The Building Decarbonization Coalition recently released a road map designed to help Californians stop their buildings from spewing greenhouse gases into the atmosphere. The road map charts a course toward reducing greenhouse gas emissions through highly-efficient systems and appliances powered by electricity instead of fueled by natural gas, which emits carbon into the atmosphere.
In California, building energy use accounts for about 25% of greenhouse gas emissions (GHGEs). Recent analyses from researchers including E3, the Rocky Mountain Institute and Synapse have shown that a transition to efficient electric appliances is the least costly and most effective way to reduce emissions from homes and buildings, according to the coalition’s 16-page Roadmap to Decarbonize California Buildings.
If the systems and appliances used are highly energy efficient, electricity is a better choice for the environment and costs less than natural gas, says Panama Bartholomy, director of the nonprofit group, formed last year to assist in transforming the buildings market toward electric systems and appliances.
The group consists of energy providers, utilities, manufacturers, builders, contractors and others interested in pushing electric-powered building infrastructure.
Thanks to California’s transition to carbon-free renewable electricity, the transition to electric building systems can be achieved by converting appliances to already available technologies powered by electricity, says the report.
For example, high efficiency electric heat pumps can provide clean space and water heating, induction ranges can provide a superior and safe alternative to gas-powered appliances in the kitchen, and efficient electric clothes dryers can be used in place of gas-powered dryers.
There are obstacles. “We need to have new products as quickly as possible so that builders and individual customers can make choices,” says Merrian Borgeson, a senior scientist with the Natural Resources Defense Council. “We need to re-educate the supply chain and provide incentives for those who go first.”
Carbon Neutral by 2045
The road map follows a law, signed by former California Gov. Jerry Brown (Dem.) last September, that allocates $50 million annually for four years to aid building owners to reduce energy costs, improve air quality and cut climate pollution. The law, called Senate Bill 1477 (SB 1477), is part of the state’s initiative to be carbon neutral by 2045.
To assist the state in achieving its 2045 goal, the California Public Utilities Commission (CPUC) initiated a proceeding, on Jan. 31, that will evaluate proposed methodologies related to the development of rules, policies and procedures aimed at reducing GHGEs from buildings.
SB 1477 requires the CPUC to oversee the development of two new decarbonization programs. They are named Building Initiative for Low Emissions Development (BUILD) and Technology and Equipment for Clean Heating (TECH).
The California Housing Partnership, a nonprofit created by state legislation to help increase to affordable housing for low-income Californians, “absolutely” supported SB 1477 because it sets aside 30% of its incentives for low-carbon building technologies for low-income households, many of which are in multifamily housing, says Stephanie Wong, the group’s policy director.
“It’s important not only to increase energy requirement standards but to increase the resources available for the building technologies we need to meet these standards," she says.
The decarbonization coalition aims to break down barriers to the use of electricity. There is low awareness of the problem and low interest in it. The value of switching, on the part of customers, builders and contractors, is perceived as low. The products are not available in quantity because of low demand. And the state misaligned policies, says Bartholomy.
Most states, not only California, have policies that discourage a switch to clean fuels. In California, of the $1.1-billion for energy efficiency, not a single dollar can be spent on fuel switching,” he says.
Another roadblock: Rate structures are not well-designed to promote switching from gas to electric heat.
The group is organizing campaigns, this year, to educate the consumer about the benefits of building electrification. It also intends to help create the appropriate market conditions for contractors to be able to install systems. “We need to support the contractors and builders by providing marketing materials, permitting support, rebates and easy-to-access financing so builders can offer the products,” Bartholomy says.
“We are working with the state to create demand through public policy and we are working with the manufacturers to advance the technology,” he adds.
Another goal is to help get incentives and rebates in place, such as those provided by SB 1477, “to lower the capital and operational costs of retrofits for hot water heaters, space heaters and stoves so they are the same cost or cheaper than systems that run on fossil fuels,” Bartholomy adds.
The CPUC will also investigate potential pilot programs for electrification and decarbonization of new construction areas damaged by wildfires. CPUC will also coordinate with the California Energy Commission on the state’s Title 24 building codes and Title 20 appliance standards.
Finally, the CPUC, through the rulemaking, will establish a building decarbonization policy framework.
“Reducing commercial and multifamily building GHG emissions is an essential part of the package of activities California must undertake to become carbon neutral by 2045,” says Terrie Prosper, a CPUC spokesperson.
The CPUC anticipates and encourages engagement from stakeholders to help form its policy. “We are encouraging and harnessing innovation to solve the challenges we face as a state in decarbonizing our buildings,” Prosper says.
The CPUC expects to host at least one public event in the next month to begin to develop its approach to implementing SB 1477. Information about participation is available at www.cpuc.ca.gov/pao.
A number of states are starting to think indirectly about building GHGEs as part of a longer-term thinking about climate goals and not just saving energy, says Borgeson. These include Massachusetts, Vermont, New York, Oregon and Washington.
“We’re decarbonizing at the powerplant scale, now we need to decarbonize at a local scale,” says Bartholomy. “There is no way we can meet our climate goals while still burning gas in our buildings.”