The Future of Buildings

As part of Futures Week, The Frontline is exploring the shift we’ll need to see within our homes and buildings. Gas is what largely feeds our heaters and stoves. If we want to protect the health and safety of our most vulnerable, however, they’ll need to go electric should we reduce our greenhouse gas emissions.

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Photograph by Boris Gassmann / EyeEm via Getty Images

If you look around, you may not immediately realize how gas—i.e. methane, a fossil fuel that companies have made more popular through fracking—is hiding in plain sight. Like, everywhere. Gas powers most of our electricity in the U.S. The pipelines that transport gas run some 3 million miles across the U.S., running underneath our roads, eventually making their way into our homes where they power our ovens, heat our living rooms, and warm our water.

 

If we’re serious about the climate emergency, we’ll need a plan to transition off gas. Methane is a dangerous fossil fuel; a study published last week found that Canada and the U.S. have been underestimating annual emissions from abandoned oil and gas wells by up to 150 percent and 20 percent, respectively. To help address this methane issue, we’ll have to eventually abandon gas altogether. That means electrifying our homes and appliances.

 

Welcome to The Frontline, where an electric revolution is on the horizon. I’m Yessenia Funes, climate editor of Atmos. As part of Futures Week, we’ve already looked at transit. Now, we’re looking at what the future of our buildings should look like if we’re going to seriously decarbonize this sector—as well as what we should expect to happen under President Joe Biden, who has promised to upgrade 4 million buildings and weatherize 2 million homes over the next four years.

 

 

 

 

 

 

Around the world, private air quality monitoring company Clarity has deployed technology to measure the level of pollution in cities like Guangzhou, China, and Accra, Ghana. Though CEO David Lu had launched these high-quality air pollution readers throughout some of the most polluted cities on Earth, he had never thought to install one in his kitchen. Until Bruce Nilles called.

 

Nilles is the executive director of Climate Imperative, a project by clean energy powerhouse Energy Innovation. He had been reading studies finding that gas stoves contribute to indoor air pollution of nitrogen dioxide, a dangerous gas that can lead to asthma and respiratory issues. “I was like, ‘This can’t be true,’” he says. “If this is true, someone would have fixed it.”

 

A straightforward meeting between Nilles and Lu resulted in the immediate realization that this is, in fact, true. After running two burners and the oven for 40 minutes (which is pretty standard when you’re preparing a whole meal), Lu saw the reader blow past federal limits of outdoor nitrogen dioxide pollution by two and a half times. Turns out that smaller spaces and older stoves contribute to higher levels of this gas. Given that low-income households often live in smaller spaces, they’re bearing a disproportionate health burden here, Nilles says.

 

A paper the Rocky Mountain Institute released last year assessed all those studies Nilles found himself getting lost in and put it in layman’s terms for the general public. The institute found that homes with gas stoves may have nitrogen dioxide concentrations 400 percent higher than homes with electric stoves. In fact, these concentration levels are oftentimes more than the 100 parts per billion, on average, the Environmental Protection Agency allows outside per hour.

 

“When I think about a utopian world or a world we’re inspiring to live in in the future, it’s a world where we’re not having profound impacts on the climate and the simple act of cooking our food doesn’t result in asthma attacks and a whole bunch of respiratory ailments associated with burning fossil fuels,” Nilles says.

 

So not only is this gas contributing to the climate crisis—it’s also creating toxic conditions for us inside our homes. These days, as more of us spend time inside and less time eating at restaurants, this is an especially scary reality. There are also the real fears around carbon monoxide poisoning when a stove is accidentally left on or the increased risk of fire when a flame is involved. Or how about the very real gas leaks and explosions communities face when infrastructure fails?

“We want decision makers to ask questions and not make assumptions.”

Carmelita Miller

GREENLINING INSTITUTE

We’re not short on health and safety reasons to leave gas behind, yet they rarely break into the discourse around this transition. It’s a key ingredient that’s missing in the messaging to bring community members and homeowners on board to electrify their homes. Cities across California and beyond have still succeeded to pass bans on new gas lines for buildings, but the gas industry has been quick to clap back with talking points around the so-called affordability of gas while excluding any mention of indoor air pollution or health costs. As a result, states like Louisiana have already passed legislation to prevent that from happening.

 

However, if we’re going to make Biden’s goal of pollution-free power by 2035, gas has got to go. Unlike other changes we need to see someday one day—like carbon-free planes and ships—we already have all the tools we need to make this one a reality. We don’t need to wait for some technological innovation. We just need to put into motion steps to wean ourselves off gas and upgrade buildings and homes to support all the electricity they’ll need for our services. Energy transitions have long been a part of human history. First, from wood to coal, kicking off the Industrial Revolution. Then, to oil and eventually gas. Now, we move on to renewables.

 

“In the past, economic considerations superseded public health and environmental factors,” said Rory Christian, an energy expert teaching at Columbia University, in an email. “Globally, we better understand the public health and environmental impact of fossil fuel use and that understanding is a key driver in the transition towards renewable energy.”

 

No city has yet announced a plan to remove gas infrastructure that already exists. The focus has been firstly on new construction—which has to stop, ASAP—but all the current gas lines and gas appliances will eventually need to go, too. Panama Bartholomy, the director of the Building Decarbonization Coalition, expects much of the lines will be left in the ground because it’ll be more cost-effective than tearing it all up. That means we’ll need a robust gas workforce for years to come to ensure that work happens safely. We’ll need to think of them and their futures during this transition, too.

 

Policy should incentivize electric alternatives to encourage homeowners and landowners to replace that gas water heater with an electric one down the line. More importantly, this policy needs to center our most vulnerable to ensure they aren’t forgotten about and excluded from this transition. Communities of color will benefit from this reduced health risk, especially Black people who die from asthma at a higher rate than other communities.

 

The Greenlining Institute has laid out some clear steps to center equity as more cities begin electrifying their buildings. Top of the list? Ask community leaders and members what they need. Start there, and build a plan around that, says Carmelita Miller
, the director of energy equity at the Greenlining Institute who helped author that report. The everyday family isn’t worried about electric-only appliances. They’re worried about their next utility bill. They need more jobs and less household costs. Decision makers should explore avenues to address local concerns while paving a path toward electrification. And they can. They just need to take the step to reach out and assess those needs.

 

“There’s a disconnect between different stakeholders, and it goes back to not taking the first step of making sure that conversations are inclusive,” Miller says. “We want decision makers to ask questions and not make assumptions.”

 

The electric future is on its way. It’s a cleaner, more comfortable future, as Bartholomy puts it. It’s a future where our air—both inside the home and outside—is safer to breathe as gas and oil go the way of coal. It doesn’t have to be a pipe dream if we dare to hold the Biden administration accountable for all it’s promised. For too long, the energy industry has operated with profit in mind—not people. Let’s flip that. And let’s design people-centric buildings along the way.

 

As Miller told me, what’s the point of a highly efficient and electrified futuristic building if no one can afford to live in it?

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