Buildings • US Cities Embark on an Anti-Gas Battle to Electrify Buildings

Fossil fuels are the main emitters of greenhouse gases for heating buildings. However, electricity has become a serious competitor thanks to the rise of renewable energy, creating a climate, economic and political rivalry in the US.

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Climate Chance Observatory

Fossil fuels are the preferred energy source for heating buildings, making them a major source of greenhouse gas emissions worldwide. However, in recent years, electricity has emerged as a serious rival, driven by the boom in renewables, which makes it an essential decarbonisation tool. For the past two years, this rivalry has been illustrated very concretely in the United States, where cities and states have been clashing over this climatic, but also economic and political issue.

  • Thermal energy, mainly from fossil fuels, accounts for more than three quarters of global building consumption and is responsible for almost 45% of GHG emissions from buildings, or about 12% of global emissions.
  • Driven by a very favourable market in the early 2010s, natural gas was set up as a “bridge fuel” in the United States, supposed to enable a gradual energy transition and act as a buffer between the abandonment of coal, which is a major emitter of greenhouse gases, and the deployment of renewable energy. Nevertheless, some cities are trying to « electrify everything » in order to switch to renewable energy to power the equipment.
  • Despite resistance from some states and gas companies, many cities have succeeded in mandating the electrification of new buildings.

While the electrification of heating systems is now recognised as an effective lever for the decarbonisation of buildings (provided that they are supplied with low-carbon electricity), the policies implemented by the States remain weak overall, and place more emphasis on abandoning oil-fired boilers, even if it means subsidising gas-fired boilers, gas still being presented as a « bridge fuel ».

At the same time, helped by economic, political and energy contexts that are generally favourable to renewables, around fifty cities in the United States have taken the lead, over the last two years, by each banning or restricting the use of gas in new buildings. The response from gas suppliers and producers was swift: intense lobbying campaigns led about twenty federa states to prevent their municipalities from taking such measures. These conflicts put at stake the just transition of employment in regions dependent on crude oil production, as well as the access of the majority to affordable and decarbonised energy, while putting the preservation of jobs and the protection of consumers first.