By Tim Stevens
Reducing climate-changing greenhouse gases is difficult for local jurisdictions everywhere. State and federal governments control most policy decisions affecting emissions, and until recently, they have been slow to act. Examples of their broad authority are the Inflation Reduction Plan (federal) and the Virginia Clean Economy Act (state).
Further adding to the challenge for local jurisdictions is Virginia’s status as a “Dillon Rule” state that limits the actions of local jurisdictions only to what the state General Assembly explicitly approves. For example, it took Fairfax County five years to get permission from the state to install a solar energy system on a closed landfill that the county owns.
Larger jurisdictions, such as Arlington and Montgomery County have added staff, such as energy managers, to track emissions and implement plans to reduce them. Evidence suggests they have achieved some success. Smaller jurisdictions, such as Falls Church, have taken a lighter touch thus far on implementing actions to reduce emissions, although goals have been set, and funds have been reserved for a consultant to develop a list of projects the City could implement to reduce emissions.
An important tool for reducing emissions has recently emerged — one with multiple benefits. With encouragement from the City, developers of several recently approved mixed-use projects have agreed to construct their residential rental units to be all-electric, including appliances, heating and cooling. The developers of Founder’s Row II, Broad and Washington and the West Falls Senior Building have committed to all-electric appliances for their residents.
The benefit of an all-electric approach is tied to the gradual reduction of greenhouse gas emissions in the production of electricity by utilities, mainly by phasing out coal and adding renewable sources such as solar. The trend of adding renewable energy to the grid will accelerate over the next decade as more solar, and even wind energy projects are added to the grid, thanks to the Virginia Clean Economy Act.
As grid electricity is increasingly derived from renewable sources over the coming years, emissions in buildings will decline, and will be reflected in greenhouse gas inventories. Alternatively, buildings that install gas appliances are locked into the emissions released when that gas is consumed.
DOESN’T LEED CERTIFICATION MEAN NO EMISSIONS?
While buildings that are LEED certified (Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design), are less harmful environmentally than buildings without LEED certification, this doesn’t mean that a building’s emissions will be in line with what is needed to achieve our overall goals. Use of gas for appliances and indoor temperature control, for example, is allowed by LEED, and is a large source of emissions overall.
Reaching our emissions reduction goals will require elimination of the use of gas in buildings. Existing buildings that use gas will need to convert to electric appliances. Designing new buildings to be all-electric will make the overall task of conversion easier.
Not only will use of electricity result in reduced emissions, but it will also provide other important benefits as well.
Air Quality. Gas appliances release nitrogen oxides, which add to smog in the atmosphere. The amount of nitrogen oxides from buildings is larger than the amount released from utility power plants using gas to produce electricity.
Health. Much of the gas used in buildings is sourced from underground wells using a process called “fracking.” Extraction of gas through fracking is an intensive industrial process that stresses the environment. The harms from fracking are disproportionately experienced by minority groups living near industrial fracking sites. In addition, burning gas in buildings can also be an irritant to individuals with asthma.
Safety. Transmitting gas through pipelines creates significant fire and explosion risks. In addition, estimates indicate that approximately 2 percent — 3 percent of gas is leaking from underground local distribution pipelines that connect to buildings, further harming air quality.
Economics. Many developers like not having to install costly gas pipelines in new buildings.
HAVEN’T CONSUMERS PREFERRED GAS APPLIANCES?
Historically, gas appliances have appealed to many consumers as offering better performance versus their electric counterparts. Recent improvements in electric appliances are beginning to change this perspective. Heat pumps, for domestic heating and hot water, have improved significantly in recent years.
Less familiar to consumers are the improvements in electric induction ovens and cooktops. Rather than use slow-reacting heating coils, induction ovens create a magnetic field that sends pulses into cookware. This causes electrons in the cookware to move faster, resulting in heat. The performance is much better than older electric ovens.
Also, induction ovens involve no open flames, thereby increasing safety for children and pets. Cleaning them is also easier, as there are no removable grates or burners to clean.
Finally, the recently passed Inflation Reduction Act will soon make financial incentives for converting from gas to electric available to many homeowners. Details for the IRA are still being finalized, so we will all need to do further research.