How to electrify your life when you rent

Two years ago, Caroline Spears was finally living alone, without roommates, in a one-bedroom apartment in San Francisco, where the cost of living continues to rise. She was attracted by its affordability and space. “It was a great place to work from home,” Spears said. But she hadn’t anticipated the high energy bills that would result from increased gas heating while her apartment turned into an icebox in winter.

Pollution from using gas heating was also a major concern. Spears, founder of the Climate Cabinet, a national climate organization dedicated to winning elections, saw this challenge as a new project. So she got started.

She hired a contractor to test the apartment’s energy efficiency. Despite the evidence, Spears’ owner wouldn’t budge. The test did not identify a miracle solution, but only a thorough renovation. Surely she could at least improve her air quality by turning off the gas heat and purchasing a portable heat pump, an increasingly popular device that uses electricity to move heat indoors and out. exterior of the house. Spears may have invested in the $5,000 machine whether a government rebate or tax credit was available for renters, but she couldn’t find one.

“It was my last attempt,” she said. Eventually, she moved to a more modern apartment elsewhere in San Francisco.

Despite the evidence, Spears’ owner wouldn’t budge.

While homeowners can electrify their homes if they wish, renters cannot. They must answer to their owners. Tenants have limited control and limited financial incentives. Why spend money on a device for a house you don’t own? They can’t easily take them with them once they move. Policymakers have yet to find a solution for tenants despite the need to decarbonize the entire housing sector.

The US government has committed to halving its carbon pollution by 2030 to prevent the planet from further overheating. Such reductions require massive infrastructural changes, especially in our homes, where water and food are often heated with what is called “natural gas” but is better understood as methane, a powerful gas greenhouse effect which contributes to climate change.

Many environmentalists and policymakers see household electrification as a necessity to reduce carbon emissions – replacing fossil fuel-powered appliances like gas stoves and oil water heaters with electric appliances like stoves. induction and electric water heaters – but this solution ignores a major segment. of the population: tenants.

In the United States, 36 percent of households are renters, according to the Pew Research Center. This represents more than 44 million households. However a 2022 study found that renters are more likely to have electrical appliances than homeowners, with some 15 million renters like Spears moving into an apartment connected to gas. Those who want to electrify their devices often face the same obstacles as Spears: reluctant owners; outdated infrastructure; high costs; and little government assistance to overcome these obstacles.

Policymakers have yet to develop a solution for tenants

I live in New York, where most people (myself included) rent. I would love an all-electric apartment, but most housing in the city was built over 50 years ago. In my kitchen, my gas stove is so old that it still has two pilot flames burning. Gas cookers emit lung irritants such as nitrogen dioxide and particulate matter.

A study Last year, it was discovered that nearly 13 percent of current childhood asthma cases in the United States may be linked to gas stoves. I would like to ask my landlord for an induction cooker that will cook my food via electromagnetic energy rather than burning fossil fuels. But I get anxious just thinking about it. If he makes a big deal about replacing door handles, how will he react to a stove?

“I worry about situations where renters don’t have as much control over their living situation,” said Jamal Lewis, regional director of state and local policy for Rewiring America, a nonprofit organization dedicated to electrification of houses.

Until now, the U.S. government has largely focused its electrification efforts on homeowners. The Inflation Reduction Act, President Joe Biden’s landmark climate law, provides nearly $9 billion in rebates for energy efficiency and home electrification, but renters don’t yet have access to rebates to the point sales for heat pumps, electric or induction water heaters. stoves as the owners do. These benefits will vary by region, as different states and municipalities develop their own programs to implement the federal dollars they receive from the law, explained Leah Stokes, associate professor of energy policy at the University of California in Santa Barbara.

“This money is not enough, but these are the beginnings of these programs,” she said.

Leah Stokes, associate professor of environmental policy at the University of California, Santa Barbara, poses for a portrait in the apartment she rents in Cambridge, Massachusetts, October 27, 2023.
Photo by Kayana Szymczak for The Verge

Money is essential because electrification is expensive. A investigation of 90 people from the sustainability-focused research group Carbon Switch found that the total cost of installing an induction cooker, on average, can reach more than $3,000 when taking into account the work electrical. Induction cookers require higher voltage and proper electrical wiring. Older buildings, in particular, may require new wiring that can safely handle the heat generated. Poor quality wiring can overload a system or start a fire.

“What matters in electricity is heat,” said Nathanael Johnson, an electrician and former environmental journalist. “The more electricity you pass through the wire, the more heat it ends up generating. But if the wire is thicker, it can handle more electricity without heating up. Larger devices require larger cables.

“I worry about situations where tenants don’t have as much control over their living situation”

The job becomes even more expensive and complicated if you’re rewiring an entire building. The wires are hidden under the floor and behind the walls; reaching them can mean clearing a room. A project can become especially cumbersome in apartment buildings where owners must answer to regulators and inspectors who may require more upgrades than an owner had envisioned.

In New York, the environmental justice advocacy group WE ACT for Environmental Justice encountered this problem when developing a initiative in 2021 to replace gas stoves with induction hobs for 20 families in public housing in the Bronx. The electrical capacity of the building limited the number of apartments that could join the program. Each power line, which powered six units (one on each of the building’s six floors), could only power two stoves before overloading and cutting power to each unit on the line.

The program successfully concluded in 2022 despite this hurdle, but it highlighted the challenges the New York City Housing Authority (NYCHA) faces if it wants to reduce emissions by 80% by 2050, as l required by local law. WE ACT’s program could be limited to two stove replacements per line, but that won’t work as a building-wide effort.

“These gaps need to be closed in order to meet our climate goals and electrify our homes,” said Annie Carforo, climate justice campaign manager at WE ACT.

It starts with stricter building codes and performance standards that would not only help the United States meet its emissions goals, but also protect families from lung irritants like nitrogen dioxide released from gas stoves , said Lewis of Rewiring America.

Money is key because electrification is expensive

Investing in the right technologies can also help. Some companies are development induction cookers with a built-in lithium battery that won’t require the kind of expensive electrical upgrades that can put homeowners off electrification altogether. Unfortunately, these new stoves cost over $4,000, so NYCHA announcement a competitive challenge in July to help spur the design of more devices like these that are also cost-effective.

Changes like these – whether on a policy or technological level – won’t happen overnight, which is why some tenants have gotten creative with decarbonizing their homes on their own.

Stokes interacts with his daughter while preparing dinner.
Photo by Kayana Szymczak for The Verge

Stokes uses an induction cooker placed on top of a traditional gas stove.
Photo by Kayana Szymczak for The Verge

Stokes, who has been temporarily renting in Massachusetts since September on a scholarship, doesn’t use his gas stove at all. Instead, she covered it with a cutting board on which an induction cooktop sits. “I have kids and I don’t want to cook with gas,” she said. Her twins were born prematurely and are therefore particularly vulnerable to lung disease.

Stokes is not alone. In Berkeley, climate advocate Sage Welch has been using induction cookers for five years. As a renter, she had no permanent option to eliminate gas from her home, so she opted for a portable cooktop. She also uses other electrical appliances like her air fryer and toaster oven.

“Between all the different electrical appliance options, it’s actually a much more convenient way to cook,” Welch said.

Even Spears is considering trying to electrify her new apartment again. She only hopes this time will be easier.

“My last place was out of control,” she said. “I’m tired. This must be easier for the tenants.

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