Equitable Building Electrification: Energizing Community Needs
By Carmelita Miller
Facilities Management Journal
Building electrification is coming. As nations around the world grapple with climate change and carbon emission reductions, we see increasing recognition from governments and communities alike that the buildings where we live, work, and play represent a major part of the problem–and, therefore, the potential solution. Many localities are already taking steps to encourage switching from gas to clean, efficient, electric appliances for heating and cooking, particularly in new construction.
Transitioning from gas appliances and systems to electric options signals a significant change for the entire buildings sector. It’s critical that we get this right, because ultimately this will affect all communities and all types of facilities, from single-family homes to large apartment and office complexes, factories, hospitals, campuses and more. Facilities managers need to understand the ramifications of this transition and can play an important role in helping to guide it in a way that benefits all.
The Greenlining Institute examined the issues around electrification for our recent report, Equitable Building Electrification: A Framework for Powering Resilient Communities. We found that in California, where we’re based the gas used in our buildings produces about one quarter of the state’s total CO2 emissions. As a result, over 50 U.S. localities from Maine to Seattle have either adopted or begun considering measures to spur a switch from gas to electricity, and that number continues to grow. According to the Carbon Neutral Cities Alliance, New York City has identified 175,000 buildings as prime candidates to switch to electric heating, and is working with its electric and gas utility, Consolidated Edison, along with the New York State Energy Research and Development Authority and Mitsubishi Electric to start making it happen.
Although the U.S. has withdrawn from the Paris Agreement, other governments continue to set ambitious climate and CO2 reduction goals: For instance, the World Resources Institute reports that 46 countries around the globe have already offered specific policies to decarbonize buildings. Meanwhile, California is aiming for an entirely carbon neutral economy, and has committed to a completely carbon-free electric grid by 2045, maximizing the climate gains from building electrification.
Climate and Health Benefits of Electrification
Successful reduction of carbon and air pollution requires shifting towards clean electricity in businesses and homes — single-family houses and large apartment complexes alike. This shift presents the opportunity to achieve multiple objectives: cleaning the aging electric grid, increasing our buildings’ energy performance, and creating policies that align carbon reduction solutions with racial equity outcomes to help the most polluted and underinvested communities.
Today’s highly efficient electric heating technologies offer a cost-effective way to reduce pollution from the buildings sector. For example, using clean electricity in buildings, instead of gas, will reduce California’s greenhouse gas emissions by between 31 and 73 percent, depending on the size of the solar array and climate zone.
Combining a cleaner source of electricity with energy efficient heat pump technologies can unlock further cost savings and reduced bills. Electric heat and hot water technologies can save households and commercial facilities in energy costs over the life of the equipment, if installed as part of an overall energy efficiency retrofit and consumers take advantage of policies to access off-peak energy pricing. Over the life of a major facility, this can result in significant cost savings. Forgoing the costs to build, connect, and install gas lines and infrastructure in the first place can also reduce the cost of new construction.
Moving away from gas won’t just help reduce carbon emissions. It will also eliminate a major source of indoor air pollution. Burning gas releases nitrogen oxides and harmful
particulate matter. Prolonged exposure to these combustion byproducts can have serious long-term health impacts, especially for children and the elderly, such as triggering asthma attacks, decreasing overall lung function, and increasing chances of serious respiratory illness. This can be a particular concern for schools, hospitals, assisted living facilities and other facilities where vulnerable individuals may gather.
Environmental and Social Justice Communities
The transition away from gas will impact individuals and communities differently, depending on their situation. Renters, for example, will face different issues — and will tend to have less control — than homeowners or building owners. Clean energy movements of the past, including rooftop solar and energy efficiency, have primarily benefited those on the higher end of the income scale compared to those on the lower end, who face compounding barriers to access. Over time, continued reliance upon market-driven, trickle-down solutions that largely fail to deliver for underresourced communities has frayed trust between policymakers and the communities still waiting for their share of previously promised clean energy benefits.
At The Greenlining Institute, our work therefore focuses mainly on what the California Public Utilities Commission calls Environmental and Social Justice Communities. The CPUC defines ESJ communities as communities where residents are:
- predominantly people of color or living on low incomes;
- underrepresented in the policy setting or decision-making process;
- subject to disproportionate impact from one or more environmental hazards; and
- likely to experience disparate implementation of environmental regulations and socioeconomic investments.
These communities, typically composed of renters, have been mostly left out of clean energy solutions to date, despite often paying the highest prices proportionally in utility bills, transit, and overall health. To ensure that these communities actually benefit from the transition to building electrification, we must consciously design and implement electrification policies equitably.
Residents of ESJ communities face particular concerns as we transition away from gas. While affluent families can switch at their convenience from gas to electricity for heating and cooking — and indeed, some have begun to do so — ESJ communities typically don’t have that luxury. Residents of these communities experience multiple and often compounding economic barriers that make electrification nearly impossible if they are expected to go it alone. In California, for example, one-third of households lack sufficient income to meet their basic costs of living. ESJ household budgets, in particular, simply cannot cover the upfront costs of new technology, equipment, and upgrades required to electrify a home.
However, ESJ communities will also be the hardest hit if they wind up as the last customers
served by the gas distribution system. With a dwindling number of customers to support an aging system, costs for individual customers, be they households or businesses, will increase. These costs will disproportionately fall on those who can least afford the risk of the significantly increased bills needed to support aging infrastructure and stranded assets.
The Equitable Building Electrification Framework
Equity begins by recognizing that not all communities have the same social and economic starting point. African Americans, Native Americans, Asian Americans and Pacific Islanders, immigrant communities of color, low-income communities and others have long suffered systemic exclusion from opportunities such as homeownership, educational attainment, high-road jobs, and the ability to live in a clean and healthy environment.
We developed the following five-step framework as a roadmap for various stakeholders. It presents a start-to-finish recipe for how the current goals of building electrification can align with producing healthy homes and safer buildings; creating high quality, local jobs that cannot be outsourced; and establishing stronger connections between everyday people and climate change policies and goals.
- Step 1: Assess Community Needs. This should include understanding barriers preventing community members from electrifying their homes, residents’ knowledge levels regarding building electrification, and their specific needs, wishes, and concerns.
- Step 2: Establish Community-Led Decision-Making. Rich community input and engagement strengthen the overall program design quality with stronger cultural competence, ensure local buy-in and investment, and deliver tangible local benefits rooted in the lived experiences of everyday people. Partner with community-based organizations to develop a decision-making process that ensures that decisions are based on community needs and priorities.
- Step 3: Develop Metrics and a Plan for Tracking. Metrics should include both clean energy benefits like greenhouse gas reductions and community benefits such as local hires and residents’ ability to pay their energy bills without sacrificing other essential expenses.
- Step 4: Ensure Funding and Program Leveraging. Current low-income energy programs often fail to deliver maximum benefits to all qualifying households due to short and unpredictable funding cycles, poor program design that inadequately reaches qualifying customers, or lack of coordination and integration with complementary programs.
- Step 5: Improve Outcomes. Using the tracking and metrics plan described above, ensure that there is a continuous feedback loop to improve current and future programs’ reach and impact in ESJ communities. Consider adjustments to ensure the program reaches the people it seeks to reach and delivers the intended benefits.
Together we can usher in a just transition to a clean energy economy through building electrification, but this process requires deliberate and inclusive actions. This framework can be used by anyone interested in solving problems with a fresh perspective, removing barriers to participation in the clean energy economy, and bringing communities together around shared goals.
The era of fossil fuels is coming to a close, as indeed it must in order to prevent climate catastrophe. The benefits of this transition can potentially extend far beyond climate to reduced energy costs, improved indoor air quality, and many thousands of new jobs. This shift will eventually encompass every type of building, from single family homes to small and large apartment complexes, commercial facilities, college campuses and more.
But decarbonizing our building stock will meet with resistance from gas utilities wanting to preserve market share, and implementing building electrification fairly and equitably presents significant challenges. Marginalized communities, such as what California calls Environmental and Social Justice Communities, face particular risks if policymakers do not take specific steps to ensure that their needs are considered and their voices are heard.
As more communities navigate this transition, the experience and expertise of facilities managers can play an important role in shaping this process and maximizing the benefits of building electrification for all involved.
Carmelita Miller is Energy Equity Legal Counsel at The Greenlining Institute and author of Equitable Building Electrification: A Framework for Powering Resilient Communities.