Across the United States, 80 cities and counties have adopted policies that require or encourage the move off fossil fuels to all-electric homes and buildings. As of August 2022, nearly 28 million people across 11 states live in a jurisdiction where local policies favor fossil fuel-free, healthy buildings. And the momentum behind these policies keeps building — dozens more local governments have strong commitments to decarbonize their buildings stock, which will soon become formal policy.
This national wave of action is motivated by the numerous benefits — in terms of climate, air quality, health, economics, resilience, and safety — of shifting from fossil fuels to zero-emissions electric appliances.
Methane gas is now the largest source of climate pollution in the United States. Gas combustion in buildings produces at least 10 percent of the nation’s greenhouse gas pollution, and in dense urban areas it is often a leading source of climate pollution. Electrification is the only cost-effective pathway to decarbonize our buildings and avoid the worst consequences of climate change.
Fossil fuel appliances by releasing harmful pollutants like nitrogen oxides (NOx) that lead to smog. In fact, gas appliances emit more than twice as much NOx as gas power plants in the United States, despite consuming less gas. Many of the same states and regions with the worst smog pollution also have elevated levels of NOx emissions from appliances. Electrification can eliminate this pollution source and help us all breathe cleaner air. Learn More.
Fossil fuel extraction and appliance pollution harm public health and disproportionately impact BIPOC (Black, Indigenous, and people of color) and low-income communities. Due to systemic injustices, these communities have higher rates of illnesses, like asthma, that can be caused or exacerbated by appliance pollution. Exposure to fossil fuel appliance pollution in the United States led to over $65 billion in health impacts in 2017. BIPOC communities are exposed to nearly twice as much fine particulate (PM2.5) pollution from household gas appliances as White communities. These communities with heightened pollution exposure should be prioritized in the transition to electric appliances.
Across the country, all-electric single-family homes are less costly for builders and developers than building homes that require fossil fuel infrastructure. These cost savings allow developers to produce more market-rate and affordable housing units and endure other price fluctuations. Much of these savings are created by foregoing costly gas pipelines — which can carry a price tag as high as $15,000 per house.
With more frequent extreme heat waves, access to air conditioning is a health and safety imperative for many communities across the world. Many Americans — especially BIPOC and low-income households — either lack access to air conditioning or cannot afford to run it. Equipping homes with electric heat pumps, which provide highly efficient heating and cooling, will help families ride out dangerous heat waves.
Transmitting gas through pipelines creates significant fire and explosion risks. Between 2010 and 2021, US gas pipeline incidents that were reported to the federal government, which make up only a fraction of the total, occurred once every two days on average. Of the 2,600 reported incidents, one-third resulted in fires and one-eighth in explosions. These incidents led to a total of 122 deaths and 600 injuries, and they cost communities nearly $4 billion.
Local Building Electrification Policies and Case Studies
Local governments across the nation are feeling the heat and are eager to help their residents and businesses get off fossil fuels like gas. With the help of local experts, they have created a range of policy solutions, including:
- Building code amendments — Local building codes set requirements for new construction and/or major renovations. Local governments can include incentives or requirements for electric appliances through ordinances or laws that amend the local or state building code. The appliances and building types that are covered can vary or be phased in over time, or building codes can require all-electric construction for all new buildings.
- Building performance standards — A building performance standard, or BPS, sets a performance target that a building owner must meet over time. It may be an emissions target, meaning a building must reduce its total pollution below a certain threshold, or an energy target, meaning a building must reduce its total energy usage below a certain threshold by a specified date. Building owners can choose which upgrades to pursue to comply with BPS, and electrifying appliances is typically the best option due to the energy and emissions savings that heat pumps deliver. These standards typically apply to large public, commercial, and multifamily buildings. Model BPS include incentives and financing to help with the retrofits, as well as financial penalties for noncompliance.
Local policies to restrict gas expansion and accelerate clean energy retrofits vary in form and detail based on the local context, illustrating a wealth of paths to eliminate climate and air pollution in homes and businesses. Leading examples of local action prioritize the unique needs of low-income and historically marginalized communities while providing a clear and decisive shift away from burning fossil fuels in buildings.
Below are six examples of local electrification policies that were designed with input from key stakeholders and adapted to fit the local landscape.
New York City — Building code amendment and BPS:
A campaign led by New York Communities for Change, New York Public Interest Research Group (NYPIRG), WE ACT for Environmental Justice, and Food & Water Watch, with the support of dozens of grassroots groups and allies, secured Local Law 154, which amends NYC’s building code to require all-electric new construction in all buildings. New York City’s amendment takes a phased approach, requiring all-electric for new low-rise buildings in 2024 and for taller buildings in 2027. This law builds on earlier commitments to limit emissions in buildings larger than 25,000 square feet. With Local Law 154, New York City will be the largest city in the world to phase fossil fuels out of new construction starting in 2024. Climate change impacts and air pollution that stems from burning fossil fuels in buildings has been shown to disproportionately burden low-income communities and communities of color. By ensuring that no more buildings that use fossil fuels are constructed, the city is taking a significant first step in advancing environmental justice.
Boston — Building Performance Standard with EJ Fund:
More than 80 local community members and organizations, including ACE, City Life/Vida Urbana, and Chinese Progressive Association, and Clean Water Action helped design Boston’s building performance standard for commercial and multifamily buildings with a paired environmental justice fund. Boston’s Building Emission Reduction and Disclosure Ordinance limits carbon emissions from large, existing commercial and multifamily buildings with varying compliance dates based on building size. Building owners that fail to comply must pay a fee to a fund that invests in environmental justice populations that are most affected by climate pollution. This community-led compliance solution replaced traditional carbon offsets, which many local community groups criticized as a false solution that allows pollution to persist. While there are still critics of the policy, it provides a good example of community members finding common ground while actively testing out a solution to drive climate equity.
#BERDO 2.0 has been signed! We are proud of our collaboration with @MayorKimJaney & @BOSCityCouncil, which integrates #JustTransition theory into policy, moving us toward a regenerative economy grounded in the lived experiences of the people on the frontlines of pollution. 1/x pic.twitter.com/NhlbX0qhy0
— ACE (@AceEJ) October 5, 2021
Denver — Building Performance Standard:
Twenty-five diverse stakeholders, including the Pipefitters Local Union, local IBEW union, Energy Outreach Colorado, and Denver Housing Authority, joined a task force to help Denver design a building performance standard for commercial and multifamily buildings. Denver’s BPS limits the energy use in existing commercial and multifamily buildings over 25,000 square feet and requires heat pumps for space and water heating once current appliances meet their end of life. The policy grew out of a two-year stakeholder engagement process that included community engagement with individualized outreach from task force members. The task force also recommended a sales tax, which voters have approved, to raise $40 million a year for a climate protection fund, with at least half of the funds benefiting BIPOC and underresourced communities. Denver’s approach illustrates how a diverse multistakeholder effort can foster unique local solutions.
San Francisco — Building Code Amendment with Water Reuse Ordinance:
A broad set of stakeholders, including equity advocate Emerald Cities Collaborative and labor group San Francisco Local 38 Plumbers and Pipefitters, led a task force that informed the city’s building code amendment requiring all-electric new construction in all buildings. The task force solicited input from over 400 members of the public over six months to inform the county’s approach to zero-emissions new construction. In response to workforce comments, the county’s all-electric new construction policy was passed alongside a commitment to evaluate opportunities to expand requirements for recycled water on-site — a critical solution for drought-prone areas. A water reuse requirement passed the following year. While over 50 other local governments in California have enacted similar building code policies, San Francisco stands out because of its broad community engagement effort, especially with labor.
Seattle — New Construction Code and Heating Oil Tax:
Local advocates including Emerald Cities Collaborative, Shift Zero, and Washington Physicians for Social Responsibility, as well as labor groups such as MLK Labor Council, supported Seattle’s building code amendment requiring electric space and water heating in new commercial, large multifamily, and municipal buildings. Seattle’s building code created a blueprint for state action where advocates helped the Washington State Building Code Council pass the first statewide mandate on heat pump space heating in new commercial buildings. The city also passed an ordinance that created a heating oil tax that increases over time, with the revenue used to create a clean electric heat pump incentive program paired with weatherization for low-income homes. The heating oil ordinance is fitting for the local landscape, as 10 percent of Seattle’s single-family homes rely on heating oil, and electrifying can reduce both costs and emissions for these homes.
Though not active policy, legislation motions can serve as a meaningful tool to commit to equitable processes and future policies, as exemplified by Los Angeles below.
Los Angeles* — Energy Justice and New Construction Motions:
Environmental and economic justice coalitions LEAP and RePower LA, which are anchored by groups such as PSR-LA, LAANE, SCOPE, CBE, and Pacoima Beautiful, worked with the city of Los Angeles to pass two motions that commit to equitable electrification processes and policies. First, LA passed an energy justice motion with energy and housing justice principles to incorporate in local building decarbonization efforts. The motion also initiated a community engagement process to ensure that input from vulnerable and frontline communities informs equitable policies. Months later, the city passed a new construction motion to prepare an ordinance for all-electric new construction starting in 2023. The development of building decarbonization policy in LA stands out because advocates for environmental justice, housing, renters’ rights, and labor are actively working together and with decision makers to shape the future of their city.
*Not counted in our total until final binding regulation is adopted.
These examples illustrate the wide range of equitable programs and policies that can be created when any local government partners with its communities and stakeholders to develop groundbreaking solutions. For a comprehensive list of local building electrification policies, visit this tracker from Building Decarbonization Coalition.
With less than eight years to cut national building emissions in half, we need all hands on deck to reap the much-needed climate, health, and affordability benefits from transitioning off gas. Cities and counties have the power to influence building practices locally, and they must also use their political heft to make state and federal policies climate and equity-aligned.
By Leah Louis-Prescott, Rachel Golden
© 2021 Rocky Mountain Institute. Published with permission. Originally posted on RMI Outlet.
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