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What is Electrification? A CUB Explainer

What’s with all the buzz about electrification? CUB has a new “Better Heat” guide that explains this topic in-depth, but here’s a quick CUB explainer to help break it all down. 

What is electrification? 

Building electrification is the process of replacing fossil-fueled equipment like furnaces and natural gas stoves with their electric counterparts. Switching to electricity to run your home means that your energy can come from clean and more affordable sources like solar or wind, improve indoor air quality and help protect you from high gas costs. 

Why does CUB support it? 

CUB supports the transition to electrification because Illinoisians simply can’t afford not to. 

Gas is bad for our bottom lines: The volatile gas market subjects customers to recurring price spikes and high charges linked to aggressive utility spending. Currently, Illinois consumers face about $887 million in rate-hike requests by the state’s major gas utilities. These problems are felt statewide but seem to be most severe in Chicago, where about one in five customers are consistently one month or more behind on their gas bills. (Last month, we held a protest at the Peoples Gas Headquarters against their record $402 million rate-hike request.) 

Gas is bad for our health: There is mounting evidence that gas stoves pollute your home’s air. Sustainability think tank RMI linked the typical use of gas stoves to a 42 percent increase in rates of childhood asthma and additional health problems.

Gas is bad for the planet: Heating with gas is a major contributor to greenhouse gas emissions. RMI found that 10 states account for nearly 60 percent of greenhouse gas emissions from buildings — and Illinois ranks third.  

Natural gas isn’t a sustainable option, either environmentally or financially, in the long run. It’s time for consumers to explore alternatives. 

How do we electrify?

Electrification requires planning–this won’t happen overnight. But there are steps you can take now to get started.  

  • Complete your checklist of energy efficiency upgrades. CUB’s Clean Energy page has information on tips and programs to make your home more efficient. A  home energy audit can help you make a checklist of improvements. Making your home as efficient as possible maximizes savings before you switch from gas. Plus, it’ll help when the time comes to purchase an electric heat pump (see below) to replace your gas heat: An energy-efficient home may require a smaller, less expensive pump.
  • Manage your energy use.  When you use energy is as important as how much you use. You can participate in “demand response” programs in which you can put off the bulk of your electricity usage to times when electricity demand is lower. By reducing peak electricity demand, these programs help make the power grid cleaner and more reliable, and they can help you save money.
  • Consider using more renewable energy– you can do this by subscribing to a community solar offer or installing solar panels on your home. There has never been a better time to go solar.
  • Once you’ve done these, consider switching from gas to electric appliances.
    • Geothermal heat pumps are the most efficient method to heat and cool your homes and your water. Homeowners can save up to $1,750 a year by switching from a furnace, air conditioning unit, and gas water heater to a geothermal system.
    • Air source heat pumps can be up to 60 percent more efficient than a traditional furnace or boiler. In 2021, CUB’s research team released a study showing Chicago homeowners could enjoy lifetime savings of about $25,000 to $50,000 by switching their homes from gas to electric heat pumps. 
    • Heat pump water heaters use 70 percent less energy, according to Energy Star.
    • Induction stovetops are about 5-10 percent more efficient than conventional electric cooktops and three times more efficient than gas models, Energy Star estimates and provide better cooking control for chefs and a safer home.
    • Heat pump dryers, which Energy Star estimates use about 30 percent less energy than conventional units, are closed-loop systems that recycle air and do not require a vent to the outside.

What are the potential challenges for electrification?

Many wonder if we can make the transition here in Illinois with our cold winters and decades of reliance on methane and propane for home heating. The answer is yes, but we need to start planning now to ensure that the transition is equitable for all Illinoisians.  

  • Can heat pumps work in cold Illinois winters? One of the most common misconceptions about heat pumps is the idea that they do not adequately work in cold-weather conditions. Geothermal heat pumps have worked for decades and thanks to technology upgrades, many leading models of air source heat pumps are now capable of operating at temperatures of -13 degrees F or colder. (The average winter temperature in Illinois is about 30-40 degrees.) Heat pumps have passed field tests in northern Minnesota and the Arctic Circle. In Norway, which has an average winter temperature of about 20 degrees F, about half the households use air source heat pumps.
  • Will I need to make electrical upgrades? Some homes will require a new electric panel or breaker box in order to go all-electric, and depending on the circumstances, this could cost hundreds, even thousands, of dollars. Fortunately, the Inflation Reduction Act provides incentives to help reduce or eliminate the cost of a new panel and over time, this is a worthwhile investment, as it allows you to realize the cost savings of electrification.
  • How do I find a contractor to install a heat pump? It can be a challenge with a relatively new technology like heat pumps. Look at our “Finding a contractor” section, in CUB’s Better Heat guide. It’s a good idea to confirm if the individual contractor working in your home is personally certified and not just that their company is certified in designing and installing your new system.

Are there incentives to electrify? 

The Inflation Reduction Act enacted last year contains several federal incentives for electrification and home improvement. Our CUB Guide to the Inflation Reduction Act covers the details. (The Illinois Environmental Protection Agency says Illinois residents may not see rebates available until May 2024 due to delays in federal program guidance. In the meantime, you can take advantage of the available tax credits and utility company incentives.)

Does CUB have resources to help me electrify?

The Better Heat Guide has more information on heat pumps and alternatives to natural gas. Our Clean Energy landing page has more resources on Heat Pumps and efficiency tips. 

For CUB Members, we’re holding an exclusive “Electrifying Your Home” webinar 6 p.m.  Wednesday, May 24 in which CUB staff will go over any questions about building electrification, solar, and heat pumps. Members can reach out to Outreach Director Ivonne Rychwa for more information. If you’d like to become a CUB Member and join the event, you can donate here