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Don’t wait on Congress for climate action—here’s how SF residents can decarbonize some sh*t

Illustration by Mia Carson

Earlier this month, Joe Manchin (D-WV), along with every Republican senator, seemingly set fire to our last chance of passing significant climate legislation for a long time. On Wednesday, the senator reversed course with the announcement that he had reached a deal with his fellow Dems on the climate bill, but did not address the specifics. The fact that this not-even-good-enough legislation is so difficult to advance proves that our moribund political system is not up to the task of saving the earth, even when no-brainer solutions are within reach. So we’re going to have to do it ourselves.

As one Twitter user put it, “There is a lot I can’t control but I’m going to decarbonize some shit today.”

We can all decarbonize our shit. As end-users of the energy system—whether a homeowner in San Francisco or among the majority of the city’s population that rents—we have more power than we think (both politically and energetically) to cut down on our emissions. Our households and cars contribute to about 40% of all U.S. carbon emissions, according to the nonprofit Rewiring America. 

If we electrify everything in our homes and garages, we can significantly slow down global heating. So how do we do that? It depends a bit on how much control you have over what’s in your home—renters obviously have less than homeowners—but the basics apply to both situations (and note that we have specific tips for renters a bit further down).

In short, you need to replace every gas-powered appliance in your home and garage with a modern electric one when it eventually breaks. A fully electrified, zero-carbon-emissions house would have heat pumps, super-efficient machines for air conditioning and heating, water heating and even laundry. Instead of a gas stove, an electrified house would have an induction cooktop or range, which are so much more efficient than their gas or coil-burner counterparts that they boil water in half the time—without leaking toxic methane into the air we breathe in our homes. Everything gas-powered—lawnmowers, weed-whackers and yes, your car— would be upgraded in favor of their electrified counterparts.

You can electrify your house without solar panels, but if you add solar, you can make all the power you need right at home.

Decarbonizing everything involves a lot of up-front costs, which is why the EV rebates in the climate bill, to name one provision, were so important. But EVs still save money over time with much cheaper energy bills. Even without significant rebates (thanks, Manchin, for ruining that fat rebate on the electric Mini Cooper convertible I’m saving for), EVs will reach price parity at the dealership by 2025. Meanwhile, gas isn’t far off $6/gallon, while you can run your EV for the equivalent of $1.06 per “gallon.”

This does not mean you have to run out and buy a new EV and heat pump today. The reality is that we don’t have to decarbonize everything all at once to address climate change, just when we would retire those machines anyway—this is considered a “100% adoption rate” of new technology. Saul Griffith, Ph.D., author of the book Electrify (which I collaborated on, along with Sam Calisch, Ph.D.), says that achieving this 100% adoption rate will allow us to meet our climate goals and decarbonize by 2050. So replace your gas car with an EV when you’re ready to buy another; same with your stove, A/C, heater and other electric appliances. 

You do, however, have to be ready when your appliances break so that you can install a new heat pump water heater without missing a hot shower. It’s all more of an electrical load—it will require two to three times as much electricity as we produce now to electrify everything. But that doesn’t mean people necessarily have to upgrade their electrical panels at great cost. There’s new smart technology that will help you balance your electrical loads, letting you prioritize where the electricity goes first, so that if your laundry machine is running, say, it will turn off the power to the car charger until the laundry is done. (It’s cool what you can do when you decarbonize; everything is faster, smarter and more efficient.) 

The downside of not taking personal action is significant. If you don’t electrify the next appliance you buy, you’ve locked in carbon emissions for the life of that machine. If you buy a new gas-powered water heater, it will emit 2,500 pounds of carbon pollution per year for its average lifetime of 12 years. That’s 30,000 pounds of carbon the earth can do without.

Now it’s true that electrification is more difficult for renters—I know my landlord won’t invest in any clean electric appliances unless the city forces her to—but there are still a lot of things renters can do to lower their carbon emissions.

My friend Sam Calisch is obsessed with electrification. This is a guy who recently went to Washington, D.C., dressed as a heat pump, talking up their climate and economic benefits to everyone from senators to people in line at the White House. Sam picked his Berkeley apartment because it already had electric space and water heating. He added an electric rug heater (around $200), which he says is just as good as the fanciest radiant floor heat. The apartment has a gas stove, but he uses an induction cooktop and an instant pot for cooking. He leases an EV, which he charges using a DIY solar array (he’s an MIT nerd). He can’t cap the gas line into the apartment, but he sure loves seeing the zeros on his PG&E bill each month.

I’m also working on decarbonizing my apartment. The uninsulated 1910 Victorian flat has two nasty gas heaters, which we turned off (like gas stoves, they leak methane and toxic chemicals) in favor of electric heaters. I was lucky enough to be able to beta test a small, portable heat pump that miraculously both heats and cools apartments with incredible efficiency. I have chilled out in front of the heat pump on our hot days, and it also keeps me cozy when it’s cold and foggy. Our stove is gas, but whenever possible, my husband and I use the instant pot and a large toaster oven instead. I’m going to buy an induction cooktop to set on top of the gas stove, but am still figuring out the best one (I’m a picky cook, but Sam is running some tests for me).

Instead of replacing our second car when it was totaled, we got electric bikes. We still have a 2005 compact car, with a bumper sticker that says, “My next car will be electric.” We rent a garage in a different building (this being SF), so we’re still sorting out how we will meter the electricity and pay the landlord. Fortunately, a nifty service will charge your car wherever you are in SF. We’re happier and healthier with our e-bikes, by the way.

We also checked the box for PG&E’s clean energy plan. We pay a bit more for it ($2/month), but we are supporting electricity backed by 100% clean energy. That does not mean that we get clean, organic electrons flowing into our apartment unit, but that we are increasing demand on the utility to provide a cleaner mix.

The same thing happens when we electrify our homes: we increase the demand for electrified machines, and the supply dynamics change. Manufacturers build more EVs, heat pumps and induction stoves. At scale, the costs come down even further, just as they have for solar and wind.

Of course, it helps the climate to fly less, eat less meat, and buy less stuff. But the greatest impact we can make on the climate is with our machines, and we need to decarbonize the shit out of all of them. That means electrifying everything. Now. 

Laura Fraser is a longtime San Francisco journalist and author who also works as a wordsmith for the nonprofit Rewiring America, which is focused on electrification.

Editor's Note: This story has been updated to reflect the news that Sen. Manchin said he had reached a deal with Democrats on the climate bill.

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