How electrifying buildings can tackle emissions and improve public health

(Credit: Unsplash)

This article is brought to you thanks to the collaboration of The European Sting with the World Economic Forum.

Author: Keith Kinch, Co-founder & General Manager, BlocPower


  • The need for alternative energy infrastructures are becoming abundantly clear with 30% of emissions in the United States coming from the building sector.
  • In built up areas, greenhouse gas emissions can result in higher numbers of pollutant-caused deaths and asthma-related illnesses.
  • Replacing gas energy sources in the home with electric sources will reduce emissions, a call echoed by the International Energy Agency.

The recent invasion of Ukraine has pushed many world leaders to work to secure their energy independence from Russia and by rapidly increasing their clean energy initiatives. The war and humanitarian crisis is laying bare what scientists and the United Nations have long warned – the world must halt the expansion of the global gas infrastructure.

What’s more, Methane, which is 25 times as potent as carbon dioxide at trapping heat in the atmosphere, threatens the world’s ability to limit warming to 1.5 degrees, beyond which scientists say natural systems will begin to irreversibly break down. In the United States, for example, around 30% of greenhouse gas emissions come from the building sector, much of it through gas hookups.

Ending fossil fuel combustion for heating and cooling buildings is one of the simplest ways to rapidly reduce these emissions. With the current technology available, building owners can replace old equipment – gas furnaces, hot water heaters and gas stoves – with efficient, all-electric heat pumps that heat and cool buildings, hot water heaters and induction stoves instead.

Electrific alternatives

While many people may not have heard of products like a heat pump, most households already have one via the refrigerator. Electric, air-source heat pumps work by absorbing heat from the outside air, even on cold days, and pumping it indoors. They can also work in reverse, providing cooling in the summer and eliminating the need for an air conditioner. They are efficient and can deliver two to four times the heating energy over the electricity it consumes, that makes it an economical option for efficiency conscious households

Via my Brooklyn-based climate tech company BlocPower, installing heat pumps and hot water heaters, I’ve found that there is an appetite for en-masse accessible “electrification” by cities, homeowners and landlords in aging, urban buildings throughout the country. Going all electric should be the easy choice, particularly when a new gas boiler or water heater presents a 15-20 year commitment, it makes sense people would want to switch to electric before making such a long-term investment.

The International Energy Agency has endorsed phasing in electrification by calling for 1.8 billion heat pumps in buildings by 2050, accounting for over 50% of all energy demand for heating worldwide. Currently, only 180 million heat pumps have been installed or about 7% of systems worldwide but adoption rates are growing, especially in China, Europe and North America.

Some cities and state governments are enacting laws to speed up the change, including restricting new growth of gas hookups and increasing government incentives to spur adoption. In response to the war in Ukraine, for example, France banned subsidies for new gas hookups and exchanged them for heat pump subsidies. The EU recently announced plans to double the rate of heat pump installations by this winter. And before the war started in Ukraine, New York City became the first city of its size to ban gas hookups in new construction. Now, cities across the United States are following suit with similar legislation.

A matter of public health

Building electrification has other community benefits for cities too, such as improved public health. Globally, air pollution is the leading environmental risk factor for early death and burning fossil fuels is responsible for one in five deaths worldwide. Buildings are a major contributor to this public health crisis, especially in cities with concentrated housing. In 2020, MIT found that the leading source of early deaths in America from PM 2.5 (tiny particles of pollution) and ground-level ozone comes from residential and commercial buildings. Buildings ranked higher in greenhouse gas emissions than the transportation sector and their pollution disproportionately impacts communities of color.

Gas appliances such as stoves fill our homes with many of the same pollutants as a car exhaust, which can increase the risk of childhood asthma and other respiratory problems. Children living in a home with gas stoves have up to a 42% increased risk of asthma. Moving to pollution-free homes by powering equipment with electricity sourced from renewable energy will improve air quality both indoors and outdoors.

Heat pumps are ductless and can even help purify air indoors. Modern heat pump systems can be outfitted with high-efficiency particulate air (HEPA) filters to improve air quality indoors, which is particularly helpful in communities facing increasing threats of wildfires from climate change.

In all, climate change and air pollution are complex global problems but many solutions are close to home for all of us. BlocPower and our community partners across the United States are steadfast in our commitment to go all electric – building-by-building, city-by-city – to ensure we all can live in a more peaceful, clean and safe environment.

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