The combustion emissions from the building sector now contributes to the largest share (37 percent) of premature deaths associated with air pollution, compared to other sectors like transport, industry, and power generation.
May 5, 2020 | By Brady Seals, RMI
As a global pandemic shines a new light on health, air pollution, and the disproportionate impacts on vulnerable populations, it exposes the need to protect the public from risks both outside and inside the home.
Outdoor air pollution is a serious threat: five out of 10 Americans live in areas with unhealthy air, according to the American Lung Association’s new State of the Air report. But indoors, air pollution is largely unregulated, despite risks associated with common household appliances. For instance, decades of scientific research have shown that gas stoves release toxic pollutants that can damage human health, but governments have done little to educate the public or accelerate the transition to all-electric cooking.
There are clearly climate and economic arguments for electrifying buildings, but there is also a profound health imperative. According to new research from MIT, the combustion emissions from the building sector now contributes to the largest share (37 percent) of premature deaths associated with air pollution, compared to other sectors like transport, industry, and power generation. The opportunity is ripe for lawmakers and regulators to turn their attention to safeguarding public health by reducing building emissions and to focus on creating healthier homes when rebuilding from the current crisis.
There are clearly climate and economic arguments for electrifying buildings, but there is also a profound health imperative. A new RMI report highlights the impact of gas stoves on air pollution and public health. Tweet
A new Rocky Mountain Institute report, published in collaboration with Physicians for Social Responsibility, Mothers Out Front, and Sierra Club, focuses on the impact of gas stoves on indoor air pollution and public health. It synthesizes the last two decades of health research, highlighting eight key findings (previewed below), and providing recommendations for policymakers, individuals, health professionals, and researchers.
- The indoor environment, where we spend 90 percent of our time, can be more polluted than the outdoors. Gas stoves are a primary source of combustion (burning) pollution inside the home. Cooking on gas can spike emissions of nitrogen dioxide and carbon monoxide to levels that would violate outdoor pollutant standards. This finding is underscored by new modeling from researchers at the University of California Los Angeles (UCLA).
- Homes with gas stoves can have nitrogen dioxide concentrations that are 50–400 percent higher than homes with electric stoves. The US Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) recently strengthened its assessment of nitrogen dioxide, finding a causal relationship between short term exposures and respiratory effects.
- Certain populations are more susceptible to the risks of gas stove pollution.
- Children are more vulnerable to air pollution due to several factors including their developing lungs and smaller body size. Children in a home with a gas stove have a 24–42 percent increased risk of having asthma.
- Lower-income populations and communities of color may be disproportionately impacted, with risk factors including increased exposure due to smaller and older homes and higher rates of asthma.
“Like coronavirus, gas stove pollution may affect lower-income families disproportionately,” said Dr. Robert Gould, president of PSR-San Francisco Bay Area and associate adjunct professor at University of California San Francisco School of Medicine. “These communities must be prioritized when designing incentives and policies to support transitions to clean electric alternatives.”
Go Electric in the Kitchen
Air pollution is preventable. If there was ever a doubt, one only needs to read the headlines related to improved air quality in the wake of Covid-19. The path toward recovery must simultaneously boost economic growth and address the indoor and outdoor pollution that impacts public health. The new UCLA report found that in California, if all residential gas appliances were changed to clean electricity, the state could monetize $3.5 billion in health benefits every year.
Electrifying buildings is a key component of local climate and health action, as it reduces both the harmful emissions and health impacts related to buildings, and can be an important job creation tool. Policymakers can act now to rectify the lack of regulation protecting people from gas stove pollution. This will require a collaborative effort from stakeholders and elevated political will from policymakers to set health-based regulation. Action is not unprecedented and can be expanded:
- Canada recently strengthened outdoor nitrogen dioxide standards and indoor guidelines to better protect health. Guidelines can be set by the US EPA and local and state policymakers and air districts to protect the most sensitive populations. This is a critical first step.
- State and local policymakers can provide financial incentives, such as tax credits or rebates, to enable lower-income households to add plug-in induction cooktops or switch to electric. Sacramento Municipal Utility District (SMUD), for instance, is currently offering its customers a $100 to $500 rebate for installing an induction stove.
- The Massachusetts Medical Society recently formally recognized the health risk of gas stoves, becoming the first medical body to do so and committing themselves to educate others about the issue. Health professionals play an important role in raising awareness and encouraging families to minimize risk.
Although everyone deserves to breathe clean air, pollution—indoors and outdoors—does not affect everyone equally. By building back better from this crisis we can create healthier and more resilient buildings. For all.
April 29, 2020 READ MORE
Building Electrification: Opportunities for Job Training while Sheltering in Place
Over the past several weeks, in order to fight the spread of the coronavirus, millions of Americans have been ordered to stay at home. Businesses across the United States have shut their doors, forcing more than 26 million Americans to file for unemployment benefits while they wait to get to the other side of this crisis.
Now national and local leaders are grappling with a key question: what happens when the economy reopens? While many state economies are on pause, legislated emissions reduction targets (and the threat of climate change) are not. States around the country are looking at the buildings sector—a significant source of emissions—as an important piece of the puzzle to tackle and an opportunity to develop a new workforce.
Virtual training opportunities present a timely option for local leaders amid current “stay-at-home” orders and several states have already taken the lead to create or shift training courses online. New York—the largest producer of direct building emissions in the United States—is the latest to step up and prioritize this sector specifically, recently announcing several exciting initiatives.
Skills Supply Gap as Building Electrification Demand Grows
Across the United States, the movement to replace fossil fuel-burning furnaces, water heaters, and cooking ranges with electric alternatives has gained significant traction, driven by city and state climate policies, a desire for cleaner and healthier buildings, and consumer economics.
Demand is growing for heat pumps, in particular, as consumers seek more energy-efficient technologies to heat their buildings and state and city governments address the need to slash emissions from the buildings sector. While heat pumps have been used for many years in buildings around the country, recent technology advances—especially in the area of cold climate heat pumps—have now made them a key solution in driving down buildings sector emissions.
As heat pump deployment goals come into play alongside increased consumer awareness and interest, however, there is a potential shortage in the supply of trained heat pump installers to meet this growing demand. The Northeast Energy Efficiency Partnership (NEEP), for example, found several installer-related market barriers for heat pumps, including the inability to find experienced contractors and installers, and a lack of familiarity with the technology among the Heating, Ventilation, and Air Conditioning (HVAC) community.
While government and utility investment in training energy efficiency and renewable energy professionals has grown to a fairly established state over the past decade, similar training for electrification technologies has lagged behind. There is an opportunity to fill this gap through heat pump training programs, and to do so in virtual environment. In fact, several states have already adapted to the new reality and have created new virtual training programs or are expanding existing training programs online.
Remote Training Available for Electrification Technologies
Just last week, in a COVID-19 response letter from the Department of Public Service (DPS) and New York State Energy Research and Development Authority (NYSERDA), New York announced its continued strong support for energy efficiency, clean energy, and heat pump communities – including enhanced workforce and contractor training and outreach while the workforce is idle.
Taking comments and input from over 800 participants on a joint DPS and NYSERDA webinar in March, New York doubled down on the need to develop the contractor base supporting the state’s building electrification goals, announcing that virtual trainings targeting the heat pump workforce would be expedited. Currently, at least 15 different heat pump related training courses appear on NYSERDA’s directory of free online clean energy training, but more are expected as NYSERDA pursues the actions listed in its letter.
In California, Pacific Gas & Electric (PG&E) has created an all-day training webinar focused on electric heat pumps for domestic space and water heating. The course covers ducted and ductless heat pump systems, interactions with indoor air quality issues, and unitary and split heat pump water heaters for both new construction and existing buildings. In addition to how the technology works, the course also covers the energy savings and emissions reduction potential of heat pumps so that installers can understand and discuss these benefits with building owners.
Efficiency Vermont has assembled a resource hub of on-demand, video-based training including an introduction to heat pump water heaters and proper installation techniques. After watching the training, contractors can take an online quiz to become members of the Efficiency Excellence Network in Vermont.
“We recognize partners are not always able to attend in-person trainings, so we are building up our online presence with more live webinars and pre-recorded resources so information can be accessed more quickly and easily at times that best suit their business,” said Matt Kilcoyne, Program Manager at Efficiency Vermont. “We learn just as much from our partners as they do from us, so offering a variety of ways to collaborate is critical to our shared goals of supporting our local economy while reducing energy costs and carbon emissions here in Vermont.”
Neighboring Maine is offering web-based heat pump basics and installation training, from selecting the right unit to siting considerations, through Efficiency Maine Trust. Some aspects of the course, such as program requirements for Efficiency Maine, are targeted specifically toward registered in-state heat pump vendors. Other elements, such as cold climate performance and protection from snow, are highly applicable to heat pump installers in other states and regions with similar climates.
While the above isn’t an exhaustive list, it highlights notable examples of virtual opportunities to increase knowledge around the benefits and installation techniques for heat pumps and other electrification technologies, and at no cost to local contractors and residents.
An Opportune Time to Prepare a New Workforce
Many states’ stay-at-home orders have extended into June, while others have emphasized re-opening will take a measured, phased approach. Social distancing requirements, necessary to prevent the spread of COVID-19, have meant that contractors and installers in many states have suspended all field and on-premises work, threatening jobs for efficiency providers, trade allies, and contractors.
While virtual training is not a cure-all, it is a solution that can be implemented quickly by providers and easily accessed by contractors at home. As society reopens and heads toward a new normal, workforce development initiatives will have to also ensure funding is available for electrification pilot projects, incentives, and low-cost financing schemes to kickstart the market once again.
In the meantime, this dry spell of work—while a difficult time for many—presents an opportunity to ensure workers are trained and ready to take on necessary jobs when the economy reopens. This period of collective hibernation can be seized as a window to build the workforce needed to meet the sizable demand for clean and healthy electric buildings across the United States.
Job Creation through Building Electrification in California
April 1, 2020READ MORE
Sheltering in Place: Are Our Homes the Shelter We Need?
April 20, 2020