This Old House, 2045 Edition

by Katie Sloan, SCE Director of eMobility and Building Electrification.  

Recently we started working with a customer who wanted us to advise him on how to electrify his home.  It was, he told us, an older home, built in 1987.  This cracked up every one of us born before 1987, but as we look at the future of home electrification, we realize he inadvertently made an important point.  The technology in his “older” home is out of date.  In 2045, when California is carbon-free, will the homes built in 2019 be saddled with outdated infrastructure and useless technology?

Many voices in California, including our SCE economists, are predicting that to be carbon-free in 2045, we will have to move most of our housing stock to all-electric to take advantage of 2045’s clean renewable electric grid.

We are not suggesting that homeowners should be required to retrofit today’s gas-powered heating, water heating or cooktops for electricity. The average lifespan of their current heating or water-heating systems is less than 20 years, meaning that most current homeowners will be faced with one or two decision points between now and 2045 about what equipment to choose.  As they update their homes, they will be offered a choice to embrace new all-electric technologies, which are efficient, healthier (less indoor air pollution), and cost-effective.

The question now, though—and it is a societal, legislative, regulatory and personal investment question—is when do we accelerate the march to electrify?  How do we ensure that we are offering real choices and not pushing current dual-fuel home owners into higher costs and eventual obsolescence?

The last year has brought major recognition of the urgency to electrify housing stock.  One year ago, Governor Brown signed AB 3232 into law, which requires the California Energy Commission to study how to reduce greenhouse gas emissions from the state’s building stock by 40 percent below 1990 levels by 2030 (in parallel with the state’s GHG reduction goals), and SB 1477, which calls on the California Public Utilities Commission to develop two programs to reduce greenhouse gases from buildings. This January, the CPUC opened a rulemaking to examine building decarbonization issues, and just this past month they approved modifications to the “three-prong test” that will allow buildings that fuel shift from gas to electric to be eligible for energy efficiency programs.

On the local front, Berkeley might be a harbinger of the future when it outlawed gas infrastructure in new single-family homes, town homes and small apartment buildings.  Other California cities are following with new reach codes that encourage all-electric home building.

Some municipalities though, are still taking the opposing view, with codes and ordinances that require gas infrastructure, even for all-electric homes, or gas shutoff valves for water heaters, even if they are electric.  While trying to protect these homeowners from losing their “choice” to have gas, they are inadvertently hampering their choice to go all electric cost-effectively.

In a few years, as the number of homes relying on gas technology decreases, the question of sharing the costs for gas infrastructure among a shrinking set of customers will become an issue.  Will the cities that are circling around gas “choice” now, be the ones whose residents will end up paying for their failure to predict the future?

Our customer with the 1987 home has two young children and he told us that his hope for this, his dream house, is to raise his children and then retire there. In Back- to-the-Future style, we would like to check in with him in 2045, when California is carbon-neutral, to see how that all-electric infrastructure is holding up. We think it will still be serving his family cleanly, efficiently and economically.