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

Local governments have a key role to play in accelerating equitable building electrification

A RMI series on building electrification

By Leah Louis-Prescott and Zack Subin

Special to the Examiner

Can the San Francisco Bay Area lead the state and the country in building electrification and give up on gas? We may 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. Electric appliances in residential and commercial buildings — such as heat pumps, heat pump water heaters and induction stoves — deliver health, air quality and climate benefits, as they don’t burn polluting fossil fuels on site. These local policies have moved California toward the adoption of a new building code that encourages all-electric in new construction.

But the Bay Area cannot stop at new construction. The bigger challenge is electrifying the existing building stock and ending the use of fossil fuel appliances, which emit over 10% of the nation’s greenhouse gasses.

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

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

Financial expense versus climate cost

Some reports focus on how expensive this transition might be if we replaced all appliances at current costs overnight. However, much like the gradual expansion of the broadband network, the transition can start with buildings that are ready for new appliances, have the right wiring or ducting in place or are already doing a major upgrade, while reducing barriers for the remaining stock.

In many Bay Area homes, electric appliances can reduce utility bills and can sometimes be cheaper to install relative to replacing old gas appliances. In addition, residents will benefit from lower health-care costs and reduced air pollution. If the Bay Area electrifies all household gas appliances, it could achieve over $1 billion dollars per year in health benefits. Add in commercial appliances and multiply that by the 10+ year life of an appliance, 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 deck. Local governments and policymakers should mobilize and establish communications channels with the many stakeholders whose input and support are vital to enable equitable and affordable solutions.

Perhaps most critical are the voices of historically marginalized and underserved communities — the communities most exposed to gas appliance pollution, but to whom electrification is currently the least accessible. Establishing trusting relationships and deepening collaboration can help ensure electrification policies and funding streams are developed with community input and buy-in, so they benefit all residents.

Equitable solutions for building electrification

Fortunately, collaborative efforts are already underway to generate solutions that advance equitable existing building electrification. These solutions can be replicated and expanded upon by municipal leaders to help electrification scale.

  • Invest in heat pumps for climate resiliency. Policymakers should prioritize appliance electrification upgrades that deliver climate resiliency benefits. Many older homes in the Bay Area — often housing low-income residents — lack access to cooling, putting people at risk during heat waves. HVAC heat pumps, which offer 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 the California legislature to invest $2 billion in climate resiliency, including electrification retrofits. They can also educate residents to ensure that anyone installing or replacing an air conditioning unit today consider a heat pump and have access to incentives.
  • Secure funding and financing. Local governments can help make electrification more affordable by focusing on funding and financing solutions. Municipalities can budget to supplement state and regional appliance incentives, run bulk purchasing programs to reduce costs or work with partners like BayREN to expand upon existing programs connecting Bay Area customers to state and local electrification incentives.. Civic leaders can also seek private financing to help bridge the financial gap for electrifying low- and moderate-income homes, as done in Ithaca, NY. An innovative pilot in the East Bay to fund and finance electrification and weatherization upgrades in low- and moderate-income homes demonstrates a unique solution for households with the greatest financial need.
  • Advance workforce development. Existing building electrification will require a well-trained workforce, and policymakers can help advance workforce development through public funding and programs that focus on training workers and creating high-paying jobs. Berkeley, for instance, has proposed a program that would build unionized high-road jobs for electrification retrofits, while prioritizing training for historically disadvantaged communities. Municipalities can also support the electrification workforce by streamlining their permitting and inspection processes to improve the experience for workers.
  • Enact complementary policies. Equitable electrification also requires complementary policies and protections that are not directly linked to appliance upgrades but are critical to enabling an equitable transition to electric appliances. These include renter protections, anti-displacement requirements and health and safety upgrades.

Local governments have a critical role to play in accelerating the transition to all-electric buildings, and they must act now. Every newly installed fossil fuel appliance will lock in decades of building emissions, while every electric appliance upgrade will bring us closer to a clean and healthy future. With municipal-led efforts to drive electrification, gas appliances may soon become as obsolete as dial-up internet.

This is the second in a three-part series about the road to building electrification by experts at RMI. The first part is “What the gas industry doesn’t want you to know about your appliances.

Leah Louis-Prescott is a senior associate on RMI’s Carbon-Free Buildings team, where she focuses on 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 secure a clean, prosperous, zero-carbon future for all. Follow RMI on Twitter @RockyMtnInst

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