How to electrify your life when you rent

Two years ago, Caroline Spears was finally living on her own, without roommates, in a one-bedroom apartment in San Francisco, where the cost of living continues to rise. She was attracted by the affordability and space. “It was a great place to work from home,” Spears said. However, she did not anticipate the high energy bill that would result from turning on the gas heater when her apartment turned into an icebox in the winter.

Pollution due to the use of a gas heater was also a major problem. Spears, founder of the Climate Cabinet, a national climate organization committed to winning elections, saw this challenge as a new project. So she came.

She hired a contractor to test the apartment’s energy efficiency. Despite the evidence, Spears’ landlord wouldn’t budge. The test did not reveal a quick solution, only a major renovation. At the very least, she could improve her air quality by turning off the gas heater and purchasing a portable heat pump, an increasingly popular device that uses electricity to move heat in and out of the house. Spears may have invested in the A $5,000 machine if there was a government rebate or tax credit available for renters, but she couldn’t find one.

“That was my last attempt,” she said. She eventually moved to a more modern apartment elsewhere in San Francisco.

Despite the evidence, Spears’ landlord wouldn’t budge

While homeowners can electrify their homes if they wish, renters cannot. They must be accountable to their landlords. Tenants have limited control – and limited financial incentives. Why spend money on an appliance for a home you don’t own? They cannot easily take these with them when they move. Policymakers have not yet come up with a solution for renters, despite the need to decarbonize the entire housing sector.

The US government has pledged to halve CO2 pollution by 2030 to prevent the planet from further overheating. Such reductions will require massive infrastructure changes, especially in our homes, where water and food are often heated with what is known as “natural gas” but better understood as methane gas, a potent greenhouse gas that contributes to climate change.

Many environmentalists and policymakers have seen household electrification as a necessity to reduce carbon emissions – replacing fossil fuel appliances such as gas stoves and oil-fired water heaters with electric appliances such as induction cooktops and electric water heaters – but this solution ignores an important segment of the population: tenants.

In the US, 36 percent of households rent, according to the Pew Research Center. That is more than 44 million households. Although a 2022 study found that renters are more likely to have electrical appliances than homeowners, about 15 million renters like Spears are moving into a gas-powered apartment. Those looking to electrify their appliances often encounter the same roadblocks as Spears: reluctant landlords; outdated infrastructure; high cost; and little government support to overcome these obstacles.

Policymakers have not yet built a solution for renters

I live in New York City, where most people (myself included) rent. I would like an all-electric apartment, but most of the homes in the city were built more than 50 years ago. In my kitchen, my gas stove is so old that there are always two pilot lights burning. Gas heaters emit lung-irritating substances, such as nitrogen dioxide and particulate matter.

A study last year found that nearly 13 percent of current childhood asthma in the U.S. could be linked to gas stoves. I would like to ask my landlord for an induction stove that cooks my food via electromagnetic energy instead of burning fossil fuels. But I get worried just thinking about it. If he’s worried about replacing doorknobs, how will he react to a space heater?

“I worry about situations where renters don’t have as much control over their housing situation,” said Jamal Lewis, regional director of state and local policy for Rewiring America, a nonprofit dedicated to electrifying homes.

So far, the U.S. government has focused its electrification efforts largely on homeowners. The Inflation Reduction Act, President Joe Biden’s landmark climate bill, provides nearly $9 billion in rebates for energy efficiency and home electrification, but renters do not yet have access to point-of-sale rebates for heat pumps, electric boilers or induction stoves such as homeowners do. These benefits will vary regionally as different states and municipalities develop their own programs to implement the federal dollars they receive from the law, explained Leah Stokes, an associate professor of energy politics at the University of California, Santa Barbara.

“This money is not enough, but this is the start of these programs,” she said.

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Money is the key, because electrification is not cheap. A survey of 90 people from sustainability-focused research group Carbon Switch found that the total cost of installing an induction cooktop can average more than $3,000 when you include the electrical work. Induction cooktops require higher voltage and good electrical wiring. Older buildings in particular may require new wiring that can safely handle the heat generated. Poor wiring can overload a system or cause a fire.

“What matters with electricity is heat,” says Nathanael Johnson, electrician and former environmental journalist. “The more electricity you draw through the wire, the more heat is ultimately created. But if the wire is thicker, it can handle more electricity without heating up. Larger devices have larger wires.”

“I worry about situations in which tenants have less control over their living situation”

The work becomes even more expensive and complicated if you have to rewire an entire building. Wires are hidden under floorboards and behind walls; achieving it may mean clearing a room. A project can become especially impractical in apartment buildings where property owners must answer to regulators and inspectors who may require more upgrades than a landlord envisioned.

In New York, WE ACT for Environmental Justice, the environmental justice advocacy group, encountered this issue when it developed an initiative in 2021 to replace gas stoves with induction for 20 families in public housing in the Bronx. The building’s electrical capacity limited which apartment units could participate in the program. Each power line, which fed six units (one on each of the building’s six floors), could only support two heaters before it became overloaded and power was cut to every unit on the line.

Despite that hurdle, the program was successfully completed in 2022, but it highlighted the challenges the New York City Housing Authority (NYCHA) faces as it seeks to reduce emissions by 80 percent by 2050, as required by local law. WE ACT’s program could stick with two stove replacements per line, but that won’t work for the entire building.

“These shortcomings must be addressed in order to then meet our climate goals and electrify our homes,” said Annie Carforo, climate justice campaign manager at WE ACT.

That starts with stricter building codes and performance standards that would not only help the U.S. meet its emissions targets but also protect families from lung irritants like nitrogen dioxide that gas stoves release, Rewiring America’s Lewis said.

Money is the key, because electrification is not cheap

Investing in the right technologies can also help. Some companies are developing induction cooktops with a built-in lithium battery that don’t require the kind of expensive electrical updates that can discourage property owners from electrifying altogether. Unfortunately, these new heaters cost more than $4,000, so NYCHA announced a competitive challenge in July to encourage the design of more such devices that are also cost-effective.

These types of changes – whether at the policy or technology level – won’t happen overnight, so some renters have gotten creative to decarbonize their homes on their own.

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Stokes, who has been temporarily renting in Massachusetts for a grant since September, doesn’t use her gas stove at all. Instead, she covered it with a cutting board that has an induction cooktop on it. “I have children and I don’t want to cook on gas,” she said. Her twins were born prematurely, so they are particularly vulnerable to lung disease.

Stokes is not alone. In Berkeley, climate attorney Sage Welch has been using induction magazines for five years. Because as a tenant she had no permanent option to remove the gas from her home, she opted for a portable stove. She also uses other electrical appliances, such as her air fryer and toaster oven.

“Between all the different electrical appliances, it’s a much easier way to cook anyway,” says Welch.

Even Spears is considering trying electrification again in her new apartment. She just hopes that this time will be easier.

“My last place was out of control,” she said. “I’m tired. This should become easier for tenants.”

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