Electric Buildings

New and improved technologies are putting clean, efficient electric space heating and water heating, and electric appliances like stoves within the reach of most American households. Analysis shows that electrifying the vast majority of America’s residences and commercial spaces by 2050 could reduce net greenhouse gas emissions from the residential and commercial sectors by about 306 million metric tons of carbon dioxide (CO2) in 2050. That is the equivalent of taking about 65 million of today’s cars off the road.

Arizona PIRG Education Fund

To prevent air and water pollution and avoid the worst impacts of global warming, America must move toward meeting our energy needs with 100% renewable energy. Getting there will require that we get the most out of every bit of energy we use – and that we stop burning fossil fuels in our homes and commercial buildings.

Wind and solar power are rapidly replacing dirty fossil fuels like coal as leading sources of our electricity.[1] As our electricity grid becomes cleaner, replacing the direct burning of gas, heating oil and propane in our buildings with electricity will reduce pollution of our air, land and water from fossil fuel production and use. 

New and improved technologies are putting clean, efficient electric space heating and water heating, and electric appliances like stoves within the reach of most American households. Analysis shows that electrifying the vast majority of America’s residences and commercial spaces by 2050 could reduce net greenhouse gas emissions from the residential and commercial sectors by about 306 million metric tons of carbon dioxide (CO2) in 2050.[2] That is the equivalent of taking about 65 million of today’s cars off the road – almost three times the number of vehicles in Texas.[3]

Common barriers, including knowledge gaps, high upfront costs and lack of governmental support, often make the decision to switch from fossil fuels to electricity challenging for many homeowners, tenants and businesses. Local, state and federal governments should adopt policies to help overcome those barriers and accelerate the transition of our homes and businesses away from fossil fuels and toward electric power.

Fossil fuel burning in homes and businesses contributes to global warming and puts our health and safety at risk.

●      There are almost 140 million housing units in the United States, and 5.6 million commercial buildings.[4] Three out of every four American homes use fossil fuels directly for space heating, water heating or appliances.[5] Direct burning of fossil fuels accounts for more than half of all energy used in homes and at least 34% of all energy used in commercial buildings.[6] These tens of millions of housing units and millions of commercial buildings will eventually need to be electrified.

●      In 2018, fuel combustion in U.S. homes and businesses produced 590 million metric tons of CO2 equivalent, accounting for almost 9% of total U.S. greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions.[7]

●      Burning fossil fuels within our homes creates indoor and outdoor air pollution, which contributes to the development of respiratory diseases, heart disease and cancer.[8] Air pollution has also been associated with increased risk of contracting and dying from infectious diseases including COVID-19.[9]

o   A 2020 literature review found that, even without considering other direct uses of fossil fuel in homes, “gas stoves may be exposing tens of millions of people to levels of air pollution in their homes that would be illegal outdoors under national air quality standards.”[10]

●      Extracting and transporting fossil fuels for home use also carries risk. In just the last 20 years, there have been more than 5,000 incidents involving gas leaks, facility emergencies or other events deemed significant by the operator.[11] These incidents have killed hundreds of people and injured more than 1,000.[12]

Electrifying America’s buildings will help the environment and help break our dependence on fossil fuels. 

●      Switching to electricity to power the vast majority of our homes and businesses by 2050 could cut around 306 million metric tons of CO2 annual emissions in 2050, according to analysis of modeling data from the National Renewable Energy Laboratory (NREL).[13] These savings are relative to a business-as-usual reference scenario in which there is no support for, or widespread adoption of, electrification technologies.

o   These savings are the equivalent of taking almost 65 million of today’s passenger vehicles off the road.[14]

o   By simultaneously switching to zero-emission renewable electricity, the emission reductions associated with electrification grow to 416 million metric tons of CO2 in 2050.[15]

o   New York, California and Texas are the states with the largest projected decrease in emissions, followed by Illinois, Ohio and Pennsylvania.[16]

o   Electrifying buildings also eliminates the health risks posed by indoor combustion of fossil fuels

Electric technologies can repower America’s buildings and open the door to renewable energy.

Today’s electric technologies can meet nearly all our home and business energy needs – and often do so at a competitive cost and with a fraction of the pollution caused by fossil fuel combustion. 

●      Space heating – Electric heat pumps, which pull heat from the air, ground or from bodies of water and move it around a building, have improved dramatically in recent years.[22] Geothermal heat pumps function well in all climates, and air-source heat pumps can now function efficiently down to -15 degrees Fahrenheit.[23] Air source and geothermal heat pumps are several times more efficient than gas and oil heating systems and can meet both heating and cooling needs in homes and commercial buildings.[24]

●      Water heating – Electric resistance, heat pump and solar thermal water heaters can all heat water without the direct use of fossil fuels. New technological developments are making electric technologies more efficient and cost-effective. Water heat pumps are often two to three times as efficient as electric resistance water heaters.[25]

●      Appliances – Highly efficient electric appliances can replace fossil-fueled versions and are often more effective. For example, electric induction cooktops, which cost about as much as a mid-tier gas range, cook faster and are cleaner, more precise and safer.[26]

Building electrification often makes sense for consumers.

●      Electric heat pumps are already cost-effective for new construction and for some building retrofits.[27] Rocky Mountain Institute found that customers in 11 different cities across the country could save thousands of dollars over a 15-year period by building all-electric new homes versus mixed-fuel new homes that use fossil fuels for some needs, like space heating and cooking.[28]

●      Replacing an existing fossil fuel furnace with an electric heat pump is also financially beneficial in some circumstances.[29] Retrofitting a fossil fuel furnace is most cost-effective when the fuel being replaced is either propane or fuel oil, and when both the furnace and the air conditioning (A/C) unit are at the end of their useful lives.[30]

●      Building electrification allows owners to take advantage of falling prices for clean electricity and benefit fully from the installation of solar photovoltaic (PV) panels or subscription to community solar projects.[31] All-electric homes can meet much or all of their energy needs with solar panels – aiding homeowners financially and creating new opportunities for renewable energy.[32]

Common barriers – including lack of knowledge and insufficient incentives – are slowing the electrification of America’s buildings.

●      Contractors may be unfamiliar with current technology and foster a perception that electric heat pumps and other electric appliances are more expensive, impractical or unreliable.[33]

●      Many consumers are not aware of improved technologies for electric heating and cooking – such as advanced heat pumps and induction cooktops – that overcome the limitations of previous generations of electric appliances and are more convenient and safer than fossil fuel-powered options.[34]

●      While falling prices have made electric systems affordable and sustainable options for new buildings, the high capital costs associated with retrofitting buildings may mean that electrification is not always financially viable without substantial incentives.[35]

●      Fossil fuel systems have long lifetimes, meaning they do not get replaced very often, and any new systems installed in the next few years will last for decades.[36]

●      Regulatory barriers like fuel-switching restrictions and unfavorable rate designs make electrification more expensive than necessary. Some states have legacy restrictions on fuel switching that prevent incentivizing electrification in favor of installing gas systems.[37] Utility rate designs that do not incentivize demand response or load flexibility also prevent customers from reaping the maximum benefits of electrifying their buildings.[38] These problems slow the transition to technologies that can be truly zero-emission.[39]

●      Concerns about the cost of electrification and about future demand on the grid may lead policymakers to take a “go slow” approach to electrification, despite the long lifetimes of fossil fuel energy systems and the pressing need to move to a 100% renewable energy system no later than mid-century.

Policymakers at the local, state and federal levels should implement policies to accelerate the transition from fossil fuels to clean electricity in our buildings.

●       Require all-electric systems in new construction.

●      Implement rebate programs, incentives and low-cost financing.

●      Implement regulatory solutions, including rate design and fuel-switching regulation changes.

●      Create and expand tax incentives for electrified buildings.

●      Require building energy transparency and implement building performance standards that limit carbon emissions.

●      Educate developers, contractors, retailers and consumers about options for, and benefits of, electrification.

●      Update appliance efficiency standards.

[1] Emma Searson, Environment America Research & Policy Center, Jamie Friedman and Tony Dutzik, Frontier Group, Renewables on the Rise 2020, October 2020, accessed at https://environmentamerica.org/feature/ame/renewables-rise-2020#:~:text=Clean%20energy%20technology%20has%20boomed,dramatic%20growth%20of%20clean%20energy.&text=The%20interactive%20charts%20enable%20you,is%20growing%20in%20your%20state.

[2] See Methodology.

[3] Car equivalency: Environmental Protection Agency, Greenhouse Gas Equivalencies Calculator, accessed 14 October 2020 at https://www.epa.gov/energy/greenhouse-gas-equivalencies-calculator. There are 22 million registered vehicles in Texas according to Texas Department of Transportation, About Us: Vehicle Titles and Registration Division, 2020, archived at http://web.archive.org/web/20201016203303/https://www.txdmv.gov/about-us.  

[4] Housing units: United States Census Bureau, Quick Facts: United States, accessed 10 December 2020 at https://www.census.gov/quickfacts/fact/table/US/VET605219; Commercial buildings: U.S. Energy Information Administration, Commercial Buildings Energy Consumption Survey 2012, Table C1, May 2016, accessed 4 November 2020 at https://www.eia.gov/consumption/commercial/data/2012/c&e/pdf/c1-c12.pdf.    

[5] U.S. Energy Information Administration, One in Four U.S. Homes is All Electric, 1 May 2019, accessed at https://www.eia.gov/todayinenergy/detail.php?id=39293.

[6] U.S. Energy Information Administration, Use of Energy Explained: Energy Use in Homes, 4 August 2020, archived at http://web.archive.org/web/20201218133837/https://www.eia.gov/energyexplained/use-of-energy/homes.php; U.S. Energy Information Administration, Use of Energy Explained: Energy Use in Commercial Buildings, 28 September 2018, archived at http://web.archive.org/web/20190925011236/https://www.eia.gov/energyexplained/use-of-energy/commercial-buildings.php.

[7] Residential and commercial emissions from burning fossil fuel found by adding emissions for carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gases from direct burning of fossil fuels in both sectors to get 590.73mMTCO2e, data from Environmental Protection Agency, Greenhouse Gas Inventory Data Explorer, accessed on 14 October 2020 at https://cfpub.epa.gov/ghgdata/inventoryexplorer/; percentage of emissions from residential and commercial burning of fossil fuels calculated by dividing emissions from those uses by total U.S. emissions for 2018 (6,677 MMTCO2e), found at Environmental Protection Agency, Sources of Greenhouse Gas Emissions, accessed on 14 October 2020 at https://www.epa.gov/ghgemissions/sources-greenhouse-gas-emissions.

[8] Environmental Protection Agency, Introduction to Indoor Air Quality, accessed on 19 September 2019, archived at http://web.archive.org/web/20190730141940/https://www.epa.gov/indoor-air-quality-iaq/introduction-indoor-air-quality; Heart disease and carbon monoxide: ScienceDaily, “Carbon Monoxide May Cause Long-lasting Heart Damage,”29 January 2008, archived at http://web.archive.org/web/20150711154139/http://www.sciencedaily.com:80/releases/2008/01/080129125412.htm; Nitrogen dioxide and heart disease: Thomas Bourdrel et. al, “Cardiovascular effects of air pollution,” Archives of Cardiovascular Diseases, 110(11):634-642, DOI: 10.1016, November 2017, accessed at https://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/pii/S1875213617301304?via%3Dihub; Respiratory function and gas cooking: D. Jarvis et. al, “The association of respiratory symptoms and lung function with the use of gas for cooking. European Community Respiratory Health Survey,” European Respiratory Journal, 11(3):651-658, March 1998, accessed at https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/9596117; Formaldehyde and cancer: Environmental Protection Agency, Facts About Formaldehyde, accessed on 19 September 2019 at https://www.epa.gov/formaldehyde/facts-about-formaldehyde#whatare.

[9] Tang-Tat Chau and Kuo-Ying Wang, “An association between air pollution and daily most frequently visits of eighteen outpatient diseases in an industrial city,” Scientific Reports 10(2321), 11 February 2020, https://doi.org/10.1038/s41598-020-58721-0; Xiao Wu, et al., “Air pollution and COVID-19 mortality in the United States: Strengths and limitations of an ecological regression analysis,” Science Advances6, p. 4049, 18 September 2020, archived at http://web.archive.org/web/20201013105429/https://projects.iq.harvard.edu/covid-pm; Silvia Comunian, et al., “Air pollution and COVID-19: The role of particulate matter in the spread and increase of COVID-19’s morbidity and mortality,” International Journal of Environmental Research and Public Health, 17(12), 4487, DOI: 10.3390/ijerph17124487, 22 June 2020.   

[10] Brady Anne Seals and Andee Krasner, Rocky Mountain Institute, Mothers Out Front, Physicians for Social Responsibility and Sierra Club, Health Effects from Gas Stove Pollution, 2020, accessed 24 November at https://rmi.org/insight/gas-stoves-pollution-health.

[11] Pipeline and Hazardous Materials Safety Administration, Significant Incident 20 Year Trend, 7 December 2020, accessed 8 December 2020 from https://www.phmsa.dot.gov/data-and-statistics/pipeline/pipeline-incident-20-year-trends; Criteria for incident inclusion: Pipeline and Hazardous Materials Safety Administration, Pipeline Facility Incident Report Criteria History, 24 October 2018, accessed 22 December 2020 at https://www.phmsa.dot.gov/data-and-statistics/pipeline/pipeline-facility-incident-report-criteria-history

[12] Total deaths and injuries from Pipeline and Hazardous Materials Safety Administration, Significant Incident 20 Year Trend, 7 December 2020, accessed 8 December 2020 from https://www.phmsa.dot.gov/data-and-statistics/pipeline/pipeline-incident-20-year-trends.

[13] See Methodology.

[14] U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, Greenhouse Gas Equivalencies Calculator, accessed 4 November 2020 at https://www.epa.gov/energy/greenhouse-gas-equivalencies-calculator.

[15] See Methodology.

[16] See section “Electrifying buildings conserves energy and prevents pollution,” subsection “Electrification will slash greenhouse gas emissions.”

[17] See Methodology.

[18] See Methodology for 2050 projections; 2019 gas usage is the sum of gas usage in the residential and commercial sectors from U.S. Energy Information Administration, Natural Gas Explained, 22 July 2020, archived at http://web.archive.org/web/20201104070031/https://www.eia.gov/energyexplained/natural-gas/use-of-natural-gas.php.

[19] Environment America, Fracking by the Numbers: The Damage to Our Water, Land and Climate from a Decade of Dirty Drilling, 14 April 2016, archived at http://web.archive.org/web/20201105132306/https://environmentamerica.org/reports/ame/fracking-numbers-0.

[20] See section “Electrifying buildings conserves energy and prevents pollution,” subsection “Electrification will slash gas usage and save energy overall.”

[21] See Methodology. Emissions numbers are CO2 emissions calculated from NREL data for a subset of end-uses and therefore do not represent total emissions for these sectors, which is why the 2018 number differs from the sector-wide CO2 equivalent number cited above from the Environmental Protection Agency.

[22] U.S. Department of Energy, Heat Pump Systems, accessed on 11 October 2019 at https://www.energy.gov/energysaver/heat-and-cool/heat-pump-systems.

[23] Northeast Energy Efficiency Partnerships, Northeastern Regional Assessment of Strategic Electrification, July 2017, archived at https://web.archive.org/web/20190929115416/https://neep.org/sites/default/files/Strategic%20Electrification%20Regional%20Assessment.pdf

[24] Heat pump efficiency: Comfort365, Frequently Asked Questions, accessed on 19 September 2019 at http://wepowr.com/bouldercomfort365/faqs#benefits. Gas and oil heating systems, because they rely on converting the fuel into heat (as opposed to transporting heat, like heat pumps), can at best turn 100% of the energy in the fuel into heat (i.e. their maximum COP is 1). Modern high efficiency furnaces have a maximum efficiency of about 98.7%: ENERGY STAR, “ENERGY STAR most efficient 2020 – furnaces,” ENERGY STAR, archived at http://web.archive.org/web/20201112025903/https://www.energystar.gov/products/most_efficient/furnaces.

[25] U.S. Department of Energy, Heat Pump Water Heaters, accessed on 28 October 2018 at https://www.energy.gov/energysaver/water-heating/heat-pump-water-heaters.

[26] Joe Wachunas, “Induction stoves – say bye bye to gas in the kitchen,” Clean Technica, 12 September 2020, archived at http://web.archive.org/web/20201101135300/https://cleantechnica.com/2020/09/12/induction-stoves-say-bye-bye-to-gas-in-the-kitchen/.

[27] Note: In many cases it can make sense to retrofit a building that uses an inefficient form of space heating – such as oil, propane or electric resistance. See Merrian Borgeson and Emily Levin, National Resource Defense Council, Driving the Market for Heat Pumps in the Northeast, 21 February 2018, archived at http://web.archive.org/web/20190723164707/https://www.nrdc.org/experts/merrian-borgeson/driving-market-heat-pumps-northeast.

[28] Sherri Billimoria, Leia Guccione, Mike Henchen and Leah Louis-Prescott, Rocky Mountain Institute, The Economics of Electrifying Buildings, 2018, accessed at https://rmi.org/insight/the-economics-of-electrifying-buildings/;  Claire McKenna, Amar Shah and Leah Louis-Prescott, The New Economics of Electrifying Buildings, Rocky Mountain Institute, October 2020, accessed at https://rmi.org/insight/the-new-economics-of-electrifying-buildings.

[29] Sherri Billimoria, Leia Guccione, Mike Henchen and Leah Louis-Prescott, Rocky Mountain Institute, The Economics of Electrifying Buildings, 2018, accessed at https://rmi.org/insight/the-economics-of-electrifying-buildings/.

[30] Eric Wilson, Craig Christensen, Scott Horowitz, Joseph Robertson, and Jeff Maguire, National Renewable Energy Laboratory, Energy Efficiency Potential in the U.S. Single-Family Housing Stock, December 2017, accessed at https://www.nrel.gov/docs/fy18osti/68670.pdf.

[31] Prices falling: Ran Fu, David Feldman, and Robert Margolis, National Renewable Energy Laboratory, U.S. Solar Photovoltaic System Cost Benchmark: Q1 2018, November 2018; Lazard, Levelized Cost of Energy Analysis Version 12.0, November 2018; John Weaver, “New record low solar power price? 2.175¢/kWh in Idaho,” PV Magazine, 27 March 2019.

[32] Cole Latimer, “Too Much of a Good Thing: Solar Power Surge Is Flooding the Grid,” Sydney Morning Herald, 6 June 2018, archived at http://web.archive.org/web/20201109031646/https://www.smh.com.au/business/the-economy/too-much-of-a-good-thing-solar-power-surge-is-flooding-the-grid-20180606-p4zjs7.html; Ivan Penn, “California Invested Heavily in Solar Power. Now There’s So Much That Other States Are Sometimes Paid to Take It,” Los Angeles Times, 22 June 2017, archived at http://web.archive.org/web/20181023024952/www.latimes.com/projects/la-fi-electricity-solar/; Barry Cinnamon, “I fully converted a home to electricity. Here’s how it worked – and what it cost,” Greentech Media, 19 October 2020, archived at http://web.archive.org/web/20201101101420/https://www.greentechmedia.com/articles/read/whole-home-electrification-electricity-is-cheap-so-why-stop-at-net-zero.

[33] Jeff Deason et al, U.S. Department of Energy, Electrification of Buildings and Industry in the United States: Drivers, Barriers, Prospects, and Policy Approaches, March 2018, accessed at http://ipu.msu.edu/wp-content/uploads/2018/04/LBNL-Electrification-of-Buildings-2018.pdf.

[34] Lack of awareness: see note 33.

[35] See note 33.

[36] Claire McKenna et al., “It’s time to incentivize residential heat pumps,” Rocky Mountain Institute, 8 June 2020, archived at http://web.archive.org/web/20201112031418/https://rmi.org/its-time-to-incentivize-residential-heat-pumps/.

[37] Sherri Billimoria and Mike Henchen, Regulatory Solutions for Building Decarbonization, Rocky Mountain Institute, 2020, p. 15, accessed at https://rmi.org/insight/regulatory-solutions-for-building-decarbonization/.

[38] Sherri Billimoria, Leia Guccione, Mike Henchen and Leah Louis-Prescott, Rocky Mountain Institute, The Economics of Electrifying Buildings, 2018, p. 43, accessed at https://rmi.org/insight/the-economics-of-electrifying-buildings/.

[39] David Roberts, “Most American homes are still heated with fossil fuels. It’s time to electrify,” Vox, 2 July 2018, accessed at https://www.vox.com/energy-and-environment/2018/6/20/17474124/electrification-natural-gas-furnace-heat-pump.