Utilities must educate customers about their power to curb climate change

Contributed by Mike Phillips, CEO and co-founder of Sense

The IPCC report on climate change has been called a “code red” for humanity, with its finding that temperatures rose more in the past 50 years than any time over the past 2000 years, and is continuing to rise more rapidly than expected. Scientists say a catastrophe can be avoided only if the world acts fast to make huge cuts in carbon emissions immediately – actions we take now will bake in future emissions.

These dire scenarios tell us that we all need to get serious about eliminating carbon fuels from our lives. Consumers make buying decisions every day that can have a big, collective impact on slowing climate change. The renewable energy industry and utilities have a unique opportunity to educate consumers about how that buying power can turn into climate action.

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Starting now, any new appliance in a home should be electric. Homeowners should be buying and installing air conditioners with heat pumps. They should stop installing gas or oil-powered furnaces in their homes. Consumers should not buy another gas-powered car. The bottom line is, from today forward, everyone needs to stop burning fuels in their houses and electrify everything instead.

This approach is important because each purchasing decision a consumer makes will impact the next 20 years. Each new gas car could be on the road for a decade or more. A new gas furnace creates 15-20 years of carbon emissions. We have the technology today that can make a dent in carbon emissions and we must stop adopting technology that sustains the carbon-based approach.

News stories about the utility industry are more common as extreme weather events affect peoples’ lives. This general interest gives energy providers an opening to tell consumers how they can contribute to slowing climate change by following three principles in their day-to-day lives:

1. Electrify everything in your home. We need to do everything we can to eliminate carbon fuels like natural gas, oil, and propane from our homes. Replace oil and gas burning furnaces with heat pump technology, either air-source or geothermal. Replace gas stoves with induction stoves, which use less energy and don’t emit noxious fumes. Use an electric or solar-powered hot water heater.

Include vehicles in your home’s electrification. There have never been more EV choices from automakers, and the Biden administration plans to build out more EV charging stations across the country. A typical passenger vehicle emits about 4.6 metric tons of carbon dioxide annually according to the EPA. Transportation is responsible for more greenhouse gas emissions than any other sector and vehicles are responsible for about a quarter of global CO2 emissions.

2. Make the move to clean energy. Install solar panels on your roof or choose solar energy from your utility. Solar panels are the quickest way to get an all-electric home to net-zero energy usage, and the initial investment typically pays off in 8 years – or less, depending on state and local incentives and utility rates. The industry and government policy should support rebates and tax breaks that make solar panels attractive to more homeowners at every income level.

3. Become an energy-savvy consumer. Every utility should be providing a way for their customers to easily monitor their energy usage at home in real-time so they can see how to reduce it or shift it to lower cost and lower carbon times. Most homeowners can save 20% of their electricity usage through energy awareness at home.

Instead, the fossil fuel industry is perpetuating the carbon economy. The industry’s “Cooking with Gas” campaign targets young people on social media, although cooking with gas leads to high kitchen concentrations of nitrogen oxides—respiratory irritants implicated in asthma and other illnesses. The American Petroleum Institute’s “Energy for Progress” ad campaign describes natural gas as “clean” or “environmentally friendly” when it has become clear that its production and rapidly increasing use have major climate change impacts.

Meanwhile, utilities are spending ratepayer dollars to put outdated “smart” meters on peoples’ houses while there are next-generation meters with energy intelligence built into them that can truly help with climate change by tracking electricity in real-time, giving residents insights, and encouraging them to work with utilities to shift loads to lower carbon times, update wasteful appliances, or avoid peak demand events.

Utilities’ energy efficiency programs keep looking for small, incremental gains rather than collaborating with their customers to make the biggest, fastest impact possible. For example, many energy efficiency programs are focused on tightening up the home’s envelope, with incentives for insulating, which makes good sense because heating and cooling can account for 43% of a year’s total energy spending in most homes. But smart home technology can go a step further by telling consumers if their HVAC system is less efficient than other similar homes, making them an ally in the utility’s efforts to target potentially big gains in energy efficiency.

The ENERGY STAR program has had a major impact on home energy savings, to the extent that entire categories of appliances like refrigerators have made big improvements in efficiency. Similarly, LED light bulbs have made lighting amazingly efficient. These categories are no longer areas for future gains.

Now it’s the hidden energy hogs that are undermining efficiency efforts. Whether it’s old consumer electronics, inefficient HVAC systems, always-on pool pumps, or heated towel bars, when the cost of these hidden energy hogs becomes visible to consumers, they can take action to address them.

In the near future, smart home technologies will go a step further by automating household appliances to reduce carbon emissions. A recent study by Sense and Singularity Energy found that carbon emissions from charging EVs could be reduced by up to 43% in California by automating charging at times when the carbon intensity of electricity on the grid is lower. Similarly, smart home apps will let you automatically schedule your dishwasher to run when energy from the grid is cleanest.

This latest report from the UN is a call to action. It’s time to make every consumer an ally in the epic battle to slow climate change.

About the author:

This article was contributed by Mike Phillips, CEO and co-founder of Sense, which brings energy intelligence to homes, making them smarter and more efficient. Learn about real-time home energy monitoring at sense.com.