Imagine you’re moving into an apartment or a house. You ask the owner if there are any concerns you should know about.
The owner replies no, other than the highly explosive material coursing through your walls and foundation. They add that there’s no need to worry about the risk of explosion, in the event of an earthquake that ruptures the pipes (which are outdated and sensitive, but not a concern). Also, the low levels of toxic gas seeping from your appliances is totally normal. It only comes out when you use them.
Would you feel safe moving in?
For the most part, residents aren’t offered much choice: gas has been the dominant energy source for heating and powering homes since the 1930s. Yet this dirty fossil fuel harms our health by filling interiors with toxic pollutants that accumulate over a lifetime.
Gas may be a mainstay for heating homes, cooking food, and drying clothes, but it’s always been a deadly tradeoff. In the last nine years, gas infrastructure and distribution has caused dozens of fatalities, hundreds of injuries, and forced over 30,000 people to evacuate their homes. Within those giant numbers are tragic stories of real people whose homes were damaged and lives destroyed–like when a gas pipeline exploded in San Bruno, California in 2010, creating a 72-foot crater and killing 8 people.
Inside the home, gas appliances emit toxic particulate matter that we breathe every day. Gas stoves fill our homes with chemicals like nitrogen oxide, formaldehyde, and carbon monoxide, which can cause severe lung impairments and increased risk of cardiovascular disease. Without proper ventilation, a house with a gas burner can reach toxic indoor air quality levels that far exceed the EPA’s health recommendation – for outdoor air.
Along with endangering public health, extracting fossil fuels and burning them in our homes also creates climate pollution. Heating and powering buildings with gas creates about 10% of greenhouse emissions in the U.S. With climate change intensifying the destructive power of weather events, it’s even more imperative that we remove dirty fuels from our homes and energy grid.
The good news is that a future where anyone can live in a healthy home free of gas pollutants is more than a green dream. Switching from gas to electric appliances would remove deadly chemicals from our living spaces and our environment. Making sure that any new housing we build is all-electric can alleviate a public health crisis in our housing supply while helping protect us all from climate catastrophe.
(John Osgood for Earthjustice)
“We’ve taken 150 years of fossil fuel infrastructure as a given, because it’s been here so long,” says Mari Rose Taruc of the California-based nonprofit Reclaim Our Power, which advocates for a safe, reliable, community-and-worker-owned energy system. “But when people see something cleaner and better, it changes our expectations. It might sound cliché, but there’s a lot of psychology simply starting by believing that these things are possible.”
The utility companies responsible for pumping gas through the nation’s arteries could choose health over profit by investing in clean energy. But gas’s dominance is ingrained in our society: more than half of U.S. households run on gas power, and the residential sector alone sucks up 16% of the total gas consumption in the U.S.
Homeowners can choose to switch their appliances to electric power, but utilities don’t make it easy. Taruc explains that investor-owned or private utilities often lobby for laws that make it hard for people to switch to renewable energy. That’s because private utilities don’t want to share access to the ability to profit from clean energy — which would take money away from the wealthy investors that control them.
People should have a say in where their energy comes from, especially if it carries deadly risks. Groups like Reclaim Our Power advocate for programs that make clean power accessible to everyone – especially groups with greater health risks from indoor pollutants, like low-income households and communities of color.
“There are big racial inequities in clean energy solutions that prioritize homeowners,” cautions Taruc. “How can we get clean energy to the other side: renters and people in subsidized housing? New programs must have an equitable lens, instead of perpetrating the same injustices.”
While groups like Turac’s push to reimagine the system, Earthjustice attorneys are working behind the scenes on behalf of customers at state public utilities commissions, or PUCs. These commissions set the rules for our utility bills: what goes in them, and the maximum amount utilities are allowed to charge.
Our attorneys advocate at PUCs to raise energy efficiency standards and level the playing field for renewable energy in our communities. We’re also working in states like California to build a zero-emissions strategy alongside community advocacy groups and city leaders. So far, more than 30 municipalities in California now require or incentivize new residential and commercial buildings to use all-electric appliances. These ordinances make houses safer, cleaner, and more affordable: studies show that all-electric construction reduces the building costs by $6,000 per single family home, or $1,500 per apartment unit.
These local requirements prove that the technology for updating our homes is already available. What’s necessary now is a unified commitment from state and federal legislators to raise energy efficiency standards and remove the dangerous fossil fuels coursing through our homes.
Here are just a few clean energy swaps you can make in your own home:
Using gas to heat our water and interiors releases a significant amount of household carbon emissions. Gas is also inefficient, as furnaces break down with age due to dirty air filters and ductwork. Don’t forget about the risk of explosion, as ruptured gas lines account for 50% of fires after an earthquake.
Green Solution: Heat Pumps
Heating homes with clean energy can drastically lower carbon emissions (and negate the explosion factor). The most popular green alternatives are electric heat pumps, which work by pulling warmth from the air outside and pushing it indoors. This process is more energy-efficient than burning gas.
Gas stoves clog indoor air with toxic chemicals like carbon monoxide and nitrogen dioxide, which can damage lungs and increase the risk of cardiovascular diseases. They also inefficiently use energy: less than half of the energy produced by a gas burner actually heats the food.
Green Solution: Electric Stoves
Ditch the gas and let electric cooktops save your (vegan?) bacon. Induction stoves quickly heat surfaces using magnetic energy, and maintain more precise cook temperatures. Without an open flame, induction stoves conserve more energy and make cooking more comfortable — no sweltering kitchen.
Old gas appliances are huge money drains. The high amount of energy required to keep them running, much of which is wasted as ambient heat, translates to high utility bills. Modern efficient appliances can lower bills and create healthier households — yet barriers remain for people trying to switch their appliances to electric. Without rebates, upgrading can be financially out of reach for many people.
Ultimately, regulators must level the playing field for clean energy appliances. One way to do that is to remove limits on the ability of utilities to offer efficiency rebates for switching from gas to electric appliances, something California recently did to allow efficiency programs to support electrification.