Electrification in Buildings and Communities: Takeaways from Our Recent Webinar

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The transition to a decarbonized energy system will require the rapid, cost-effective, resilient, and equitable electrification of homes and other buildings. Researchers and policymakers discussed the latest developments and challenges in this space during a recent webinar hosted by the Institute for Policy Integrity. The panelists included Dr. Paulo Tabares-Velasco of the Colorado School of Mines, Dr. Sergio Castellanos of the University of Texas at Austin, Dr. Ana Dyreson of Michigan Technological University, and Dr. Henry McKoy of the U.S. Department of Energy.

Image from Dr. Tabares-Velasco’s presentation at Policy Integrity’s April 29th webinar

Dr. Tabares-Velasco kicked off the discussion by emphasizing the need for a holistic, community-level approach to building electrification. He shared insights from his research project, which aims to quantify the benefits of retrofitting and electrifying entire neighborhoods at once, rather than focusing on individual homes. This approach allows for economies of scale while also considering the specific constraints and needs of low-income housing. By engaging with communities from the start and developing user-friendly dashboards to track energy use and indoor air quality, Dr. Tabares-Velasco hopes to make the benefits of electrification more tangible and accessible to residents.

Image from Dr. Castellanos’ presentation at Policy Integrity’s April 29th webinar

Next, Dr. Castellanos delved into the financial aspects of electrification, particularly in the context of multifamily housing. He presented modeling results showing high potential for PACE (Property Assessed Clean Energy) financing eligibility for electrification retrofits in Texas, which could help owners overcome upfront cost barriers. However, he noted that challenges remain in making building owners aware of this opportunity and streamlining the application process. Dr. Castellanos also highlighted the importance of using data-driven tools to identify the most promising buildings for retrofits and engaging with installers to ensure they have the necessary knowledge and training.

Image from Dr. Dyreson’s presentation at Policy Integrity’s April 29th webinar

Dr. Dyreson shifted the focus to the unique challenges and opportunities for electrification in rural, northern communities. She discussed her research assessing the technical and social barriers to electrification in these areas, where propane and wood stoves are more common. She highlighted the need for improved modeling of these specific building stocks, as they are often poorly represented in existing tools. Dr. Dyreson also stressed the importance of working closely with tribal communities to understand their energy sovereignty priorities and ensure that electrification efforts align with their goals. She noted that while air source heat pumps offer promise for these cold climates, education is needed to build trust in the technology.

Image from Dr. McKoy’s presentation at Policy Integrity’s April 29th webinar

To provide a policy perspective, Dr. McKoy, who serves as Senior Advisor to the Undersecretary for Science and Innovation at the U.S. Department of Energy, gave an overview of the significant federal investments in building efficiency and electrification made through the Bipartisan Infrastructure Law and Inflation Reduction Act. These investments include billions for home-energy rebate programs, weatherization assistance, and workforce training. However, he cautioned that even this unprecedented funding is still a small fraction of the total investment needed to electrify the nation’s building stock at scale. He also raised concerns about the potential for fraud (e.g., installers making false promises to homeowners about whether the government will pay for certain upgrades) and the need for consumer protections as these programs are rolled out. Looking ahead, Dr. McKoy highlighted the importance of bringing more social and behavioral science into the building electrification space to better understand how people make energy-related decisions.

Throughout the webinar, several cross-cutting themes and research gaps emerged. All the panelists emphasized that community engagement and creating trust are essential for successful building-electrification efforts. Partnering with trusted local organizations, communicating benefits in terms that resonate with residents’ values and priorities, and ensuring that communities receive something of value in return for participating in research can aid in these efforts. Speakers also discussed the need for more research on how electrification intersects with other issues like health, indoor air quality, and workforce development.

Additionally, the panelists noted various technical and logistical barriers that need to be addressed, such as gaps in workforce skills for installing heat pumps, the need for upgrades to electrical panels and distribution systems to handle increased loads, and the importance of using actual building-level data to inform models and decisionmaking tools. They also discussed the challenges of “selling” electrification to the large swath of homeowners and renters who may not be motivated by environmental benefits alone.

The webinar underscored that building electrification has immense potential to cut emissions and improve quality of life, but this will require a sustained, multifaceted effort across many stakeholders. The Inflation Reduction Act provides a crucial down payment, but speakers agreed that programs and investments must embrace a long-term mindset and steadfast commitment to equitable processes and outcomes. Researchers are revealing promising models and pathways forward, as well as areas where work still is still needed to ensure a just transition for all communities. As Dr. Tabares-Velasco put it, “We need more people interested in working on this from all angles — economists, policymakers, engineers, social scientists. It’s a huge challenge but an exciting time, and we have to keep at it for the long haul.”

This webinar was part of a series highlighting environmental and energy research projects funded by the Alfred P. Sloan Foundation. Check our events page for future webinars in the series!

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Policy Integrity at NYU Law
Policy Integrity Insights

The Institute for Policy Integrity is a non-partisan think tank using law and economics to protect the environment, public health, and consumers