In summary

A stimulus plan to retrofit homes and replace gas appliances for low-income Californians and small businesses will help fight climate change and create jobs.

By Srinidhi Sampath Kumar and

Srinidhi Sampath Kumar is the sustainable housing policy and program manager at the California Housing Partnership, ssampath@chpc.net.

Panama Bartholomy, Special to CalMatters

Panama Bartholomy is the director of the Building Decarbonization Coalition, panamabartholomy@gmail.com.

As California grapples with grim economic challenges due to the COVID-19 pandemic, we must work together to craft an economic response that meets the significance of this moment. 

One straightforward idea that should be considered by the “Governor’s Task Force on Business and Jobs Recovery” can put tens of thousands of Californians back to work and improve housing for cash-strapped residents in a way that will save them money every month, all while cleaning the air and fighting climate change. And it starts at home. 

A stimulus plan that electrifies the homes and apartments of low-income Californians as well as small businesses, will help fight climate change, create jobs, contribute to more affordable homes, improve public health and provide financial relief to the families and businesses who need it most. 

Years of research from various agencies have all returned the same conclusion: to address California’s second largest source of climate pollution, we’re going to need to retrofit California’s 14 million homes and 8 billion square feet of commercial buildings to run on affordable clean energy in the next two decades. 

But replacing older gas appliances with safer, cleaner and more cost-effective electric ones is out of the question for many renters and low-income residents, who faced a heavy energy and rent burden even before the pandemic took a significant bite out of their income. 

Making these upgrades could support about 100,000 jobs annually, according to research from the UCLA Luskin Center on Innovation, even after accounting for modest declines in gas industry employment by 2045. Over the course of 25 years, researchers have found that electrification will create eight times the number of jobs that will be phased out. With the right employment agreements, this will be steady, high-paying blue collar work. 

Funding electrification can also help nonprofit affordable housing providers, ensuring they can maintain safe shelter for vulnerable Californians in the face of a projected $1.7 billion loss in rental income due to the current economic downturn.  

Here are four programs to kickstart clean energy building upgrades for those who need them most:

  • A cash for clunkers program that provides incentives to allow low-income households to replace older gas appliances with new electric ones. 
  • Fund upgrades of electrical panels in homes and small buildings occupied by low-income residents so they can handle higher loads from electric appliances. 
  • Expand the Multifamily Low-Income Weatherization Program, which provides comprehensive energy upgrades that slash utility bills by 30% on average. 
  • Fund electrification upgrades for hospitals, schools and other municipal buildings.   

Families whose homes and apartments get outfitted with electric appliances lock in lower utility bills for years to come; all-electric homes save the average family $130 to $540 per year compared to homes that burn gas, according to the consulting firm E3

Electric appliances also combat health risks. Research shows that due to a lack of access to air conditioners, low-income households in Southern California are at risk of heat-related illness and death as temperatures rise. Replacing gas furnaces with electric heat pumps will keep homes warm in the winter and provide air conditioning with one highly-efficient appliance.

Gas appliances, and especially stoves, are a significant source of indoor and outdoor air pollution. The gas burned by California buildings produces six times more smog-causing chemicals than power plants, the same amount as cars. And having a gas stove in a home raises the risk of asthma in children by 42%. 

Electrification means cleaner, healthier air indoors and outside, and less susceptibility to respiratory diseases. 

The coronavirus crisis demands immediate action, but addressing California’s other challenges can’t wait. Climate change isn’t taking a break because of the pandemic, and the housing affordability crisis won’t sit this one out. We can tackle these big challenges, we just need to start at home.

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