June 22, 2021 at 5:00 am ET
The United States is the world’s wealthiest country, but millions of Americans live in substandard housing, subject to volatile fossil fuel prices and vulnerable to extreme weather risks. Texas’s deep freeze and ensuing blackouts, which killed more than 700 people and racked up billions in economic losses, is just one of dozens of recent examples that point to the need for vastly improved building infrastructure. President Joe Biden’s American Jobs Plan tackles this challenge head-on to dramatically improve America’s housing, cut energy bills and help insulate millions from climate change risks — all while supporting hundreds of thousands of jobs.
The AJP proposes investing $213 billion to build and retrofit 2 million affordable and sustainable places to live, including building 1 million new electrified homes, along with a $40 billion investment in public housing. These investments would put Americans to work and curb rising utility bills for consumers, while also making homes more comfortable and reducing harmful pollution.
It’s time for the United States to take a new direction as we work to revitalize our economy in the aftermath of the COVID-19 pandemic. Investing in our nation’s homes is a no-brainer provision of the AJP’s comprehensive plan to set the United States on the right path. There’s no time for delay. Congress should act quickly to strengthen the foundation of the American dream: the places we call home.
Our homes need a retrofit
Nearly 90 million residential housing units and 4 million commercial buildings in the United States burn fossil fuels such as natural gas for space and water heating and cooking, contributing 13 percent of U.S. greenhouse gas emissions. In addition, nearly 1.6 million new homes were completed in March 2021, and more than half of new homes are built with gas heating or appliances.
In combination with widespread energy-efficient lighting, appliances, and weatherization measures, getting fossil fuels out of buildings and switching to clean electricity (“electrification”) is critical to cutting pollution from buildings and improving public health. Heat pumps for space and water heating, induction stoves and efficient electric appliances are all proven technologies on the market today.
Not only are they far more efficient than their fossil-fueled alternatives, they also reduce indoor air pollution and improve safety by eliminating the burning of fuel inside our homes. Nearly two decades of research has shown that gas appliances, especially gas stoves, can lead to nitrogen dioxide and carbon monoxide levels that violate outdoor pollution standards, and that children living in a home with gas stoves have a 24 percent to 42 percent increased risk of asthma.
The AJP’s proposal to build and retrofit more than a million affordable, resilient, accessible, energy-efficient and electrified housing units would improve America’s public housing system by protecting residents from imminent hazards while reducing ongoing utility expenses.
Jobs, jobs, jobs
Creating good-paying jobs is another compelling reason to invest in where we live. Energy-efficiency jobs constitute the largest segment of U.S. clean energy employment — representing over 2.1 million jobs in 2020. This sector also endured more than 200,000 losses during the pandemic. The AJP’s proposed investments in energy-efficiency retrofits would put hundreds of thousands of people back to work immediately and create new efficiency sector jobs.
Electrification of homes and buildings is another huge job creator. A California study by the UCLA Luskin Center for Innovation estimated that electrifying 100 percent of California’s existing and new buildings could support an average of 64,200 to 104,100 net new jobs annually. Beyond the job creation opportunity, workers in the clean energy sector typically earn higher and more equitable wages compared to all workers nationally.
Investing in our housing to solve the climate crisis
While political battles on Capitol Hill may give the illusion that we have endless time for deliberation, science resoundingly shows that we have less than a decade to avoid locking in catastrophic climate change.
Modeling from Energy Innovation shows that energy-efficient building electrification is necessary to climate stability. Getting on a climate-stable path requires all newly sold building appliances and equipment to run on electricity by 2030 and all new buildings to be fully electric by 2025. In 2030, that would translate to annual residential sales of approximately 8.9 million heat pumps, 12.5 million electric water heaters and 7.5 million electric cookstoves. To achieve this transition at the pace required, policymakers must act now.
A focus on equity and resilience is central to prosperity
Improving the U.S. building stock can also help rectify long-standing injustices. The rising costs and negative health impacts of fossil-fueled buildings disproportionately burden low-income consumers, communities of color and front-line communities. The AJP prioritizes addressing long-standing and persistent racial injustice by targeting “40 percent of the benefits of climate and clean infrastructure investments to disadvantaged communities.”
By recognizing that where we live has a huge impact on our budgets and health, the call for expanded and targeted investment for families and businesses that struggle to afford energy is essential for a just transition, particularly in communities with high electric rates and heating demand. Policymakers must similarly proactively address the challenges faced by low- to moderate-income households, multifamily housing occupants and small businesses in any policy solutions put forth.
Together with its other features, the AJP is a sound proposal that addresses the most critical issues of our time. With the plan in hand, Congress is equipped to lead the way to enact policies that bring real benefits and solutions for Americans, wherever we live.
Sara Baldwin is Energy Innovation’s director of electrification policy.
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