Cities and state agencies across the nation are taking steps to phase out gas in homes and buildings. These leaders are motivated by the indisputable health, safety, and climate imperatives to shift from gas to all-electric, clean energy buildings. In fact, building electrification has gained international recognition as a critical strategy to reduce major sources of climate and air pollution.
However, too often overlooked is why electrification is needed for climate resiliency and ‘adaptation.’
Here’s a quick run down on why building electrification is core to climate resilient homes and communities:
1) Electrification is needed for reliability, especially in wildfire-prone areas.
As I write this, PG&E is grappling with suspending electric service to up to 800,000 homes to mitigate the risk of wildfires in Northern California. Yes, electric appliances are vulnerable to power outages, but so are most modern gas appliances like gas tankless water heaters, furnaces, dryers, stoves/ovens. In fact, gas appliances are even more vulnerable to outages since they are dependent on two infrastructure systems. It's going to be easier and more cost-effective to make one expansive energy infrastructure resilient and hardened to climate change, than to do it with two. Let's pick the clean energy infrastructure of the future, and phase out the dirty energy infrastructure of the past.
In addition, to enhance reliability and resilience, particularly in wild-fire prone areas, California will need to invest in more than grid hardening and safety, but also in microgrids and distributed energy resources like rooftop solar, storage, and heat pumps. Super efficient/weatherized homes and heat pumps will be critical to provide the load shifting and thermal storage required for clean energy to reliably and safely power and heat our homes.
A modern all-electric home is expected to be more resilient in an outage than a modern home with gas heating. Here’s one reason why. Heat pump water heaters can use electricity from rooftop or community solar to heat water and store it for over 24 hours, so families will have hot water even if the grid is down or when the sun isn’t shining. Modern gas water heaters (called “tankless” or “on-demand”), however, which are required by the California building code in new homes with gas, need electricity to operate, as well as a functioning gas system, and will not work during gas or electric outages. In addition, you can easily pre-heat or pre-cool your house with a heat pump when the sun is shining. Several studies have found that electric heat pumps are an untapped storage and load shifting resource.
2) Building electrification will help us ride out hotter and longer heat waves.
Most folks in California lack air conditioning, especially low-income households, renters, and those of us in historically more temperate coastal areas. Many who do have air conditioning don’t have very efficient models, and see painfully high bills in the long summer months.
We are already seeing that climate change means hotter and longer heat waves, especially in the Central Valley, one of the poorest areas and most neglected areas of the state. Electrification can help, especially for low-income folks who lack affordable air conditioning. When you replace a gas or propane furnace, or a wood-burning stove, with a heat pump space heater, you get both the most efficient heating technology on the planet, and the most efficient cooling system too -- all in one. Gas furnaces can’t offer this, plus it is much more expensive to have two separate systems (heating + cooling) instead of one elegant and efficient heat pump that can do both.
Induction cooking also helps in a heat wave. When we had a gas stove we avoided cooking like the plague on hot summer evenings, because a gas stove and oven would heat up our entire house. An induction stove, on the other hand, only heats the bottom of the pot or pan directly using magnets (not flames) which heats the food. It’s twice as efficient as gas, requires a fraction of the cooking time, and is a pleasure to use even during the worst of the heat waves.
3) The gas system is vulnerable, especially to climate change and natural disasters.
California has over 150 thousand miles of gas pipelines crisscrossing the state. This gas system does not provide a reliable fuel source, as the industry claims. Gas infrastructure is aging and vulnerable, requires massive and costly upgrades, and will not be able to withstand the erratic and intensifying impacts of climate change. The gas system already has an abysmal safety record: According to the U.S. Pipeline Hazardous Materials Association, over the past five years, roughly every 4 days there was a gas pipeline incident that killed someone, sent someone to the hospital, and/or caused a fire and/or explosion. We can expect this system to be even more risky as the impacts of climate change set in.
The California Energy Commission warns that much of California’s gas system— particularly pipelines along the state’s waterways and coasts— is vulnerable to the impacts of climate change. The report describes how sea level rise, storms, flooding and associated erosion, can lead to pipes becoming inundated with water, become damaged (i.e. “cracking, fracturing or buckling”), and not being operable. TL;DR: Storms and other manifestations of climate change are expected to be be catastrophic to California’s gas infrastructure.
The gas system also takes 30 times longer to restore than the electric system after natural disasters. For example, after an earthquake it takes about 3 days to restore electricity to 60% of customers, whereas it can take over 2 months to restore gas service to that same portion of customers.
The path ahead
Absent policy intervention, electrification will not happen in time to help us stave off or be resilient to the climate crisis. And, without immediate planning and targeted policies, electrification will not happen in an equitable and just manner that protects or prioritizes low-income people or the workforce.
In fact, a recent study, E3 predicts that without proactive policies to manage the transition away from gas, low-income people would be the last to transition off gas -- not for lack of interest, but for lack of resources and because many are renters without control of what fuel heats their water or apartments. Being the last to transition off gas could mean having to shoulder the very high fixed costs of California’s massive gas system -- i.e. far higher gas rates than we face today.
This means that equitable electrification policies are not just incumbent on policymakers and agencies tasked with climate change mitigation, but also those decision-makers responsible for and concerned about climate change adaptation and resilience. For too long, climate change adaptation and mitigation have played a tug-of-war for limited budgets. Electrification is a fundamental strategy to achieve both, and requires deep and early investment by the state, air districts, counties and cities.
So, for those wondering how to keep their families' safe in the face of the climate crisis, electrification is a two-fer: We can act (i.e. electrify) to stop climate change, and in the process we can become more resilient to it.
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