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New report shows how repowering buildings with electricity has become an ideal option for cutting pollution and fossil fuel use
Electric technologies are ready to replace the fossil fuels that heat roughly three out of four American homes, according to a new report from Illinois PIRG Education Fund, Environment Illinois Research & Policy Center, and Frontier Group. However, critical barriers must be overcome to maximize the new technologies’ potential to cut pollution, the study notes.
Electric Buildings: How to Repower Where We Live, Work and Learn with Clean Energy highlights the dramatic leaps in technology in recent years that have made electric water heaters, electric induction stoves and electric heat pumps (for heating buildings) not only highly effective and energy-efficient, but also more widely available at lower prices.
“We have the technology today to make our homes fossil fuel-free,” said Susan Rakov, managing director of Frontier Group. “Heating our homes with electricity has never been cleaner or more efficient. I can cook food on a new electric induction cooktop and not even miss my old gas burners. The new stoves are that good. As costs come down, there’s no excuse for not putting these new technologies into use in every new building -- and retrofitting old ones.”
Electrifying America’s homes and commercial buildings is a critical strategy to address global warming. In 2017, the amount of fossil fuels that U.S. homes and businesses burned for heat and appliances produced the same amount of greenhouse gas emissions as 115 million cars. More than half of the energy used in our homes today -- and more than one-third used in commercial buildings -- comes directly from burning fossil fuels for heat, hot water and appliances. By switching to electricity, America’s buildings can draw their energy from an increasingly clean grid with a rising share of solar and wind power.
“Buildings that run on electricity are cleaner and safer than buildings that don’t. They represent a huge opportunity to improve our communities,” said Abe Scarr, Illinois PIRG Education Fund Director. “Repowering buildings with electricity can help us in essential ways: cutting indoor and outdoor pollution, avoiding gas explosions, stopping the environmental damage done by drilling, and cutting our dependence on fossil fuels. That’s a lot of value.”
The report finds that unlocking this value is easier than ever. For example, building climate control is being revolutionized by electric heat pumps, which are several times more energy-efficient than gas and oil heating systems and can meet both heating and cooling needs in homes and commercial buildings. Heat pumps used for heating water can be five times as efficient as gas-powered water heaters.
Nevertheless, despite declining costs and advances in technology, wide-scale electrification of buildings faces obstacles. The primary issues are retrofitting costs and that neither the public nor contractors are aware of and knowledgeable enough about relevant technologies.
The potential for building electrification is one of the many reasons why Illinois PIRG Education Fund has questioned the mismanaged Peoples Gas pipe replacement program, which is leading to increasing affordability burdens for Chicago gas customers.
Public policymakers can accelerate the transition to electric buildings through a variety of policies, including rebate programs, low-cost financing, tax incentives for electrifying buildings, education programs for developers, contractors and consumers and bans on fossil fuels in new construction. Illinois policymakers can also remove or restrict current incentives for gas utilities to overinvest and expand gas infrastructure.
“When people built a lot of the buildings we live and work in today, we didn’t have these technologies,” Scarr said. “But now we do, and we can use them to make a cleaner, safer world. It just makes sense.”
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