Equitably Electrifying California’s Existing Buildings - CivicWell

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Equitably Electrifying California’s Existing Buildings

Written by Nico Predock, CivicSpark Fellow at the City of Santa Monica, Office of Sustainability and the Environment

Climate Change & Energy


January 17, 2022


Electrification has become a major buzzword recently: Electrify cars, electrify homes, electrify everything! What does it mean to electrify? Put simply, electrification is the process of replacing technologies that use fossil fuels with technologies that use electricity to achieve the same function. In a home, this would mean replacing gas appliances such as water heaters or heating systems with electric alternatives.

The word electrification has taken the spotlight in a very forward-thinking manner. Most often, in the context of buildings (which account for about 13% of U.S. GHG emissions) electrification is used to describe new construction. With gas bans or electrification mandates being seen in as many as 50 California municipalities, there is a lot of excitement about all-electric new construction (and rightfully so).

But what about electrification of existing buildings? Yes, to make a dent in decarbonizing the building sector, existing buildings need to be addressed. This has been a slow process. From the high upfront costs of retrofitting to the decreasing trust in the electrical grid, residents and building owners across California and the U.S. are discouraged from electrifying their homes and businesses.

Thankfully, even in the past few months, more and more attention is being paid to the need to electrify existing buildings – and most importantly, to do so equitably.

I am lucky enough to work with one of the Nation’s leading cities in sustainability, the City of Santa Monica. The City recognizes the need to address equitable electrification of existing buildings. Emphasis is placed on the equity lens for a few distinct reasons: Electrification is expensive. This means prioritizing access to affordable electrification for disadvantaged communities is a must; Underserved communities occupy older and less-efficient homes. This building stock proves to be the hardest to electrify, often requiring expensive panel service upgrades to account for new electric loads. Natural gas will get more expensive. Disadvantaged or underserved communities will get left behind if they do not electrify soon. Delaying electrification for these communities will drive economic disparity, as residents will face increasing costs of natural gas.

In my work with the City of Santa Monica, I am participating in a Rocky Mountain Institute-led program called the California Equitable Home Electrification Program. Through this program, the City has partnered with the Santa Monica Black Lives Association (SMBLA). Together, through a series of workshops, the City and SMBLA will work to develop policies and plans that equitably address electrification of Santa Monica’s existing building stock.

Santa Monica is uniquely positioned to come up with innovative policies that address electrification of existing buildings. Access to qualified contractors and electricians is provided through a partnership with the Switch is On. There are also existing incentives such as the electrify Santa Monica rebate (offering standard and income qualified rebates to SM residents), and TECH incentives, which provide direct to contractor incentives for electric water heater and HVAC systems. These financial and social mechanisms are in place upon which to build innovative policy.

I am hoping to continue to conduct research, build relationships with local constituents and work with colleagues to equitably electrify Santa Monica’s buildings.