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Building Decarbonization Is Essential: Here’s How It Works

In the fight against climate change, one of the biggest challenges we face are fossil fuels. Fossil fuels, like natural gas, oil, and coal, are non-renewable resources and create air pollution and greenhouse gas emissions both when they’re extracted and when they’re used.

A big place that fossil fuels are used is in buildings. Natural gas and oil are often used as the main energy source to heat homes – for example, you might have a boiler, a gas stove, a hot water heater, or a furnace that burns fossil fuels in your homes. Natural gas is also used for cooking in many homes. Burning fossil fuels like gas or oil to provide heating, cooling, and hot water in buildings is a big source of air pollution and greenhouse gas emissions. And since these fuels are burned indoors, the air pollution can have harmful health effects on you as well.

Building decarbonization is the process of reducing or eliminating the carbon dioxide emissions that contribute to climate change from a building’s energy sources. As we look to eliminate emissions that contribute to the climate crisis throughout our economy, upgrading 100 million homes to electricity instead of natural gas can reduce 40 million metric tons of carbon dioxide a year — equivalent to taking over 8 million cars off the road. And building decarbonization has many added benefits, like improved indoor air quality.

How Does Building Decarbonization Work?

There are four main components to building decarbonization.

Person installing wall insulation at a home.

Adding wall insulation helps make a home more energy efficient.

1. Energy Efficiency

The first step of building decarbonization is to make the building as energy efficient as possible. That way, the building doesn’t need to use as much energy to operate. At your home, this could mean something like adding wall insulation so that heat doesn’t escape during the winter, and your heating system uses less energy. Other energy efficiency solutions include using LED lightbulbs, ENERGY STAR certified appliances, and a smart or programmable thermostat. In addition to saving energy, these improvements make the building more comfortable, and save money on energy bills.

2. Electrification

The next step for decarbonization strategy is electrification – that’s what we call replacing the equipment in the building that uses fossil fuels with the latest electric technology. One example of electrification is replacing your furnace, which burns natural gas, with a heat pump, which uses only electricity to heat and cool your home. Another key electrification step is swapping your gas stove with an electric or induction stove.

3. Renewable Energy

Once all the gas equipment has been replaced and the building is all-electric, we’re able to choose where the energy for our building comes from. Electricity can still come from fossil fuels, like coal. Whenever possible, we want to use electricity that comes from renewable energy and doesn’t create greenhouse gas emissions. A great example of this is solar energy, which Elevate helps residents take advantage of.

4. Managed Electricity Loads

With more and more people using electricity instead of gas to power their homes, it’s clear that the demand for electricity will go up. To manage this higher demand for electricity, we can shift energy use to different times of the day to reduce the impact on the energy grid, and reduce carbon emissions even more. An example of this is smart grid programs such as ComEd’s Hourly Pricing, which we administer.

What Are the Benefits of Building Decarbonization?

Because fossil fuels are a non-renewable resource, it’s inevitable that we will need to stop using them as an energy source for buildings. Additionally, building decarbonization brings a number of benefits.

1. Climate Action

Burning fossil fuels like gas or oil to provide heating, cooling, and hot water in buildings is a big source of air pollution and greenhouse gas emissions. Eliminating the carbon emissions from buildings through decarbonization efforts helps meet emission reduction goals to mitigate climate change.

2. Managing Utility Costs

Natural gas costs are projected to rise substantially over the next decade due to unstable supply. While electricity costs will also rise, their increase will be less than gas. Switching to an all-electric home is a more affordable and stable option for powering buildings – electrification is estimated to reduce energy costs by $377 per household. Managing only one bill (electric) instead of two also helps relieve energy stress on homeowners.

3. Preserving Affordable Housing

The four pillars of building decarbonization – energy efficiency, electrification, renewable energy, and smart grid enabled programs – are all also strategies to make homes high-performing and resilient against both rising energy costs and climate change. When we make these upgrades at affordable housing, it keeps the buildings well-maintained and lowers the operating costs for years to follow.

4. Healthy Housing and Improved Indoor Air Quality

Gas appliances like stoves, furnaces, boilers, and hot water heaters, that burn fossil fuels directly in the home create harmful emissions. Just like pollution from power plants, burning fossil fuels in the home creates pollutants such as carbon dioxide, carbon monoxide, and nitrogen oxide. These pollutants can cause increased risk of asthma, aggravated respiratory symptoms, and cardiovascular effects, especially in children. Using electric appliances instead of combustion appliances removes this source of pollutants in your home and improves indoor air quality, which creates a healthier home environment.

Building Decarbonization Happening in Chicago

Person installing a heat pump unit on a rooftop.

Heat pump units being installed at La Paz Place in Chicago.

Elevate has been working with Bickerdike Redevelopment Corporation, an affordable housing provider, to upgrade their La Paz Place apartments in Chicago’s Logan Square neighborhood.

In 2018, Elevate installed energy efficiency upgrades at La Paz Place including air sealing, insulation, and LED lighting. In 2021, we began the process of full electrification to upgrade each household with a new high-efficiency electric heat pump for space heating and cooling, a new programmable thermostat, and a new electric stove.

After removing the gas appliances, we’re also monitoring indoor air quality to measure the change in pollution concentration in the homes. And next, we’re planning to incorporate solar at La Paz Place so the buildings are using clean and renewable energy.

What Are the Challenges of Building Decarbonization?

As with any home investment that requires upfront costs to save money down the road, access to decarbonization through energy efficiency, electrification, and solar is more accessible for households with disposable income. Renters without control over home improvements or the ability to finance are also put at a disadvantage. This means that without action, people living on lower incomes including many renters and seniors will be the last to access the benefits of decarbonization and will be left behind paying the heavy costs of dirty energy.

Elevate advocates for a human-centered approach that puts lower wealth communities with the highest energy burden and health impacts first is essential to ensure an equitable transition away from fossil fuels. We advocate for policies that will provide funding and incentives for lower wealth communities to access building decarbonization technologies.

In order to successfully adapt to the impacts of climate change and thrive in a clean energy economy, we all must transition to a carbon-free lifestyle. Let’s bring all communities into the decarbonization conversation and deliver affordable, decarbonized buildings.

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