By: Scott Shell, FAIA, Henry Siegel, FAIA, Joel Stout, AIA
What is building electrification?
All electric buildings use electricity exclusively to run heat pumps, induction cooktops and other high efficiency appliances rather than burning natural gas in any form on site — in furnaces, water heaters or gas stoves.
Why is it important?
Buildings are responsible for about 25% of greenhouse gas emissions in California; two-thirds of this comes from burning fossil fuels. The proportion of greenhouse gas emissions from gas combustion will keep growing as California’s electric grid gets closer to its legislated goal of 100% clean electricity by 2045. All-electric buildings eliminate fossil fuel combustion on site and have many benefits:
- Lower carbon emissions: All-electric homes reduce GHG emissions by half compared to a mixed fuel building in 2020.
- Less pollution: Fossil fuel combustion produces toxins–including nitrogen dioxide and carbon monoxide — leading to unhealthy air in many homes. California burns more gas in buildings than in powerplants, yet buildings have no pollution control and emit six times more NOX pollution than power plants.
- Lower construction cost: A heat pump provides both heating and cooling in one appliance and costs less than a furnace and an air conditioner. Eliminating gas piping, flues, and the gas meter further reduces costs. An all-electric new home in Los Angeles costs about $9,000 less to build than one with gas.
- Lower lifecycle cost: The life-cycle cost for an all-electric single or multi-family home is $200-$400 lower every year than one with gas. The life-cycle costs for non-residential projects are usually lower–including for offices, academic buildings, and labs.
- Increased efficiency: heat pumps are 3-4 times more efficient than gas appliances. A gas furnace is 80-90% efficient, while a heat pump is 350% efficient.
- Widely used: heat pumps are the same technology that is in refrigerators and air conditioners, they just include a reversing valve to move heat in both directions. Since 1970 more homes have been built with electric heat than with gas.
- Resiliency and safety: Gas appliances and propane tanks become dangerous sources of fuel during wildfire and earthquake events, leading to additional fires and explosions. Modern gas appliances have electronic ignition and controls and will not work during power outages. However, electrical equipment, when paired with on-site renewable energy and battery storage, can be designed to run when the grid is down.
What’s changed? – Hardware
- Heat pumps: until recently gas water heaters and furnaces were more efficient than electrical appliances. With the advent of high efficiency heat pumps for space heating, water heating, and even clothes drying this is no longer true: electrical equipment is far more efficient and produces far fewer carbon emissions. If gas is eliminated completely, overall construction cost is lower since no gas infrastructure is installed.
- Induction cooking: induction cooking heats cookware directly through magnetic induction. The experience of cooking is very similar to cooking with gas and nothing like cooking on older electric resistance cooktops; after personal experience with induction stoves, 90% of people report a positive impression. With induction cooking temperatures can be quickly adjusted as with gas; there is no lag time. Induction cooking is even being adopted in commercial kitchens because of its advantages over cooking with gas.
- The cost of photo voltaic systems continues to fall rapidly and currently ranges from between $2.50 to $3.30 per watt.
What’s changed? – Utilities, Codes
- The electric grid: in 2019 36% of California’s electricity came from renewable energy and 63% from non-fossil fuel sources. The state’s Renewable Portfolio Standard increases to 60% by 2030 and 100% carbon free electricity by 2045.
- New code requirements for on-site renewable energy will reduce the line loss associated with electric energy produced off site.
- Can the electric grid handle all electric buildings? California’s peak electric demand is due to air-conditioning in the summer. Most of the increased load due to building electrification comes in winter improving the utilization rate of the electric grid, which should lower cost.
- PG&E, the largest publicly regulated utility in California publicly endorses electrification even though they supply both gas and electricity.
- Utility companies and Community Choice Aggregators are offering 100% “clean” or renewable energy as on option, and, in many cases, as the default choice for their customers.  
- Gas leakage: new research has shown that the amount of gas that leaks from gas distribution systems, and the carbon emissions associated with these leaks, are many times higher than previously thought. 
- Code changes: Codes are being revised to eliminate earlier rules that gave preference to gas equipment (when it was the better choice.) Upcoming code revisions will include preferences for all-electric buildings.
- Reach codes: Over 30 jurisdictions throughout the state have passed reach codes that prohibit the use of gas or require higher levels of energy efficiency for buildings using gas in new structures.
What you can do right now!
- If you are designing a new building, work with your engineers to analyze and propose all-electric equipment and appliances rather than gas equipment and appliances.
- If you are rehabilitating existing buildings analyze the costs of “fuel switching” to all electric equipment. This may be limited by the size of the electrical equipment, but rebates are available for fuel switching.
- Assist local jurisdictions in passing reach codes that mandate all electric construction for new buildings
Additional Tools and Resources:
- A 5-Step Roadmap to Zero-Emissions Buildings in CA:
- Building Electrification Action Plan for Climate Leaders: https://www.sierraclub.org/sites/www.sierraclub.org/files/Building%20Electrification%20Action%20Plan%20for%20Climate%20Leaders.pdf
- Building Electrification:
- A Roadmap to Decarbonize California’s Buildings:
- Indoor air pollution and gas cooking:
Authors: Scott Shell, Henry Siegel, Joel Stout
 “Decarbonization of Heating Energy Use in California Buildings,” Synapse Energy Economics, October 2018, Table 9.
 Residential Building Electrification in California, E3 Energy + Environmental Economics, 2019. P. 56. https://www.ethree.com/wp-content/uploads/2019/04/E3_Residential_Building_Electrification_in_California_April_2019.pdf
 Residential Building Electrification in California, E3 Energy + Environmental Economics, 2019. P 76. https://www.ethree.com/wp-content/uploads/2019/04/E3_Residential_Building_Electrification_in_California_April_2019.pdf