Clean and Healthy Buildings: Plugging in to a safe, sustainable future

Building with sun in background

Buildings use a lot of energy, especially in Wisconsin. Cold winters, old homes, and outdated appliances cause our buildings to be incredibly energy intensive. In fact, over half of our state’s total energy use is going to the building sector. At this scale, the type of energy we use in buildings can significantly affect our physical health and natural environment. Considering we spend up to 90% of our time indoors, it’s in our best interest to make sure our buildings are clean and healthy.

Transforming our buildings to promote human and environmental health begins with a process known as building electrification. With this approach, we replace direct fossil fuel use with electricity to heat and power buildings. All-electric homes offer health, climate, and economic benefits.

The Clean Air Act requires the EPA to set standards for outdoor air quality, but no standards exist for indoor air. If the quality of indoor air was judged by the same standards as outdoor air, many homes would be considered dangerous. Concentrations of harmful pollutants are typically 2-5 times higher indoors than they are outside.

Air quality is particularly poor in buildings with gas stoves and furnaces. These appliances release carbon monoxide and a host of other dangerous pollutants directly into our homes, causing almost 500 premature deaths in Wisconsin each year. The serious risks associated with gas appliances are even greater for families with young children, who are especially vulnerable to the dangers of gas stoves.

In Wisconsin, 70% of homes still rely on gas for heating or cooking, but safe alternatives to gas appliaces are becoming more widely available. Professional chefs and home cooks are embracing electric induction cooktops, which heat quickly and efficiently using magnetic currents. Electric heat pumps are also gaining popularity as an efficient, sustainable alternative to gas furnaces. A heat pump can work as both a heating and cooling system, eliminating the need to buy a separate furnace and AC unit. Ditching the gas infrastructure also results in lower costruction costs for new all-electric homes. Perhaps most importantly, however, switching to electric heating and appliances while transitioning our grid to clean energy sources will substantially lower the carbon footprint of our buildings.

To avoid the worst effects of climate change, we must pull the plug on pollution from gas appliances in our homes and buildings. Building electrification is the only established solution to eliminating the nearly 1 billion tons of CO2 emitted by gas appliances every year in the US.

The process of decarbonizing our electrical grid is already underway. Shrinking costs for clean energy production, along with coal plant retirements, are “greening the grid.” As electricity becomes more climate-friendly, we need to take advantage of it by modernizing the way our buildings use energy. Building electrification is a critical step towards addressing the climate crisis and eliminating indoor air pollution from gas combustion.