'Building back better' starts with our buildings

'Building back better' starts with our buildings
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No one should have to skip a meal or put off the purchase of necessary medicine just so they can afford to pay an energy bill. And yet a shocking number of U.S. families — one out of every five — report having to do just that. Luckily, one of the federal government’s best tools to combat the climate crisis can also reduce the energy burden for millions of Americans.

President Joe BidenJoe BidenPelosi sets Thursday vote on bipartisan infrastructure bill Pressure grows to cut diplomatic red tape for Afghans left behind President Biden is making the world a more dangerous place MORE’s American Jobs Plan calls for making deep investments in our country’s aging housing stock — building, weatherizing and upgrading 2 million affordable homes in cities across the country. Crucially, these affordable homes would be built with modern electric appliances like ultra-efficient heat pumps and electric water heaters — drastically reducing occupants’ monthly energy bills and the climate pollution produced in our nation’s buildings. 

It’s vital that Congress prioritize funding for these investments in any infrastructure bill — for the health of low-income communities, for growing clean energy job sectors and for the future of our planet. 

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The economic payoff of these investments will be felt for generations to come, in just about every community in the country — red and blue, urban and rural. At least 2.4 million people — private contractors, HVAC technicians and electricians — worked in energy efficiency nationwide in 2019, though the industry was hit hard by the economic fallout of the COVID-19 pandemic. A federal investment in helping low-income families upgrade their homes would help bring back many of these good-paying jobs and support local economies trying to move beyond the pandemic. 

Due to historic housing discrimination and disinvestment, energy burdens in this country are not equally felt. A report from the American Council for an Energy Efficient Economy found that low-income, renter, Black, Latino and Indigenous households all spend a higher percentage of their monthly income on energy bills compared to white households. Utilities are also much more likely to shut off power to these communities for non-payment, with the risks of this rising as states around the country drop moratoriums instituted during the beginning of the COVID-19 pandemic. Reducing energy bills means keeping the lights on for millions of American families.

These investments are also necessary to address pollution from our buildings, which is responsible for nearly 40 percent of our nation’s contribution to the climate crisis. While industrial smokestacks and vehicle tailpipes might be what first comes to mind when you think about fossil fuel pollution, gas-fired furnaces and water heaters in our homes, schools and businesses are huge polluters. In recent months, the United Nations and International Energy Agency have both sounded the alarm about this pollution, calling for replacing fossil fuel appliances with ones that harness our nation’s increasingly clean electricity.

Luckily for us, modern electric appliances can do everything gas appliances can, without the pollution. Electric heat pumps and heat pump water heaters are 200 percent to 400 percent more energy efficient than gas appliances and work in the hottest parts of summer or coldest days of winter. Heat pumps also serve dual purposes, functioning as an air conditioner during heat waves.

Investing in all-electric homes also eliminates an underrecognized but dangerous source of indoor air pollution — gas stoves, which produce carbon monoxide, nitrogen dioxide, particulate matter and formaldehyde in our homes. Studies have found that children living in homes with a gas stove have a 42 percent higher chance of developing asthma. Communities of color already live with elevated levels of air pollution outdoors — they shouldn’t have to face the same kinds of toxins in their homes.

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Cleaner, more affordable homes are a win for economic inequality, climate, public health and workers. It’s rare to see a public investment that benefits so many people in so many ways. Congress must not let this once-in-a-generation opportunity pass us by.

Rachel Golden is deputy director of the Sierra Club’s Clean Buildings campaign.

Andrew Brooks is director of West Coast operations for the Association of Energy Affordability, a nonprofit organization working to increase energy efficiency in residential and multifamily housing.