The building sector’s climate impact does not receive enough scrutiny. That will change in 2020, the author writes. MIKE HENCHEN, RMI, in GreenTechMedia, Feb 17, 2020
A growing number of American cities are enacting electrification measures to limit gas use. 24
Fossil fuels, primarily gas, are a fixture in millions of American homes and businesses, but the building sector’s climate impact hasn’t received the same scrutiny as coal and gas in the power sector or oil in the transportation sector.
Fortunately, that’s changing.
In 2019, more than 20 California cities jump-started a building decarbonization movement when they took steps to eliminate gas from new buildings, ensuring they will instead be constructed with electric appliances such as heat pumps. At the end of the year, Brookline, Massachusetts joined the movement, and more cities around the country are expected to enact electrification measures in 2020.
The gas industry is mobilizing to oppose these measures, setting the stage for local battles across the country. 2020 could mark a turning point for building-sector emissions, according to a new Rocky Mountain Institute analysis.
Here are five charts illustrating why a growing number of cities and states are turning their attention to fossil fuels in buildings and why the electrification movement is critical to addressing climate change.
The U.S. Electric Grid Is Getting Cleaner, But Not the Buildings Sector
Thanks to the rapid decline of coal generation and the growth of wind and solar power, the electric grid is quickly getting cleaner. As a result, the U.S. electric sector reduced its carbon emissions by 26 percent from 2005 to 2018. Preliminary estimates for 2019 indicate that this trend is accelerating, with another 10 percent drop just from 2018 to 2019.
Building-sector emissions, on the other hand, remain largely unchanged despite energy efficiency gains. This is because more than half a million new customers are added to the U.S. gas system each year. In order to bend that curve and cut direct building emissions, states and cities will have to 1) pursue policies that end the expansion of new gas infrastructure and 2) accelerate the transition to electric heating and cooking.
The Majority of Direct Building Emissions Are Coming From Burning Natural Gas
While oil is still used for heat in many Northeastern states, and propane is used in rural areas around the country, gas produces the majority of direct building emissions in the U.S.
Between the direct emissions from burning gas and the methane that leaks throughout the supply chain, fossil gas accounts for more than half a billion tons of annual emissions (81 to 87 percent of overall direct building emissions), making it an important target for communities looking to cut carbon emissions, particularly in states that have already made significant progress cleaning up their electricity supply.
Most of the Top-Emitting States Have Ambitious Climate Change Goals
Most states with the highest proportion of emissions from burning fossil fuels in buildings also have ambitious climate change targets — generally 80 percent emissions reductions by 2050 or greater. This dramatic decarbonization pace means it’s simply not possible for these states to meet their climate goals without rapidly electrifying buildings.
To get a sense of the scale of this challenge, consider New York, America’s top state in terms of gas consumption in buildings and direct building emissions. To meet the targets laid out in the state’s ambitious new climate change law, RMI analysis estimates that New York will have to decarbonize 1,600 commercial buildings and 67,000 residential units per year between now and 2030.
Gas Infrastructure Spending Is Rising Rapidly
New spending on gas infrastructure tripled from 2009 to 2017, rising to $14.9 billion per year, even as the overall U.S. gas distribution system continues to get older.
In many places including Chicago and Massachusetts, new programs to accelerate pipe replacement are imposing high costs on customers. Not only are these infrastructure investments costly and time-intensive, but they’re also incongruent with climate change goals because they lock in decades of new emissions.
The utilities installing these new pipes (and the customers who use them) continue to build up their exposure to the financial risk that they will be holding un-depreciated assets that are no longer useful in a climate-aligned future. Policies that accelerate the transition to all-electric homes and buildings can put cities on a path to retiring these expensive assets rather than replacing them.
All-Electric Homes Are on the Rise Across the Country
While all-electric buildings may be the future of heating, cooking and maintaining a comfortable indoor environment, they’re already far more common — and more affordable — than most people realize. One in four U.S. homes is all-electric, and that number is rising in all regions, with the highest overall percentage in the South.
Even in colder climates in the Midwest and Northeast, millions of homes are already all-electric and fossil-fuel-free. Thanks to recent advancements in heat pump technology, the devices are now far more effective at heating in colder environments. Cold-climate states like Maine and Vermont have implemented programs to develop heat pump markets, spurring sharp increases in deployment.
This confluence of economic, climate, technical and policy trends will make 2020 a big year for building electrification.
Mike Henchen is a manager at the Rocky Mountain Institute.
The Impact of Fossil Fuels in Buildings
A Fact Base
A tenth of total US carbon emissions come from burning fossil fuels – primarily gas – for heating and cooking in homes and businesses. While most people don’t think twice about using these appliances, the emissions they produce are a threat to climate action and public health. Cities have begun taking steps to eliminate fossil fuels in buildings, but far more must be done to stop the spread of gas infrastructure and eliminate these emissions.
This fact base offers a crash course in direct building emissions, showing where they come from and how they fit into the overall emissions picture in the US. These data and charts also provide an understanding of the utilities and infrastructure that deliver gas, the buildings and appliances that use it, and implications for air quality and human health. By characterizing the scope of the problem, we hope to spur the swift, ambitious action needed to combat it.
Explore some of the data in the online charts below and click the ‘Download’ button above for the full report as both a PDF and PPT.
Learn more about how this problem impacts you:
- Fossil Gas Has No Future in Low-Carbon Buildings by Mark Silberg
- A New Approach to America’s Rapidly Aging Gas Infrastructure by Mike Henchen and Kiley Kroh
Direct building emissions have remained relatively flat for years with a peak in 2014
With today’s electric grid, building electrification reduces greenhouse gas emissions
10 states are responsible for 56% of direct building emissions nationally
Gas distribution system expenditures have tripled between 2009 and 2017, to $14.9 billion per year
Appliance sales account for another $18 billion annual expenditures:
- ~4M gas water heaters, totaling $4-5B
- ~3.4M gas furnaces, totaling $14.5B
Source: American Gas Association
More than 60% of homes use gas or other fossil fuels for heating
Primary heating fuel of residences by census division, 2015 Click a division below to view its data. Click here to view total US data
TAGS: BUILDING ELECTRIFICATION
The Economics of Electrifying Buildings
2018 | By
FULL REPORTDOWNLOADShares Seventy million American homes and businesses burn natural gas, oil, or propane on-site to heat their space and water, generating 560 million tons of carbon dioxide each year—one-tenth of total US emissions. But now, we have the opportunity to meet nearly all our buildings’ energy needs with electricity from an increasingly low-carbon electric grid, eliminating direct fossil fuel use in buildings and making obsolete much of the gas distribution system—along with its costs and safety challenges.
In Rocky Mountain Institute’s new report, The Economics of Electrifying Buildings, we analyze the economics and carbon impacts of electrifying residential space and water heating both with and without demand flexibility—the ability to shift energy consumption in time to support grid needs. We compare electric space and water heating to fossil-fueled space and water heating for both new construction and home retrofits under various electric rate structures in four cities: Oakland, California; Houston; Providence, Rhode Island; and Chicago.