The federal building electrification cavalry is here: It’s time for American cities and states to act
In recent years, some progressive cities and towns across the country have embarked on ambitious climate and decarbonization programs. Towards the front of the pack were New York City and the City of Ithaca, N.Y. where, as city officials, we worked to draft, push, and pass policies that required new buildings to be electric and set ambitious goals to decarbonize existing buildings.
At every step of the way, we faced very reasonable questions — particularly about how much these changes would cost. How much more expensive is an electric building? How much more will homeowners or business owners pay per month in utility bills? How much could consumers start to save on their monthly energy bills?
In most places, these concerns prevent action. In some communities, like ours, leaders moved forward with knowledge that electric buildings were cost-competitive, and as more homes in America embraced heat pumps and induction stoves, these prices would come down further. And yet, for many, concerns still lingered.
Now, thanks to the ambitious bill that President Biden has signed, these concerns can be put to rest. The same type of ambition that we saw become reality in our cities can now be pursued, with confidence, by state and local leaders across America.
In 2021, New York City passed ambitious requirements that mandated that new buildings be electric buildings — the largest city in the world to do so. Those requirements mean that new buildings in the Big Apple will use advanced electric appliances for heating and cooling and cooking — like heat pumps and induction stoves.
These new rules build on requirements passed in 2019 that large buildings in New York City reduce their carbon pollution, by upgrading their efficiency and reducing the use of fossil fuels or electrifying their building systems.
Similarly, in 2021 the City of Ithaca adopted a new energy code mandating all new buildings and new construction be fully electric and banning new natural gas hookups as early as 2026. This was followed by a resolution, approved the same year, committing to the “retrofitting and electrification” of all existing buildings by 2030.
The city’s new electrification program, “Electrify Ithaca,” is one pillar of Ithaca’s Green New Deal, in which Ithaca has set the most ambitious timeline to reach carbon neutrality of any city in the country or the world. It also prioritizes retrofitting and electrification of individual buildings, blocks and neighborhoods based on a local definition of climate justice communities that allows the city to identify households and neighborhoods that could be disproportionately affected by climate change.
All of this was possible before this summer. But the Inflation Reduction Act dramatically lowers the cost to homeowners and building owners to electrify their buildings.
The law will provide up to $14,000 in rebates for electrical appliances — including stoves, heat pumps for heating & cooling, water heaters, electric clothes dryers, and upgrades to home electric panels, wiring, and insulation.
It can also provide up to 50 percent of the costs of a full-home energy retrofit, or up to 80 percent of the costs for low- and moderate-income families. It offers a tax credit for new solar on the roof or battery storage by 30 percent and provides up to $400,000 for owners of apartment buildings to upgrade their systems to help their tenants.
This is great news for American families, and an exciting opportunity for American state and local elected officials.
By reducing costs for upgrading buildings, the Inflation Reduction Act has lowered the political cost to embracing requirements that new buildings be electric buildings or that accelerate the electrification of existing buildings.
Mayors, governors, and city and state legislators should feel confident that if they put new requirements in place, there are federal resources in place to help people make these critical changes.
The federal electric building cavalry has arrived, now it’s time for state and local leaders to charge ahead. New York City and Ithaca were leaders, but this is a race we all can win.
Ben Furnas is director of The 2030 Project: A Cornell Climate Initiative; he is the former director of the New York City Mayor’s Office of Climate and Sustainability. Luis Aguirre-Torres is the sustainability director for the City of Ithaca. The opinions expressed here are their own.