Power transmission lines. (Ned Oliver/Virginia Mercury)

By Chris Meyer and John Semmelhack 

In Virginia, the time to adopt policies to promote electricity over natural gas has come. Widespread electrification of space heating, water heating and cooking has the potential to significantly reduce CO2 emissions and improve public health. 

As our electric grid’s renewable energy has grown, the climate argument favoring natural gas has evaporated. Years ago, natural gas was branded a “clean” fuel from a pollution perspective, and when compared to coal, it does have some environmental benefits.

However, recent scientific research has found that the climate impact of natural gas is much worse than originally thought. In addition, the increase of wind and solar on the grid means that comparing natural gas to electricity no longer means simply comparing gas with coal.

For example, using the most recent CO2 emissions data for electricity in Virginia, heating a home with a minimum-efficiency electric heat pump would yield at least a 30 percent reduction in CO2 emissions compared to the most efficient gas furnace money can buy. More advanced electric heat pumps can yield CO2 pollution reductions close to 50 percent on today’s grid, and as our electricity gets still cleaner between now and 2050, the CO2 pollution reductions from electrification will get better and better.

There are health benefits to burning less gas as well, particularly inside the home. For many households, the worst pollution impacts from natural gas are felt every day around the kitchen stove. Cooking with gas releases carbon monoxide, formaldehyde, nitrogen oxides and fine particles into the home, and is a major reason why indoor air pollution is often 2 to 5 times higher than outdoor air pollution.

A new review of recent research from the past two decades concludes that “indoor pollution from gas stoves can reach levels that would be illegal outdoors.” Another important impact includes well-documented risks to respiratory health from gas stove pollution, particularly in children. Electric cooking is a cleaner cooking option, according to the study. Foodies shouldn’t fret, though. Electric induction cooktops are gaining popularity among many top chefs and home cooks, specifically for their cooking performance, including quick response time and fine heat control. 

Statewide climate policy in the Commonwealth has made great strides in recent years, but policy promoting electrification would accelerate these positive changes. Both the 2018 Grid Transformation Act (GTA) and the Virginia Clean Economy Act (VCEA) changed regulations in the power sector, with one of their main goals being to reduce greenhouse gas emissions to mitigate climate change.

The state’s electricity grid is now set to become less polluting by using fewer fossil fuels, culminating in a zero-carbon state grid by 2050. One strategy included in the legislative packages mandates that the investor-owned utilities (i.e. Dominion and Appalachian Power) implement energy-efficiency programs for their customers.

Energy-efficiency programs are typically focused on reducing electricity consumption and are very cost-efficient from a mitigation perspective, while also being popular with customers whose houses become more comfortable. The programs implemented so far, however, don’t allow any incentives for electrification, which would increase electricity demand (while reducing greenhouse gas emissions) by adding electric-powered HVAC equipment and appliances. 

Electrification should become a priority for energy-efficiency programs in Virginia in 2021. Policy-wise, only minor language adjustments and broader interpretations of existing guidance are required. In 2021, there will be at least one new low-income energy-efficiency program launched, as mandated by HB2789, that should include equipment replacement.

That program (which will hopefully be approved by the SCC and implemented by Dominion) should be interpreted to allow electrification. Additionally, with $50 million per year of revenue anticipated from the Regional Greenhouse Gas Initiative (RGGI) earmarked for low-income energy-efficiency work, some of these funds should be used to encourage switching to electric appliances. Finally, a legislative fix to the definition of an “Energy-Efficiency Program” might be required in the 2021 General Assembly. With changes, programs administered by the investor-owned utilities could allow and encourage electrification. 

The actions we take to mitigate climate change in the next 10 years will have lasting impacts. Electrification can help us achieve our climate goals while promoting public health and comfort. We ask Virginia to be a leader in electrification and make this opportunity a reality.

Chris Meyer is executive director of the Local Energy Alliance Program, a nonprofit with offices in Charlottesville and Fairfax. John Semmelhack is the owner of Think Little Home Energy LLC, a building-science consultancy based in Charlottesville.