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Utilities can play a key role in electrifying our buildings which can deliver huge environmental and health benefits

To repower our society with 100 percent renewable energy, we need to electrify our buildings. Switching our homes and offices from fossil fuels to the power of the sun, wind and Earth will lead to a greener grid and a healthier and safer world. But to create that future, utility professionals, contractors, educators, advocates and decision makers will need to come together to implement smart policies that encourage and incentivize building electrification. 

It’s no surprise that burning oil and gas in our homes and businesses is a hazard for the planet and puts us all at risk. Fossil fuel use in homes pollute the air we breathe outside as well as inside. Every time we turn on a gas-powered stove, air quality in our buildings worsens. In fact, gas stoves alone may be exposing tens of millions of Americans to levels of indoor air pollution that would be illegal outdoors. This kind of air pollution is linked to health problems including respiratory illness, heart attack, stroke and cancer. 

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Yet fossil fuel use in homes remains widespread. Three out of four American homes still directly burn fossil fuels for heating, hot water or to run appliances. In 2018, nearly 9 percent of U.S. greenhouse gas emissions came from the direct combustion of fossil fuels. 

Electrifying our buildings can solve that problem. According to a new report from Environment America Research & Policy Center and U.S. PIRG Education Fund, electrifying a majority of our homes and businesses by 2050 could reduce net emissions by an amount equivalent to taking about 65 million cars off the road -- equal to getting rid of almost one-fourth of the total number of cars in the U.S. in 2019. That’s a lot of averted air pollution which means less asthma and less of the pollution that’s warming our planet in dangerous ways.

More and more, Americans are signing onto a vision of repowering our country with clean renewable energy. Wind and solar power continue to exceed expectations, and thanks to leadership at the state and local level, one-in-three Americans lives in a community committed to 100 percent renewable energy. And with advances in electric technologies like heat pumps, water heaters and induction stoves, it is easier and more affordable for members of the general public to make a personal commitment to this change. 

At the same time, forward-looking cities, counties and towns like San Francisco, Seattle and New York City are fueling the movement toward fossil fuel-free, electric buildings and working to repower themselves with clean energy. 

This is all essential progress, but even more needs to be done -- and the utility field can be a leader in this transformation. 

Decision makers and professionals in the building and utility industries should advocate for and support professional development and training of home builders and energy professionals to get them up to speed on the latest improvements in electrical technologies and how to incorporate them into their businesses. Educational programs can not only help professionals understand the benefits of electrification but also make them aware of financial incentives like rebates that can help them and their customers lean into efficient, electric technologies. The faster developers get up to speed on electrification, the more cost-effective it will be for contractors and builders to make buildings all-electric, passing on the financial savings and environmental benefits to future building occupants. 

Utilities can do even more. They can invest in energy efficiency programs, demand response programs and other technologies that promote grid flexibility and resilience. They can also set up rebate programs and low-cost financing options for consumers to lower barriers to going electric. 

In 2021, America has the tools to make our buildings fossil fuel-free which will eliminate pollution and help us avoid the worst impacts of climate change. By committing to a shared vision of electric buildings, utilities, industry professionals, advocates and decision makers can work together to ease the transition to 100 percent renewable energy for a cleaner and greener future.

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Matt Chester's picture
Matt Chester on Apr 7, 2021

Utilities can do even more. They can invest in energy efficiency programs, demand response programs and other technologies that promote grid flexibility and resilience. They can also set up rebate programs and low-cost financing options for consumers to lower barriers to going electric.

This role for utilities is great to see. Do you have any use cases in mind where the utilities have earned a 'gold star' for really leaning into these possibilities? Who's setting the bar these days? 

Jim Stack's picture
Jim Stack on Apr 9, 2021

Brynn, Thanks for a very timely article. In my area of Chandler, AZ the gas utility came in a removed the feed pipes to many homes since they no longer use gas. They have to pay a fee on each pipe access pipe. I have not use NG in 20 years so it cost them each month. 

    I think most people switched away from gas after their rates jumped 10 to 20% a year back. Also the news  stories about explosions and fires in some areas. Most of the NG also comes from Fracking which won't last long as those sources run out fast. 

    What reasons do you see that cause people to switch from NG to electric ?

Rami Reshef's picture
Rami Reshef on Apr 16, 2021

Hi Brynn, great post and important cause. Don't forget the emissions caused by traditional stand-by fossil fuel generators which regulations require be installed in every building to back up elevators, necessitating monthly generator activation/pollution. Complementary batteries and fuel cells can provide resilient reliable backup power without fossil fuel emissions. It is sad to see the short-sighted rush to deploy fossil fuel generators across the U.S. - especially to off set planned shutdowns due to wildfires in California or the winter storms in Texas and surrounding states when there are clean and reliable alternatives.

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