Electrifying Homes in the Mid-Atlantic

By Katie Bartolotta

Posted June 3, 2020

 

As cities, regions, states, and countries consider the most effective climate solutions to have in their toolbelts, building electrification is gaining traction. At a time when limited retrofit work will happen in the near term, we have an opportunity to design and plan the next set of tools we’ll need to address climate change, public health, and inequities connected to the built environment. Green Building United is beginning to explore the feasibility of large-scale electrification in our region.  

Over the past year, Green Building United’s Policy and Advocacy Committee has developed a policy framework to demonstrate the building blocks necessary to decarbonize the buildings sector in the City of Philadelphia.  

decarbonized building is highly energy efficient and uses no fossil fuels to operate. Decarbonizing existing buildings often requires replacing heating, hot water, and cooking appliances that use fossil fuels – like natural gas or fuel oil – to operate. This process is called electrification. Electrifying buildings is essential to meeting deep carbon reduction goals by reducing the direct need for fossil fuels and has the added health benefit of improving indoor and outdoor air quality by eliminating combustion exhaust from buildings.  

Existing residential buildings, including single family homes and small multifamily buildings, present the biggest challenge to achieving building decarbonization at scale given the number of homes and cost to homeowners to retrofit. At the same time, existing residential buildings presents the biggest opportunity to have a direct impact on energy cost, health, and climate resilience benefits for individuals. What’s more, the sheer scale of the effort presents an unprecedented opportunity to develop a local workforce to meet the need. In Philadelphia alone, there are more than 450,000 single family homes that could benefit from updated building infrastructure – creating a market for more green jobs in the region. 

Our region will need a comprehensive strategy to electrify existing homes. This will require a thorough assessment of existing homes, cost and financing options, pilot programs, and workforce development needs. Any strategic effort must be an inclusive process that incorporates the needs of residents, including lowering energy costs, improving health, developing workforce opportunities, and increasing resilience to the impacts of climate change. Such a strategy must also complement and better leverage existing programs and services for home improvements.  

To that end, we’ve rounded up a few takeaways from the resources we’ve been reading that help contextualize some of the challenges and the opportunities around residential electrification in our region.  

 

Centering equity is essential 

Community needs assessments and a community-led decision-making structure are key to ensuring that climate change strategies deliver tangible, local benefits. Greenlining and Energy Efficiency for All released Equitable Building Electrification, a framework that centers equity and inclusion in the goal to electrify buildings.  

 

Energy efficiency is still fundamental  

Improved energy efficiency is key to ensuring that residential electrification delivers utility cost relief to homeowners and renters. This is especially true now, as the COVID-19 crisis is exacerbating the root causes of the energy burden that a third of Americans already face – unemployment is historically high and stay-at-home orders are increasing household utility spend. The Rocky Mountain Institute reported that costs can be reduced in existing building retrofits but this is dependent on what type of fuel is being replaced and the age of equipment. Energy efficiency measures must be paired with electrification to achieve cost-efficiency.  

Cost is not the only measurable benefit of energy efficiency.  A recent ACEEE report demonstrates the co-benefits of integrating home energy efficiency and healthy home improvements in terms of avoided costs and health outcomes as well as tools for calculating these benefits. 

 

Market education and efficiency programs address barriers      

NESEA’s Getting to Zero: Bringing Residential Electrification to Scale webinar outlines the challenges to residential building electrification as well as available tools and programs for homeowners and building professionals. While the tools and efficiency programs are largely specific to Massachusetts, the peer state example provides programs that our states (Pennsylvania and Delaware) can emulate.  

 

Policy change is needed in current programs 

Energy efficiency programs are an important tool to encourage new and existing buildings to undertake measures to save energy and money. Current state efficiency programs largely consider fuel types in silos, without calculating the additional emissions reduction benefits of fuel switching, a necessary step to achieve building electrification. ACEEE explores in a recent policy brief which states have policies in place to encourage or discourage beneficial electrification in buildings through fuel switching. Delaware has approved fuel switching programs, but Pennsylvania specifically prohibits fuel switching in Act 129.  

 

Green Building United is interested in connecting with other organizations and gathering resources to further explore what residential building electrification could like for the Mid-Atlantic. Get in touch if you'd like to connect! 

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