Air Conditioning Bill Should Ensure Buildings Are Ready for Climate-Friendly HVAC Systems

Testimony of Mark Rodeffer
Sierra Club District of Columbia Chapter
Committee on Transportation and the Environment and Committee of the Whole
Hearing on the Climatizing our Overheated Living Spaces Regulation Act of 2023 (B25-0279)
Thursday, October 12, 2023

Thank you, Councilmember Allen and Chairman Mendelson for holding this hearing today on important legislation before the DC Council that would protect DC residents from the threats of climate change. My name is Mark Rodeffer and I’m testifying on behalf of the Sierra Club. We are the largest and most influential environmental advocacy organization in the nation, and we have about 3,000 dues-paying members in the District of Columbia.

The Sierra Club urges the DC Council to pass the Climatizing Our Overheated Living Spaces Regulation Act of 2023 (“COOLS Act”). Climate change is real and it is here. As we see increasingly extreme weather and hotter temperatures, DC must ensure that residents are able to stay safe and cool during the hottest summer months. We applaud Councilmember Henderson for introducing this bill. We have suggestions to strengthen it. And we urge the DC Council to approve the legislation. 

Meeting DC’s climate commitments will require that we transition home heating from burning fossil fuels (most commonly methane gas) to clean and efficient electric heat pumps, also called two-way air conditioners. The Clean Energy DC plan calls for DC to move from fossil fuel heating to clean and efficient electric heating. DC passed legislation prohibiting fossil fuel combustion in new buildings by 2026. And the Council is considering legislation to help low- and moderate-income households transition their homes from fossil fuel heating and cooking to clean and efficient electric systems.

The Sierra Club sees the COOLS Act as a key part of the transition to a clean energy economy. As landlords inspect air conditioners and correct any defects to ensure they are in good working order by May 1, they will at times determine that replacing an air conditioner is the best or only way to provide tenants with adequate air conditioning over the hot summer months. When an air conditioner is replaced, it should be replaced with a two-way air conditioner (also called a heat pump) that can provide cooling in the summer and heating in the winter. This is a matter of climate resilience and climate mitigation that will lower utility bills and make homes more comfortable.

When a one-way air conditioner is replaced with a two-way air conditioner that can provide heating and cooling, that will allow the home to stop burning fossil fuels for heat, which will improve indoor air quality and reduce climate pollution. But even with a two-way air conditioner, a building can continue using its gas heating system. Should the existing fossil fuel heating system fail, its replacement would already be in place, allowing the landlord or renter to turn on the heat from a two-way air conditioner immediately to stay warm. As introduced, the COOLS Act increases climate resilience in the summer, and a requirement for two-way air conditioners would add increased winter climate resilience. 

Additionally, two-way air conditioners can reduce utility bills because they are far more energy efficient than methane gas or electric resistance heating. Two-way air conditioners achieve efficiencies of 300% to 400%, meaning they produce three to four times as much heat as they use in energy. Gas furnaces have efficiencies of anywhere from about 75% to around 95% – meaning that two-way HVAC systems that provide heat are anywhere from three to five times as efficient as gas systems, resulting in significantly lower winter heating bills.

Though two-way air conditioners cost slightly more than one-way systems, generous federal rebates can lower the cost of two-way systems below the cost of a one-way air conditioner. The Inflation Reduction Act provides rebates of $4,000 to $8,000 per residential unit for two-way air conditioners, which the law calls heat pumps. There is no federal rebate for one-way air conditioners. The $8,000 rebate is available to households earning up to 80% of area median income, and a $4,000 rebate is available to households earning between 80% and 150% of area median income. The rebates are structured so that owners of multifamily rental buildings can receive rebates if more than half the building’s tenants meet the income requirements. Because of the Inflation Reduction Act, two-way air conditioners can be less expensive than one-way systems. This legislation should ensure building owners and residents enjoy the benefits of climate resilience, cleaner air, and lower utility bills that come with two-way air conditioners. 

There may need to be some exemptions to the two-way air conditioner requirement in buildings where it is not feasible. For instance, buildings with hydronic cooling systems – those circulating cold water for cooling – may need to be exempted because of the difficulty of replacing hydronic systems with heat pumps. All fossil fuel heating systems, hydronic or not, must be transitioned off fossil fuels by 2045 to achieve DC’s climate commitments. However, it can be a complex issue that may be outside the scope of this bill and thus better addressed elsewhere.

In addition to requiring two-way air conditioners, we believe the COOLS Act may need to be modified to require that air conditioners provide indoor temperatures more than 15 degrees below outdoor temperatures. The District has long seen summer high temperatures topping 100 degrees, and indoor temperatures of 85 degrees or more would be uncomfortable and can also be unhealthy, including for seniors and children, and those who are disabled, have heart or respiratory conditions, or are pregnant. Because climate change continues to intensify, we suggest the Council amend the bill to require indoor cooling levels that will be safe and comfortable when outdoor temperatures climb into the 90s and 100s on hot summer days.

Thank you, Councilmemeber Allen and Chairman Mendelson, for allowing the Sierra Club to testify in support of the COOLS Act. And thank you, Councilmember Henderson, for introducing it. We believe the legislation is an important climate resilience effort that can be improved to reduce climate pollution, save energy, lower utility bills, and improve air quality by moving from one-way to two-way air conditioners.