Denise Grab is a manager and Jonny Kocher is an associate on RMI’s Carbon-Free Buildings team. RMI is an independent nonprofit founded in 1982 that transforms global energy systems through market-driven solutions to secure a clean, prosperous, zero-carbon future for all.
Building codes are long. They are wonky. They are dense. And they’re one of the most powerful tools policymakers can use to fight climate change, improve public health, and save households money.
States and cities across the country are revamping these often arcane ordinances to limit the use of fossil fuels in homes and workplaces. It’s an essential shift, as gas-powered appliances like furnaces and water heaters are a key component of global warming but rarely at the forefront of solutions. But most municipalities don’t have the resources to engage in the monthslong process of writing climate-aligned codes. That process can and should be easier.
California provides the latest model. Its pioneering Building Energy Efficiency Standards, which the state energy commission adopted unanimously in August, incentivizes builders to go all electric and prioritizes heat-pump technology. These highly efficient devices are essentially reversible air conditioners that warm buildings during the winter and cool them during the summer using electricity. Heat-pump water heaters, meanwhile, can heat water two to four times as efficiently as a gas unit.
Beyond the increased efficiency and built-in year-round comfort, all-electric buildings reduce carbon emissions, which is critical for meaningful climate action. The California Energy Commission estimates that the heat-pump measures in California’s new code will reduce the state’s carbon dioxide emissions by more than 30,000 metric tons per year. Assuming every new building in the state adheres to this standard starting in 2023, that would create a cumulative reduction of 1.1 million metric tons of CO2 by 2030. Even with today’s mix of power plants, 99 percent of U.S. households that replace a gas furnace with a heat pump would see reduced emissions within the 15 to 20 year lifetime of the appliance, according to an analysis by RMI. These reductions will only increase as renewable energy replaces fossil fuel generation across the country.
Transitioning to efficient electric appliances also reduces other types of air pollution. A recent Harvard study estimates that pollutants released by burning gas in buildings cause nearly 6,000 premature deaths per year nationwide. Gas appliances also create dangerous levels of contaminants indoors: According to a meta-analysis of more than four decades of peer-reviewed studies, children who grow up in a home with a gas stove are 42 percent more likely to experience asthma symptoms than those raised in a home with an electric stove.
All-electric homes are also thousands of dollars cheaper to build than homes with gas, because less piping is required, and builders only need to install one HVAC system rather than a furnace and an air conditioner. Affordable housing developers support such construction because the savings allow them to build more units for the same cost.
While California has moved ahead with an ambitious code, several other states, including New York, Massachusetts, Colorado, Washington, New Jersey, Nevada, and Wisconsin, are considering building codes as a climate solution.
This, of course, hasn’t escaped the notice of trade associations like the American Gas Association and the American Public Gas Association, which have lobbied against all-electric building codes and tried to stymie efforts by states and cities and the International Code Council (ICC) to adopt them.
Local and state governments have long relied on ICC suggestions and templates to advance energy efficiency and address climate change. In late 2019, the organization voted to include pro-electrification measures in the council’s model energy code for states and cities. But construction and fossil fuel industry groups lobbied to strike these provisions. The ICC’s leadership subsequently stripped the rights of cities and states to vote in the energy code development process and reversed some of the pro-electrification measures that had been passed.
In the wake of the ICC’s decision our clean energy nonprofit, RMI, and the New Buildings Institute launched Codes for Climate earlier this year. The initiative will provide free technical, policy, and implementation support for states and cities looking to adopt all-electric building codes that will help achieve their goals, including meeting greenhouse gas emission targets, reducing energy burdens, removing health risks, and improving resilience.
Each new gas building means the expansion of the pipeline system, so efficiency codes are a critical first step for states and cities. Improving new construction won’t fully solve the climate impact of buildings, of course. The next step is to tackle the ones already built, making them more efficient and emissions-free, all while prioritizing low- and moderate-income households. Decarbonizing our buildings will be a significant challenge, but there’s no time to waste.
The views expressed here reflect those of the authors.
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