old propane tank and new heat pump
Kathleen Druzba Hicks poses with the fuel oil tank that used to fuel her home heating system, and the electric heat pump that replaced it. Credit: Community Climate Collaborative

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Organizers at the Community Climate Collaborative (C3) know hand-wringing won’t change the fact that residential buildings are the number one emitters of heat-trapping gases in Charlottesville.

How, C3 advocates pondered, could they possibly shrink that footprint?

For starters, by linking with a like-minded local nonprofit that didn’t mind getting its hands dirty with a small-scale, fuel-switching experiment. C3 partnered with the Local Energy Alliance Program with the goal of helping eight low-income homeowners relieve their energy burdens and reduce their carbon footprints with an all-electric conversion.

Their joint report released Monday, Lessons Learned in Residential Electrification, reveals that the experimenters are on to something.

Overall measurements show greenhouse gas emissions tapered off almost 39% in the households — an impact that can be amplified as the Virginia Clean Economy Act prods utilities to add enough megawatts of solar and wind energy to the electric grid by 2050 to decarbonize it.

Monthly utility bills didn’t always go down, but the comfort of the homeowners always went up, according to their feedback.

C3 executive director Susan Kruse said her organization was well-positioned to undertake these types of climate awareness projects. Her staff excels at teaching individuals that energy use and cost are factors they can manage and that everybody has the ability to reduce emissions at the community level.

“Electrification is absolutely an important climate strategy,” Kruse said. “And we need to do it. But we need to be prepared with programs for low- and moderate-income homes. That’s what we’re trying to understand with this study, the best path to electrification.” 

Charlottesville and surrounding Albemarle County are aiming to reduce their planet-warming emissions 45%, relative to 2011, by 2030. Residential buildings contribute 28% of the city’s emissions.

“We’re going to get to 2030 pretty quickly, so we can’t avoid the hard climate decisions,” Kruse said. “We have to have our eyes on carbon neutrality and be asking what we need to do to address it and how we make sure it’s a just transition for everybody.”

Kruse and other organizers will be presenting a webinar at noon Eastern on Tuesday to share their findings. It will include a virtual tour of electrified homes. 

“We combined our efforts so we could look at this holistically,” said Chris Meyer, executive director of LEAP. “We’re the contractor and C3 focuses on policy.”

LEAP, which specializes in weatherization and energy efficiency, coordinated the switch-out of fossil-fuel-based heating and cooling systems, water heaters, cooking ranges and dryers at the eight homes across the city and Albemarle County between September 2020 and January. 

C3 then followed the homeowners and tracked their energy usage over the course of two winters. 

“This was not meant to be a perfect scientific experiment,” Kruse said. “Each household had different improvements and data collection, so the situation wasn’t as simple as undertaking a one-on-one conversion. Cost savings are not as easy to quantify because of complicating factors.”

Meyer emphasized that combining electrification with improved insulation is a surefire strategy for cutting overall energy consumption and average emissions, especially for households once reliant on fuel oil. 

“For people in a low-income bracket, switching away from fuel oil is economically better for their pocketbooks because it reduces their energy bills,” Meyer said. “Equipment that runs on electricity is not only more efficient, but the fuel costs less.”

Plus, he said, the intensity of greenhouse gas emissions of fuel oil, propane and natural gas are much higher.

“From a climate perspective in Virginia, heating your home and your water with electric appliances is better, hands down,” Meyer said.

Testimonials from participants

Of the eight homes selected for the pilot project, three were in the city and five in the county, where residential buildings are the number two source of carbon emissions. The homes were built between 1952 and 1985, with sizes ranging from 704 square feet to 2,214 square feet.

At the largest home, built in 1972, LEAP replaced a 25-year-old natural gas furnace and a gas water heater, and then removed the gas line. After the switch was completed in fall 2020, the family’s utility bills dropped from $600 in February 2020 to $200 a year later.

Over at the city’s 10th and Page neighborhood, LEAP removed a natural gas floor furnace, replaced a range and a water heater, and replaced two mini-split heating and air conditioning units in a 1951 house where Charlotte and Ralph Terrell have lived together for 16 years. Ralph was born and raised in the house.

“I love my new water heater,” Charlotte said. “I really love it.”

In Esmont, a community outside the city limits, Karl Bolden is tickled that LEAP was able to remove an oil tank and install a new HVAC system with accompanying ductwork in his mother’s 1962 house. Alver Bolden, well into her 80s, hadn’t been able to live there since suffering a stroke.

In addition to the electric upgrades, contractors also added insulation, replaced the roof and made the 1,354-square foot home wheelchair accessible. The elder Bolden was able to return to her home in the spring.

“Mom is most looking forward to being around family, her two dogs, her flowers and being able to look out the windows,” said Karl Bolden, who lives nearby on land that has been in the family for decades. “She loves doing that.”

The combined performance of the eight pilot participants between the first quarter of both 2020 and 2021 resulted in a 56% decrease in energy consumption, a 26.6% reduction in energy expenses and a 38.7% drop in greenhouse gas emissions. 

Assuming that the upgrades will last for 20 years, the eight households could avoid emitting up to 2 million pounds of carbon dioxide over the next two decades.

Report authors emphasized that when considering monthly energy bill savings — the most crucial metric for low-income households — further evaluation is needed because of the unique and relevant variables in each household. Future analysis of a full year’s worth of energy bills will give the most comprehensive insight into the financial impacts of electrification, they said. 

On average, participants each paid $243 less in energy costs from January to March of this year than they did for the same period last year. However, reductions in the amount spent on energy bills overall were less universal than reductions in energy consumption. 

For instance, electric bills increased in three households during the three-month study period, Meyer said. However, he noted that the math and comparisons become tricky because this year’s winter was colder than last year’s and the pandemic meant people were staying at home using more energy resources than they might ordinarily.

Bills varied widely on a case-by-case basis, he said, adding that sometimes it was difficult to pinpoint why some households performed better than others. To level that out, he emphasized that installers take extra time to educate homeowners how to use their new HVAC systems and appliances in the most efficient manner.

Legislation coming to Virginia?

As the grid is greened nationwide, conversations, studies, and policies geared toward electrification have multiplied.

One voice gaining momentum is that of Rewiring America. It was co-founded by Saul Griffith, an inventor and engineer, and Alex Laskey, who started Opower. The nonprofit is pushing a movement that electrifies everything, starting with the country’s 121 million households.

Via an online state-by-state breakdown, researchers lay out the projected impact on energy costs, carbon emissions, and job creation if households were electrified.

In Virginia, statistics compiled by Rewiring America estimate that 3.1 million households statewide could save $1.2 billion annually on energy bills if they deployed modern electrified furnaces and water heaters.

The average household would save $371 per year, while low- and moderate-income earners would save an average of $393 per year.

Meanwhile, on a piecemeal basis, communities across the country have tried to discourage expansion of natural gas infrastructure by passing ordinances that bar new construction projects from connecting to gas pipelines. 

No localities in Virginia have yet followed that trend, but Charlottesville could well be the first one statewide to act. Meyer, of LEAP, pointed out that the city operates a municipal natural gas utility, which could make for some complicated negotiations.

Kruse said advocates are not yet ready to introduce any sort of measure, but they look forward to engaging policymakers in related discussions.

Virginia is also on the verge of introducing legislation for next year’s General Assembly session that would help free up dollars to fund the purchase and installation of electric appliances in low-income homes. Currently, federal and utility dollars now earmarked for weatherization and energy efficiency improvements can’t be spent that way because of restrictions in the Virginia code.

Briefly, such a bill would expand the definition of an approved energy efficiency program to include switching from less efficient and higher-polluting fuels to electricity, as long as doing so saves total energy use.

Strict limits on bills, forced by COVID-19, stymied advocates’ efforts to introduce any measure for the legislative session that concluded earlier this year. 

In an ideal world, any dollars slated for energy efficiency programs in Virginia would allow for fuel-switching, said Meyer, referring to money allotted via investor-owned utilities, the U.S. Department of Energy and the Regional Greenhouse Gas Initiative.

“Right now, it’s not viable because of the definition of energy efficiency in the Virginia state code,” Meyer said. “This is especially important for low-income folks who need new HVAC equipment and can’t afford an $8,000 heat pump. We need programs that we have to pay for this equipment.”  

C3 leader leads electrification charge

Though Kruse wasn’t part of the eight-household pilot, helping to launch that study inspired her to electrify the 1959 split-level home in Charlottesville she shares with her husband and two children.

Immediately, the local energy efficiency expert she hired recommended the family get rid of the hot-air furnace that was sized to meet the needs of a house five times as large as their 2,000-square foot home.  

The appliance makeover included a heat-pump water heater, a heat-pump heating and cooling system and an induction range.

“This was a real opportunity to right-size that and make everything more efficient,” Kruse said. “Safety and comfort are important, and as a climate leader I’m trying to reduce my energy consumption.” 

Nine-plus months into the electric conversion, she’s still learning some of the intricacies of operating her new equipment.

But she’s pleased with the most recent numbers her contractor has provided. Greenhouse gas emissions have about halved from the 2018-19 baseline and energy costs are down roughly $400 a year. The family is on track to save between $6,000 and $8,000 over the lifetime of the equipment.

Kruse is just grateful she had time to research and judiciously schedule her HVAC system replacement because homeowners usually don’t have that opportunity.

“Most people make a decision about a furnace replacement during an emergency,” she said. “We plan for our next car better than we plan for our next furnace.”

Elizabeth McGowan

Elizabeth is a longtime energy and environment reporter who has worked for InsideClimate News, Energy Intelligence and Crain Communications. Her groundbreaking dispatches for InsideClimate News from Kalamazoo, Michigan, “The Dilbit Disaster: Inside the Biggest Oil Spill You Never Heard Of” won a Pulitzer Prize for National Reporting in 2013. Elizabeth covers the state of Virginia. Her book, "Outpedaling 'The Big C': My Healing Cycle Across America" is available from Bancroft Press.