Buildings now are the leading source of air pollution from human activity connected to premature death—more than any other sector (see note below), including power plants, cars and trucks, and industry. More than ever, cutting fossil gas from new homes is a critical measure to protecting our health.
California homes and buildings emit more greenhouse gases (GHG) every year from gas appliances like furnaces and water heaters than all of our state’s power plants. These appliances harm the health of residents in their own homes. Gas stoves, which can spike emissions of nitrogen dioxide and carbon monoxide to levels that would be illegal if outdoors, are a primary source of combustion pollution indoors.
The California Energy Commission (CEC) is helping lead the path toward zero-emission buildings in line with carbon neutrality goals through its 2022 update of the statewide building energy code. This groundbreaking move takes effect in January 2023, positioning California as the first state in the nation to transition new homes and buildings off of fossil fuels and toward renewable clean energy.
New construction will support all-electric appliances and provide consumers with modern homes that offer cleaner and healthier options, by providing a strong financial incentive for builders. The code helps us get off fossil gas and onto clean electricity, mainly through home heating and hot water. The new energy code requires that either home or water heating appliances be as efficient as a heat pump—which is the most efficient and healthy option: heat pumps are at least twice to three times as efficient as gas appliances. Plus, heat pumps make your home’s air cleaner by avoiding the cocktail of chemicals that gas appliances bring in, such as nitrogen dioxide (asthma) and formaldehyde (cancer).
Benefits of electrification of buildings include:
- Cleaner air inside our homes and outdoors in our communities;
- Significant job growth for electricians retrofitting homes triggered by code updates;
- Reduction in gas combustion in buildings, which accounts for a quarter of the state total climate emissions, which, in turn, reduces climate and toxic air pollution; and
- All-electric construction—which is more cost-effective without the need of gas line connections—along retrofitted homes with heat pumps, which can deliver lower utility bills.
The CEC updates to the energy code build upon the work of 50 California cities that have adopted similar codes to get off gas, motivated by worsening air pollution, rising gas bills, the climate crisis, and safety risks from gas. This accomplishment wouldn’t have been possible without the robust coalition advocating to clean up the energy and air inside our buildings, including (and definitely not limited to) Sierra Club, the Building Decarbonization Coalition, Earthjustice, NRDC, Mothers Out Front, Rocky Mountain Institute, New Buildings Institute, Sunrise, American Institute for Architects, CERES, and thousands of activists all over the state who asked the CEC to take this essential step forward.
Now that the state has shown leadership in new buildings, the next step is to address the larger challenge: retrofitting existing buildings in order to ensure they are healthy, all-electric, and affordable.
(Note: “Electricity generation had been the largest source of air pollution from human activity tied to early deaths, but since 2018, emissions from commercial and residential activity have become the biggest contributor.” Steven Barrett, Director of the Laboratory for Aviation and the Environment at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology)
Blog author Daniel Calderon served as an Energy Foundation intern in the summer of 2021.