Buildings are responsible for a large portion of our total greenhouse gas emissions. As the grid approaches being powered by 100% renewable and/or clean energy sources, the enticing idea behind building electrification is that using only electricity for all of the energy needs in every building will help completely eliminate pollution and greenhouse gas emissions from that sector.
There are a variety of technical and socioeconomic issues embedded in this challenge that are unique because effectively upgrading every building will also mean upgrading our homes. For people who rent their homes, these kinds of upgrades aren’t often within their control, and the upgrade may incentivize the property owner to increase rent or seek new tenants who can pay higher rents to cover the upgrade costs. Moving from natural gas to electricity for some uses in the home may increase energy costs, adding to already high energy burdens experienced by low-income renters.
The idea of Equitable Building Electrification is similar to the idea of a Just Transition: it should be a set of principles, a process, and a practice. In order for the transition to a fossil-free future to be just and equitable, building electrification policies should avoid harming renters including displacement and increased costs, which many renters can’t afford, and where possible be a tool for increasing their economic power and well-being.
The extent of the risks from building electrification policy and implementation done carelessly can’t be understated because of how it’s connected to our housing security. In January 2019, according to HUD’s Point in Time Count, there were 567,715 people experiencing homelessness. With record unemployment from the health and economic crisis created by COVID-19, estimates of eviction risk because of loss of income range from 30-40 million more people.
These risks disproportionately target communities of color, especially Black, Latino, Indigenous, and undocumented immigrant communities. In addition to experiencing homelessness disproportionately, these groups have also experienced disproportionate deaths and unemployment from COVID-19, further weakening their ability to absorb “unintended consequences” from building electrification policies.
Existing studies show that the distribution of clean energy and its benefits are unequally distributed, typically skipping over groups and neighborhoods by race, even when controlling for income. In August 2020, ACEEE published research explicitly on the disproportionate energy burdens felt by these groups of people. To do things differently, and achieve equitable outcomes, these communities must be engaged from the beginning in policymaking and program design, and be the first to benefit from new investment in decarbonization.
This collection contains many existing, published resources available on the topic of electrification. They include documents like these, as well as other supplemental topics that might be useful depending on your geographic location or interest in technical information:
- Equitable Building Electrification Framework from the Greenlining Institute & Energy Efficiency for All California, which lays out the need for embedding equity at all stages in the process of policymaking for building electrification
- A comprehensive technical report titled “Electrification of buildings and industry in the United States” from scientists and researchers at the Lawrence Berkeley National Lab
- A study from ACEEE titled “How High are Household Energy Burdens?” which shows the disproportionately high energy burdens for various groups in the U.S.
- An article from National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) Centering Equity in the Sustainable Building Sector (CESBS) Initiative that illuminates how “green buildings” are a civil rights issue.