Are all-electric buildings the future?< Back to Blog

For many of us, the use of gas for heating, water heating and cooking has become standard. However, with increasing concerns about global climate change and the urgency to meet goals around reductions in fossil fuel emissions, is it time we all thought seriously about making all new buildings 100% electric?

In this week’s blog, we take a look at some examples of total electrification that are already happening and ask whether all-electric projects represent the future for developers.

Last year, American homebuilding company, DR Horton broke ground at two projects which involve building 104 all-electric smart homes in Sacramento, California. With no natural gas infrastructure included in the ‘Independence’ and ‘Juniper’ communities, the new homes include heat pump space for heating and cooling, heat pump water heating and induction stoves.

Using building electrification as a key strategy for reducing carbon emissions is something which Sacramento and, in fact, many other parts of California are leading the way on. Here’s a snapshot of what’s going on:

  • Under Sacramento’s Smart Home Programme, developers building all-electric projects can receive a rebate package worth up to $5000 for single family homes and $1750 for multi-family units. There’s also a package worth up to $13,750 for conversions from gas to electric in existing homes.
  • This is one of the means by which Sacramento authorities are aiming to achieve an ambitious 90% reduction in greenhouse gas emissions (from 1990 to 2050).

  • DR Horton are one of nine large developers who are now building all-electric homes across the Sacramento territory.
  • Over in Berkeley (also in California), city authorities have gone further by passing an ordinance that, beginning January 2020, all new buildings must be 100% electric. This is the first measure of its kind in the US, effectively banning gas hook-ups in all new houses, flats and commercial buildings (existing buildings are not affected).
  • More than 50 other Californian cities are considering similar measures (e.g. While San Jose is not planning to go as far as banning the use of natural gas, a draft proposal of the city’s building code shows how it wants to incentivise the use of electric appliances as a way to reduce greenhouse gas emissions).

What are the benefits?

Looking at our question of whether all-electric buildings are the future, here’s a summary of why many people think it’s a good idea:

  • Burning natural gas emits carbon dioxide, the main greenhouse gas. (In Berkeley, a study showed that natural gas in buildings was responsible for 27 percent of greenhouse gas emissions).
  • Natural gas also emits methane, a pollutant that is much more potent than carbon dioxide when it leaks into the atmosphere. Methane leaks are found to come from infrastructure such as aging gas pipelines.
  • Phasing out gas from new buildings will help to slash carbon and methane emissions and also reduce air pollution in the urban environment.
  • All-electric buildings are safer and healthier to live in (for instance reducing the risk of gas fires and carbon monoxide poisoning).
  • Cutting out natural gas is cost effective. It’s true that there are some initial costs involved (e.g. fitting high efficiency heat pumps or induction stoves). However, if the decision to go all-electric is made at an early construction phase, these are offset by savings on things like gas connection costs and the fitting of internal gas plumbing. A study commissioned by the Natural Resources Defence Council in the US concluded that, compared to conventional gas, the upfront costs of clean electric heating are cheaper by around $1,500 or more.
  • As well as reducing costs, all-electric projects can be appealing to developers because they eliminate the logistical problems that can come from having to accommodate the infrastructure required for gas pipelines. That’s especially helpful where developers are working at sites which are tight-for-space but, on any project,  this can be a great time-saver.

Is there another side to the story?

With any significant change in practice, there is always an opposing view.

Some have tried to argue, for instance, that gas homes actually have a lower environmental impact than electric ones. That argument is generally based on the idea that electricity is carbon intensive but this only really applies where the electricity generated has coal as its primary source and/ or when outdated power plant systems are still in place. With the shift in the electricity industry to renewable and zero carbon sources, that argument just doesn’t hold up. (Leading the way again, Californian law states that all electricity must come from carbon-free sources by 2045).

What about the UK?

Under plans from the Labour government in 2006, all newly built homes were meant to offer zero emissions from 2016 onwards. However, that plan was scrapped under the conservative-led government in 2015 (probably because it was deemed too costly).

Today, many involved in developments/ construction take their environmental responsibilities seriously and are doing whatever they can to become more climate friendly, however there are few actual requirements for new-build houses to incorporate energy-saving features or renewable generation.

That doesn’t mean the UK construction industry won’t make more efforts to transition to 100% electric buildings at some point though and, here at Sheriff Construction, we’ve already been partly involved in this. Around three years ago we worked with a contractor on a development of 20 flats in Luton which came with no natural gas supply and not long after that we completed a development of our own which involved 8 all-electric flats in the Brook Street area of Luton. For all the advantages outlined above, we believe this is something more developers will be embracing very soon.

Barney Evans at WSP’s UK environmental team goes further, arguing the case for the electrification of entire cities like London and suggesting that the UK capital could become all electric for power, heating and travel by 2035. While it sounds quite radical, perhaps this is one of the most promising paths to achieving greenhouse gas reduction targets.

What do you think?

Would you like to live or work in an all-electric building?

Do you think our cities will be 100% electric in the near future?

Is this a realistic solution to some of the world’s environmental problems?

Tell us your thoughts over on our Facebook or LinkedIn pages.

04.09.2019

Main image source: Freepik