Stephen King wrote, “Sooner or later, everything old is new again.” Many “new” regulatory approaches to encourage building electrification are actually just new applications of tried-and-true methods policymakers have been using for years. Take, for example, clean heat standards, which some states (e.g., Colorado and Vermont) are considering or have implemented. A clean heat standard requires heating fuel companies to gradually increase the amount of clean energy they use to provide heat to customers. This is analogous to a renewable portfolio standard for electric companies, which has been widely used by states for many years to drive adoption of clean electricity generation technologies.
Other policy approaches to building electrification similarly draw on experience and expertise that regulators have honed over the years. For example, regulators have been overseeing and directing utility plans and programs for investments in energy efficiency for many years, which can inform similar plans and programs for building electrification.
Some may require revisiting or revising existing policy and regulatory approaches to enable the new opportunities presented by building electrification. Others will require regulators to expand existing efforts — for example, to focus benefits and harm reduction on low-income and overburdened communities.
Our building modernization toolkit provides examples and options for decision-makers that include ways states can electrify buildings through public utility commissions and utilities.
- Directing utilities to file plans for electrifying buildings with their public utility commission. This engages utilities and their expertise in electrification activities and enlists the regulators in making sure utilities are acting as intended.
- Removing existing barriers in state policy. For example, state policy may forbid fuel-switching, which is a direct barrier to electrification. Removing this provision and other barriers can help level the playing field for electric technologies and promote electrification without requiring utilities to take other actions.
- Focusing electrification and other efforts on low-income and overburdened communities, particularly those with the highest energy burden. This can be a highly effective way to combat energy inequality and ensure that the hardest-to-electrify customers are prioritized.
- Setting fuel-neutral emissions reduction standards (e.g., clean heat standards) for delivered heating providers. This builds on state experience with renewable energy standards for electricity and engages fossil fuel companies in the creation of solutions for the heating sector.
All these approaches are being pursued by states in various forms. We expect this trend of involving utilities and regulators in building electrification to continue as more states recognize the cost, emissions and health benefits of transitioning away from direct combustion of fossil fuel in buildings. For example, it seems likely that interest in clean heat standards will continue to grow and that utilities will be interested in ways they can make investments to support electrification. States with carbon goals will begin looking to reduced fossil fuel use for meaningful greenhouse gas emissions reductions, and health concerns may drive even greater interest in electric technologies. Policymakers can help their states get ahead and start proactively planning for cost-effective building electrification.