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Decarbonizing homes to address environmental racism

Colorful old buildings on 10th Street in the East Village of Manhattan in New York City

Image via Ryan DeBerardinis on Shutterstock.

In the United States, all housing is not created equal. Low-income communities continue to grapple with poor housing quality, high energy costs and disproportionate health burdens stemming from fossil fuel pollution in their homes and communities. On average, these households spend far higher percentages of their income on energy, and 26 million low-income U.S. households still burn costly, health-damaging and climate-warming fossil fuels. Many of these housing issues stem from structural racism and segregation, which have extracted wealth and diminished opportunities for greater prosperity and well-being.

Burning fossil fuels continues to entrench these communities in health, economic and social inequalities. Not only are these fuels increasingly costly, but low-income communities are among the most vulnerable to the extreme weather events that are exacerbated by climate change. These vulnerabilities can manifest as limited access to cooling or other services during disruptions, or financial barriers that prevent people from relocating to safety during a severe storm.

Most states and localities already have programs in place that attempt to address some of these issues. But there could soon be new opportunities to vastly improve housing from a health, climate and economic standpoint. Congress is considering tens of billions of dollars in relevant funding that would help decision makers and advocates to meet these challenges head on, in part by prioritizing comprehensive interventions for low-income households.

The benefits of beneficial electrification

"Beneficial electrification" of housing provides an opportunity to simultaneously address historic health, energy and social burdens imposed by our existing energy system.

Burning fossil fuels continues to entrench these communities in health, economic and social inequalities.

What does it entail? As a guiding principle, beneficial electrification should lower cost burdens and improve housing quality by creating a safe and healthful indoor environment, while reducing climate pollution and enabling buildings to manage electricity demand more easily. Research suggests that a combination of high-performing all-electric appliances and equipment, a high-performance building envelope, enhanced ventilation and better building energy management can deliver the most health benefits to our underserved and overburdened communities. These building-level interventions must also be paired with protections from eviction, displacement, gentrification and other forms of housing injustice.

Why low-income communities have the most to gain

A new report from RMI, "Decarbonizing Homes," explores how beneficial electrification reduces harmful exposures and vulnerabilities associated with environmental racism, persistent poverty and other social determinants of health. Decades of heightened exposure and vulnerability have resulted in low-income communities facing immensely disproportionate health burdens, including from heightened exposures to pollutants both at home and outdoors.

Historic discriminatory housing policies such as redlining have resulted in low-income households being more likely to be situated in areas subject to extreme surface heat. Federal analysis also found that lower-income households are more likely to reside in units with "substantial quality issues." And 70 percent of Superfund sites — the most hazardous, polluted sites in the United States — are within one mile of federally assisted housing.

Millions of limited-wealth folks are at risk of health problems by virtue of their social, economic and environmental conditions, with 60 percent of the burden of heart disease attributable directly to living in poverty and its associated risks. Asthma is more prevalent in children living in low-income families than among those living in families with income above the federal poverty level.

For low-income families, the cost of residential heating, cooling and other energy needs also constitutes a larger share of their income than it does for more affluent families. This necessitates difficult trade-offs that often jeopardize health and safety, such as forgoing food and medicine to pay energy bills.

Maximizing health benefits

Electrification achieves the greatest health gains when combined with other building interventions. "Decarbonizing Homes" explains how to maximize the health benefits of building-level interventions by synthesizing studies involving electric upgrades to equipment and appliances as well as improvements to the building envelope, ventilation and grid services. The improvements accompanying beneficial electrification that can support better health outcomes include:

  • Improved indoor air and environmental quality
  • Better outdoor and neighborhood air quality
  • Safer indoor temperatures during extreme heat and cold
  • Increased household and community safety from the removal of gas infrastructure
  • Improved energy security

Extensive research has long acknowledged the risks of introducing combustion-related pollutants into homes. Combustion-related pollution is associated with cardiovascular disease, neurological disorders, respiratory illness and premature death, among other health harms. Building tight, well-ventilated buildings with all-electric appliances and equipment will directly improve resident health by reducing indoor allergens and pollutants, including those from the combustion of fossil fuels.

As climate change increases the frequency of weather and climate extremes, analysis shows that high-performance building envelopes provide safe and protective indoor environments for longer periods of time. During extreme heat events, access to air conditioning is crucial for ensuring safe and comfortable indoor air temperatures, which heat pumps can provide most efficiently while also providing clean, electric heat in winter.

The overall reduction of combustion pollution also improves outdoor air quality and reduces demand on leaky, risky gas distribution infrastructure. These factors suggest that beneficial electrification of housing can also have a positive health and safety impact at the neighborhood and community level.

Energy insecurity affects a wide range of health issues, from stress and mental health to poor sleep and cardiovascular and respiratory health.

The reliability and affordability of energy access has an important impact on health. Energy insecurity — the inability to adequately meet basic household energy needs — affects a wide range of health issues, from stress and mental health to poor sleep and cardiovascular and respiratory health. Direct health harms such as carbon monoxide poisoning, temperature-related illness and even death can occur when residents resort to alternative energy sources to meet needs when conventional methods fail them. Electrification paired with high-efficiency, climate-appropriate smart technology provides the opportunity to increase the affordability and reliability of energy access, an important driver of health inequity.

State and local governments can lead the way

It is no accident that housing for most underserved and overburdened populations has often been built and maintained to poor standards. Only intentional, comprehensive solutions driven directly by these communities can achieve a just, equitable and prosperous future. As such, state and local governments should explicitly create resources and frameworks that center community-based and community-rooted organizations as partners in policymaking.

Most states and localities already have programs that incentivize preservation of affordable housing, maintenance of existing low-cost housing and adoption of energy efficiency and renewable energy. These programs should be increased and enhanced to enable beneficial electrification efforts, particularly if Congress includes funding for these purposes in pending budget legislation. The infrastructure and budget bills have included:

  • $35 billion for replacing lead pipes and environmental justice/health grants,
  • $34.5 billion in low-cost clean energy financing consistent with the administration’s Justice40 initiative,
  • $18 billion for efficient homes and electric appliances, including $5.5 billion specifically for low-income communities,
  • more than $14 billion for lead paint removal and health and safety repairs,
  • $6 billion for multifamily affordable housing retrofits, and
  • $3.5 billion for the Weatherization Assistance Program.

An expansive and equitable future for all

Low-income communities are among the most vulnerable to the impacts of climate change. By making explicit the ties between housing, climate and health, beneficial electrification provides common ground for broad, inclusive coalitions to address historic, current and potential future inequities. Policymakers at the state, local and federal level can take bold action to build a more equitable housing sector while working toward a zero-carbon, healthy future that benefits all of us.

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