10+ year lifespan and the benefits of electrification far outweigh the costs.

Achieving this transition at the pace needed to address the climate crisis will require all hands on board. Local governments and policymakers should mobilize and establish channels of communication with the many stakeholders whose input and support are vital to enable just and affordable solutions.

Perhaps most critical are the voices of historically marginalized and underserved communities – the communities most exposed to pollution from gas appliances but for whom electrification is currently least accessible. Building trusting relationships and deepening collaboration can help ensure that electrification policies and funding sources are developed with community input and approval so that they benefit all residents.

Equal solutions for building electrification

Fortunately, concerted efforts are already underway to develop solutions that advance equitable electrification of existing buildings. These solutions can be replicated and augmented by community leaders to support electrification.

  • Invest in heat pumps for climate resilience. Policymakers should prioritize electrification upgrades of devices that provide climate resilience benefits. Many older homes in the Bay Area — often with low-income residents — don’t have access to cooling, putting people at risk during heat waves. HVAC heat pumps that provide both cooling and heating can help protect residents as extreme heat events become more frequent and severe. Municipalities can join the 64 organizations statewide calling on California lawmakers to invest $2 billion in climate resilience, including electrification retrofits. They can also educate residents to ensure anyone installing or replacing air conditioning today is considering a heat pump and has access to incentives.
  • Secure funding and financing. Local governments can help make electrification more affordable by focusing on funding and financing solutions. Municipalities can allocate budgetary resources to complement state and regional appliance incentives, conduct bulk procurement programs to reduce costs, or work with partners like BayREN to expand existing programs. Local politicians can also seek private funding to fill the financial gap for electrification of low- and middle-income homes, as has been done in Ithaca, NY. An innovative pilot project in the East Bay to fund and fund electrification and weather improvements in low- and middle-income homes demonstrates a unique solution for homes with the greatest financial need.
  • promote personnel development. Electrifying existing buildings requires a skilled workforce, and policymakers can help drive human resource development through public funding and programs focused on training workers and creating high-paying jobs. Berkeley, for example, has proposed a program that would create unionized high-road electrification retrofit jobs while prioritizing training for historically disadvantaged communities. Municipalities can also support electrification workers by streamlining their permitting and inspection processes to improve the worker experience.
  • Adopt complementary policies. Equitable electrification also requires complementary policies and safeguards that are not directly related to device upgrades but are critical to enabling a just transition to electronic devices. These include tenant protection, anti-eviction requirements, and health and safety improvements.

Local governments have a crucial role to play in accelerating the transition to all-electric buildings and they need to act now. Every newly installed fossil-fuel appliance will scavenge building emissions for decades, while every electronic appliance upgrade brings us closer to a clean and healthy future. With local government efforts to push electrification, gas appliances could soon be as obsolete as dial-up Internet.

This is part two of a three-part series on the building electrification journey from experts at RMI. The first part is “What the gas industry doesn’t want you to know about your equipment”.

Leah Louis-Prescott is a Senior Associate on RMI’s Zero Carbon Buildings team, where she focuses on the California Building Decarbonization Policy and Appliance Regulation. She lives in San Francisco. Zack Subin is a senior associate on RMI’s State Policy Analysis and Climate-Aligned Urbanism teams; He lives in San Francisco. RMI is transforming the global energy system to ensure a clean, prosperous, zero-carbon future for all. Follow RMI on Twitter @RockyMtnInst

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