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Gas ban backers set their sights on Illinois building electrification

Green groups urged Illinois policymakers to pursue building electrification alongside renewable power initiatives, singling out the state as a potential foothold in the national gas ban movement.

The state's efforts in recent years to bolster its renewable power goals make Illinois a prime candidate for building electrification, according to the Rocky Mountain Institute, or RMI. In a new report, the RMI and Elevate Energy presented analysis that shows converting single-family homes from gas to electric appliances would yield lower carbon dioxide emissions over the equipment's lifetime.

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Illinois' recent commitment to funding renewable power generation puts the state back on track to achieving carbon emissions reductions, making building electrification more attractive, according to the Rocky Mountain Institute and Elevate Energy.
Source: EDP Renewables North America LLC

Fossil fuel combustion in buildings accounts for 18% of Illinois' energy-related carbon emissions, presenting an impediment to the state's environmental ambitions, according to the study.

"Illinois will not be able to stay on track with climate goals, such as its commitment to the Paris Agreement targets, unless it sharply reduces the direct use of fossil fuels in buildings in parallel with increasing renewable energy generation," the RMI and Elevate Energy said in the Sept. 3 report.

By 2016, the state's carbon emissions fell by nearly 40 million metric tons from their 2005 high, driven by coal-to-gas and renewable energy switching in the electric power sector, according to the Illinois Environmental Protection Agency. Emissions from the residential, commercial, industrial and transportation sectors were flat or barely declined, the agency said.

As the state's grid draws more power from renewable sources, Illinois should adopt building codes that incentivize or require all-electric systems in existing buildings and new construction, the RMI-Elevate Energy study concluded. State officials should also scrutinize investment in gas infrastructure and enact or modify policies that help homeowners and affordable housing developers go all-electric, the groups said.

Growing calls for Illinois to electrify buildings

Climate activists have mulled the possibility of Chicago joining the building electrification movement at least since Berkeley, Calif., passed a pioneering building gas ban in July 2019. At the time, gas ban backers counted Chicago among large, progressive cities where electrification presented an opportunity to forgo costly pipeline replacement that could result in stranded assets.

In July, the head of Illinois ratepayer advocate Citizens Utility Board, or CUB, urged utility regulators to begin creating plans to manage the transition to electrification and protect low-income ratepayers. Building decarbonization is necessary to meet the state's climate goals and electrification presents the most affordable option, CUB Executive Director David Kolata said during a webinar hosted by the National Association of Regulatory Utility Commissioners.

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Illinois was a leader in adopting a renewable portfolio standard, but the state fell behind its goal of generating 25% of its electric power from renewable sources by 2025 because it lacked an adequate funding mechanism for wind and solar power development, according to the CUB. The 2017 Future Energy Jobs Act addressed the funding gap and required 4,300 MW of new solar and wind power by 2030.

The Future Energy Jobs Act, along with a goal of 100% renewable power by 2050 included in the proposed Clean Energy Jobs Act, makes building electrification a more attractive option for Illinois, according to the RMI and Elevate Energy.

Electrification would drive down carbon emissions, study finds

While carbon emissions from the electric power sector would initially rise to accommodate higher electric demand spurred by building electrification, the state would see a net emissions reduction over the typical 15-year life of an electric heat pump under a number of scenarios, according to the study. The scenarios all assume that 500,000 homes, or 15% of customers in Illinois' investor-owned utility territories, go all-electric between 2021 and 2050 in Commonwealth Edison Co., Ameren Corp. and MidAmerican Energy Co. territories.

Under the most aggressive scenario, incorporating the Clean Energy Jobs Act's all-renewable power goal, the study estimates that building electrification would cut carbon emissions by 28 million metric tons by 2050. That is 81% less than would be emitted if residents instead installed high-efficiency gas furnaces. If the state's annual growth rate for renewables' share of power generation remained stuck at 6.8%, electrification would cut emissions by 12 million metric tons by 2050, resulting in 35% fewer emissions.

The gas industry has argued that electrification will raise energy costs for consumers and reduce reliability by leaving customers dependent on the grid for home heating. Critics also note that cold-weather climates present challenges for air-source heat pumps.

New York utilities recently addressed the cold-weather concern in a long-term gas planning proceeding. Consolidated Edison Inc.'s upstate subsidiary called electrification "a viable heating solution in the Northeastern United States," while National Grid USA expressed skepticism about heat pumps' performance on the coldest days.