Decarbonized Homes, Healthier Communities

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Special guests Bomee Jung (Topsight Advisors) and Yu Ann Tan (Rocky Mountain Institute) will present findings from their report Decarbonizing Homes: Improving Health in Low-Income Communities through Beneficial Electrification, which asked the question: “how can we maximize the health benefits of building decarbonization, particularly for communities that shoulder the heaviest health burdens of a fossil-fueled world?”

Yu Ann Tan:

So, first of all, just wanted to thank all of you for having us here to share how we can be decarbonizing our homes to support healthier communities, particularly for ones that bear the heaviest economic, social, and environmental burdens. Thanks for the great introduction, Bev. I'm Yu Ann, and I am going to pass the mike to Bomee to hear about some of her work, the questions that we're asking, and what we hope you may take away from our chat today.

Bomee Jung:

Thanks Yu Ann. And I'm so pleased to be here again. I saw a few names in the attendees of folks who have been colleagues for more than a decade, and I'm so pleased to be able to present this particular piece of research that we've done together. Many of you don't know this, but ... Or actually, probably none of you know this, but after spending more than 15 years working on affordable housing and climate action, I recently pivoted a bit to work on a software solution that, again, looks at speeding up decarbonization in buildings, but it's going back to my pre-urban planning days where I started out my career after college working in space. And so to me, personally, this is a little bit of a capstone of sorts.

And the reason why I said I'm really excited abour what I would consider, or to offer you all as the passive house community, the takeaway message is that there's a way to think about and speak about passive house in a way that is very much tied to these questions of justice and equity. And sometimes I think that in the passive house community, we have a tendency to get so excited about the technical accomplishments of things that sometimes when we're asked to speak in ways that talk more about broader societal impacts, it may seem like there's a disconnect.

But I think that what we have pieced ... The story that we've pieced together through research is really speaking to how building quality buildings is, in fact, a foundation of equitable climate solutions. So next?

And the basic fact that we have to start with is that the housing stock in the United States is not in fantastic shape, right? So something like 35% of all the occupied units in a national survey of housing quality reported that they had some kind of repair need. And of those 35% that reported, 40-some odd percent are reporting faults that are really pretty serious. Things that are ... Moisture and bulk water management that lead to mold and mildew, structural problems. And so we're talking about a housing stock that is ... Even beyond affordability challenges, really not in fantastic shape. And that is a background against which we really have to talk about all of the things that passive housing improves in terms of housing quality.

When you look at how low income communities and historically underserved communities fare in all of this, as you would imagine, the low income communities really have beared the disproportionate burden of occupying housing that is not of good quality.

And on top of that fact, we also know that the dependence on fossil fuel is high among low income families, partly because of geographic factors, but at the end of the day, the fact is that there is a real health disparity related to disproportionate exposure to PM 25, 2.5, for example. And what happens in buildings that causes that is largely related to burning fossil fuels, both in the building and community-wide impact. And so, one of the ... As we've seen as a policy motivator recently, or driver recently, the push to really this message of getting gas out of buildings, it's not just a matter of climate change. It's also real health impacts.

So as I said, what we did in our research was really to try and establish, what are the ground truths of of health research that relate to building quality and environmental quality? And we try to do that in a very broad based way. So not just looking at indoor environmental quality, but climate risks as well. Things like the ability of the building to protect from heat waves.

And basically, the three messages that we wanted to put out into the community is, number one, that we really want to be pushing for electrification in the context of a holistic package of housing quality improvements. And so I think there is a message that could be heard these days as everything ... If you just electrify all the doodads, then we're all good. What we're saying here is that what the evidence shows is that it's housing quality that matters, not just electrification in terms of benefiting residents.

And then the second takeaway is that because of disproportionate vulnerability and disproportionate exposure to health harms, generally, that when you fix these problems, the health benefits that result accrue disproportionate to low income communities, which is where it becomes an equity and justice issue.

And then the third message that we have is that much of what we can do can be done locally. It's fantastic that we have a federal government that's now mobilized around climate goals, but that's not where ... We don't need to wait for those things. There's a lot that cities and state governments can do today. Next.

So one of the things that I wanted to explain before turning over to Yu Ann to go through the findings and the report more in detail is this idea that there is a definition of beneficial electrification that applies to housing. So beneficial electrification as we hear it in the literature and in the dialogues today really is talking about balancing benefits, environmental benefits, with benefits to operating electric grids, generally speaking. But if you look at the history of the term, and I actually found the guy that I'm pretty sure is like the father of the term beneficial electrification. And this term, actually came from a time when gas companies were arguing that because of the transmission losses in electricity, that electricity should be abandoned in favor of gas for efficiency reasons.

And so the electric industry was arguing, well, no, there's things that ... There are beneficial uses of electricity, where electricity is the better solution. And they looked at things like, it's better to use computers and you can't use computers on gas, right? And so they had a very ... It started out as a very different concept, this idea of beneficial electrification.

And then more recently, it was picked up by the ... Oh my God, that neuron got fired hit by a cosmic ray and now the ... Well anyway, the association of utility regulators revived it as this idea, saying, well, really, what we're talking about in beneficial electrification, the beneficial part is that you have to show multiple dimensions of benefits, not only in the environmental impacts, but also in the operations of the grid.

And so what we're arguing here is that if you're going to use this term beneficial notification and apply it to housing, really, you need to look at it in terms of what are the benefits that are relevant to housing quality? So these are ... The buildings exist and homes exist first and foremost to provide safe and affordable ... Safe housing.

And so it's not just a matter of the greenhouse gas impacts. It's not just a matter of the impacts on the grid. It's really a matter of, what are the benefits that accrue to the residents and the housing specifically? And so that's what we mean by this term, beneficial electrification of housing.

And then, what we argue, basically, in the paper is that in order to really maximize the beneficial electrification of housing that you need to have a passive house that's electrified, right? And then we go on to show why we've come to that conclusion based on, essentially, health research. Next?

And then as far as how we hope for this report to be used, one of the difficulties in working on this report is that we were really trying to bridge a bunch of different areas of practice. So we would like for housing advocates to use and understand the terminology that's used by building scientists. And we would like for the building science folks to use and understand the language that's used by public health experts, and get on the same page about where our priorities are overlapping. And now I'll pass it on to Yu Ann.

Yu Ann Tan:

Thanks Bomee. We used a three-pronged approach to look deeper into this topic. So first we synthesized existing research and analysis of different building level interventions to understand how each may impact the health of residents and the community. Then, we contextualized all of this information within the reality that certain communities face disproportionate economic, health, and social burdens because of many reasons. And finally, we put together some recommendations for state and local actors to further this work.

We identified that there are many mechanisms through which beneficial electrification can deliver health improvements, from indoor air and environmental quality to safe indoor temperatures during extreme heat and cold, and even increased energy security. Let's take a closer look.

So the undesirability of introducing combustion-related pollutants into the home has long been acknowledged in health literature, right? Both short term and long term exposure to combustion pollutants are linked to a variety of adverse health impacts, as we've demonstrated here in the table on the right. Removing any sort of in-home combustion has been shown to immediately reduce the risk of health harms such as decreased lung function, asthma incidents, cardiovascular disease, amongst many others.

Studies also show that a combination of a high performance envelope with compartmentalization and enhanced ventilation has many positive effects on indoor environmental quality. So we can see a reduction in pest infestations and the moisture conditions that often lead to mold. It also prevents infiltration of potentially polluted outside air. Additionally, my colleagues at RMI did some modeling and found that those high performance envelopes also have the added benefit of providing increased hours of safety, which is the maintenance of safer indoor temperatures during hot or cold weather. This analysis also compared a passive house standard building envelope to a code compliant new building during a power outage in a cold snap, and found that this passive house was able to maintain safe indoor temperatures four days longer than the code building.

So in our exploration, we also document the benefits of adopting all electric equipment and appliances, and how that may increase the access to air conditioning and the ability to mitigate deadly effects of extreme heat events. So high performance envelopes can contribute to more efficient, cooling and safer indoor temperatures, but we're finding that they can't fully mitigate the effects of heat buildup if we didn't have AC. So when temperatures overnight stay high, such as during a heat wave. And we did some analysis of different cooling technologies during a heat wave this past summer in Seattle. And we found that heat pumps are the most climate-aligned cooling technology while also being superior at maintaining a comfortable and safe indoor air temperature.

The evidence also strongly suggests that removing in-building combustion can have a great impact on what goes on outside of our buildings. Combustion equipment in our homes, such as boilers, furnaces, hot water heaters are typically vented to the outside. And so eliminating these would contribute to better outdoor and neighborhood air quality. And a recent Harvard study found that roughly 15,000 to 20,000 premature deaths that occur nationally in the US every year are due to outdoor PM2.5 air pollution from burning fossil fuels in residential buildings only. We can also be reducing the demand on aging, leaky, and risky gas distribution infrastructure. And research is finding that leaking supply lines and equipment in buildings are contributing to significant fugitive methane levels in cities, which is pretty alarming.

Finally, the combination of electrification and high efficiency, climate-appropriate smart technology gives us a great opportunity to increase affordability and reliability of energy access, which is a very important driver of health inequity. The reliability and affordability of energy access, it has an important impact on health. When households are unable to adequately meet their basic household energy needs, or what is known as energy and security, a wide range of health issues can occur, such as stress and poor mental health, to poor sleep and cardiovascular and respiratory health. Direct health harms such as carbon monoxide pipe poisoning, temperature related illness, and even death can occur when residents resort to alternative energy sources to meet needs when conventional methods fail them.

We go on to identify how communities face disproportionate economic health and social burdens, and why we need to center these circumstances as we start to decarbonize our building stock. So evidence shows that low income communities repeatedly face stressors on multiple levels, and they experience both heightened vulnerability and exposure in comparison to more affluent populations. Some of these vulnerabilities we have identified include systemic racism, marginalization and discrimination, limited access to resources and the resulting trade-offs as well as poor neighborhood and household conditions. These communities grapple with heightened exposure as well to location-based pollutants. For example, because they are closer to polluting sources, such as power plants, highways, superfund sites, they're also at risk to climate risk such as extreme heat, being located in flood zones and in-home pollutants and allergens.

Health research indicates that 60% of the burden of health disease is just directly attributable to living in poverty and its associated risks. Studies also show that children under the age of six who live in a home that use a gas stove or oven for supplemental heat are, are 80% more likely to have asthma than children in homes that do not. In the US, summer temperature differences between redlines and non-redlined neighborhoods can approach up to 20 degrees Fahrenheit. 70% of people living below the poverty line also have significantly higher exposure to surface urban heat than those above the poverty line.

The fact is that the combination of all these factors and disparities serves as a sort of magnifying glass, I like to call it, for any impact, be it good or bad. For example, when the New York City mayor's office modeled the air quality benefits of electrifying our buildings, asthma emergency room visits were reduced by 10 times more in lower income communities than compared to more affluent neighborhoods, even though the reduction in pollution was similar. The fact is the circumstances that these communities face are immensely different and we absolutely must be taking that into account when designing policies.

Bomee will now walk us through what that might look like.

Bomee Jung:

Thanks, Yu Ann. If you would go to the next slide, please. Actually, if you could advance one more. So we looked at a number of recommendations and these are not so much specific recommendations for state and local governments to go copy down. So these are not model recommended. There are really more areas, things for policy makers to think about. And we looked at it in four buckets.

One is looking at enabling policies that try to bring in the voice of the affected communities into these sorts of policy discussions. And this is really important from a climate justice perspective because it's not just a matter of who gets benefits. It's not just a matter of, do low income people, do low income residents get better buildings? And obviously that's fantastic and we want to do that. But part of what makes this conversation a really rich one when it comes to justice is that what low income communities are saying they want is they want to have a part in that decision making. And so we looked at some recommendations about how to bridge the centralized processes that characterize policy making and grounding kind of conversation more in the communities.

The second bucket of things that we looked at was, how do you use the small portion of the ... This is all US stuff, by the way. Small portion of the housing that is directly subsidized and regulated? So these, this is primarily income-restricted housing that's subsidized through federal government programs. How do we use that, what we call traditionally affordable housing, how do we use that to move markets? And what are the things that we could do to raise the bar in affordable housing that moves the construction market overall? And there's a lot that affordable housing has done in the past that we can rinse and repeat with, except we do it with better codes and better standards. Next.

The third bucket was really about addressing codes and standards and bringing things up from the bottom. And that's really addressing, getting everyone to improve the quality of buildings as opposed to creating a leading class of buildings that are pulling from the front. And there's a lot of work that a lot of other organizations like the Institute for Market Transformation, where I'm a board member, there are folks who are working on adopting building performance standards and that are also trying to incorporate health benefits and these other kinds of performance metrics into the building performance standards, which is, I think, a really interesting area for folks to explore.

And then finally, we talked about, of course, you can't really talk about low income housing without talking about resources dedicated for low income housing. And I think that, traditionally in the affordable housing sector, we've always operated from a scarcity kind of mentality. And I don't know that that's really going to change anytime soon. And so one of the things that we really talked about here is that when housing advocates go up for affordable housing funding, other folks who are in aligned industries, like folks who are working in the built environment sector, generally speaking, we should really be supporting that because there are opportunities to move the field forward through affordable housing and affordable housing just isn't funded. It not only impacts the folks who are directly benefiting, but it affects the ability of state and local governments to do that kind of leading work that can be done through affordable housing regulation.

And then lastly, on the similar kind of front, there's a lot of regulations that, at different levels of government, are kind of hampering each other's efforts. And so that's another area as far as looking at how to speed things up, just resolving conflicts would in and of itself make the system more efficient. So those are sort of just a flavor of the kinds of recommendations that we made in that last.