Just What Does “Building Electrification” Mean?


By George Moffatt and Steve Miller • NJ 50x30 Building Electrification Team

“Building electrification” encompasses a wide range of electrical solutions to many of our fossil fuel problems, with the hopes of putting a big dent in climate change and reducing early deaths from respiratory illnesses, especially in urban areas.

New buildings and retrofits of all old buildings must be highly energy efficient and use clean electrical power instead of fossil fuel–based energy. These changes include building heating and air conditioning, water heaters, laundry dryers, lighting, toothbrushes, and, of course, electric-vehicle (EV) charging. In our kitchens, we can replace our gas stoves, a source of methane, with electrical stovetop induction heating, which is cleaner and more efficient.

“Building electrification” involves two big changes. The first is powering our residential and commercial buildings with fossil fuel–free rooftop or commercial solar electricity, and eventually, current from windfarms. Say goodbye to the need for oil, gas, or coal to brew coffee, power lawn mowers, heat and cool buildings, or even drive to work. The second change is switching to energy-efficient technology, such as electric-powered air-to-air heat pumps that don’t generate heat but use a refrigerant to move heat out of buildings in summer and into them in winter.

Upgrading our homes to all-electric power is more important than we think, since homes account for 20% of greenhouse gas generation.

The goal is end-to-end, or source-to-consumer, all-electric power, for everything, everywhere. This source-to-consumer concept includes residential and commercial solar power, onshore and offshore wind-powered turbines, hydroelectric turbines, ocean wave energy (someday), and building and grid–based backup battery storage.

While some clean electricity–producing technologies are still in development, existing technologies are ramping up in both power and scope each day. Imagine life at the turn of the 20th century, when horseless carriages (automobiles) were invented as well as, ironically, battery-powered vehicles. Today, we’re ready for our next leap: end-to-end, high-performing, highly efficient, totally fossil fuel–free electrical energy.

We’re seeing positive developments already. Many automakers are planning to electrify large portions or all of their fleets by 2030—some could even reach 100% EV production within 5 years, according to Consumer Reports. In addition, battery powered “semis,” or tractor-trailers, are starting to roll, while “last mile” or “box” battery-powered delivery trucks and electric school and commercial buses have been here for longer.

Major improvements in solar panel technology have made solar farms more cost effective than fossil fuel–generated energy. While early solar panels produced about 200 watts per hour, today’s panels produce up to 700 watts, a 250% increase. Also, research is underway to replace today’s silicon-based panels with lower-cost perovskite-based photovoltaics that match or exceed silicon’s output. And, of course, there is continuing research on increasing energy storage capacity (super-batteries) for when the sun isn’t shining.  

The Sierra Club’s NJ Chapter building electrification effort is pushing electrification of buildings and technology and encourages everyone to quickly shift away from fossil fuels. Scientists and environmentalists have been warning about the dangers of fossil fuel use for decades.

As climate change causes major disasters across the globe, some climate researchers, frustrated by unresponsive politicians, special interests, and citizens who steadfastly ignore the scientific evidence, are asking each other quietly—and sadly—“Why do we even bother?”

Why bother? We have no choice! Thankfully, New Jersey is beginning to change direction, as evidenced by these and other developments:

• Gov. Phil Murphy signed an executive order last November targeting an interim greenhouse gas reduction target of 50% below 2006 levels by 2030 (“50 x 30”), and an 80% reduction in overall greenhouse gas emissions by 2050 (“80 x 50”).

• An environmental coalition, including the Sierra Club’s NJ Chapter, filed a petition in Appellate Court to force the state Department of Environmental Protection to immediately deny permits for any new fossil fuel projects that don’t meet existing state requirements.

• Since November of 2021, Murphy has announced over $20 million in funds for in electric buses and trucks in environmental justice communities; and the state’s Zero Emission Incentive Program (NJZIP) now has over $89 million in funds earmarked for the purchase of zero-emission vehicles for use in Camden, Newark, New Brunswick, and greater Shore areas.

Commercial EV charging stations are popping up everywhere—an important step since the transportation industry creates 42% of New Jersey’s greenhouse gas emissions.

In May 2022, our Chapter’s NJ 50x30 Building Electrification Team sent Murphy two letters that included a position paper recommending an initial goal of 100,000 new and retrofitted residential building units electrified by 2025 and 800,000 by 2030. The team also recently drafted two building electrification bills, for review by select NJ legislators for comments and sponsorship, to help rid NJ of polluting fossil fuels.

Those of a certain age may remember the old 1950s slogan, “Live Better Electrically.” Today, we must insist that our legislators and regulators develop effective, in-the-trenches legislation to tighten the noose on climate change.

Then we can “Live Better (and Longer) Electrically.”