Electrification Nation with Laura Tajima

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Cities across North America are paving the way for wide-spread building electrification. Although there are many benefits associated with going all-electric, there are also many barriers that stand in the way.

Building Electrification Institute acts as resource for cities in their equitable transition to building electrification through education, training, and program support. They work with 11 different cities, providing them with the necessary “tools in their toolbox” to ensure their buildings are as energy efficient, healthy, equitable, and cost effective as they need to be.

In this episode, our host Robb and guest Laura talk about electrification strategies, costs, and the importance of policy as it relates to building electrification and climate goals in cities.

Episode Guest: Laura Tajima

Laura Tajima

Laura Tajima works across many of Building Electrification Institute’s cities overseeing and implementing projects to advance equitable building electrification. Laura was previously with the NYC Mayor’s Office of Sustainability, where she worked on policies and programs to decarbonize buildings and often led the office’s technical analysis and research. Laura has a Master of Science in Sustainability Management from Columbia University.

Episode Information & Resources

  • Pragmatists for Clean Airhttps://pragmatistsforcleanair.org/
    • An open source project for all-electric buildings in Utah supporting building professionals with plans and data on all-electric construction.
  • The Greenlining Institutehttps://greenlining.org/
    • An organization focused on racial and economic justice, including working on the challenges and opportunities that building electrification presents for low-income communities.
  • Emerald Cities Collaborativehttps://emeraldcities.org/
    • National non-profit working to create high-road local economies, including developing programs and initiatives around building electrification, training, and transitioning the workforce.
  • Inclusive Economicshttps://inclusiveecon.com/
  • Zero Cities Project (USDN) https://www.usdn.org/projects/zero-cities-project.html
    • A project to develop actionable and equitable roadmaps with 11 leading cities. This page includes resources, case studies, and videos featuring the work of cities and community partners.


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Send your feedback and questions to podcast@swinter.com


About Buildings and Beyond

Buildings and Beyond is a production of Steven Winter Associates. We provide energy, green building, and accessibility consulting services to improve the built environment. For more information, visit www.swinter.com.

Hosts

Robb Aldrich | Kelly Westby

Production Team

Heather Breslin | Alex Mirabile | Dylan Martello | Jayd Alvarez

Episode Transcript

Robb (00:05):

Welcome to buildings and beyond.

Robb (00:08):

The podcast that explores how we can create a more sustainable built environment.

Kelly (00:12):

By focusing on efficiency, accessibility, and health.

Robb (00:17):

I’m Robb Aldrich.

Kelly (00:18):

And I’m Kelly Westby.

Robb (00:22):

In this episode, I spoke with Laura Tajima at the building electrification Institute or BEI. Bei supports cities around the country that are trying to electrify their building stock. Back in 2019, my co-host Kelly interviewed Lori Kerr about climate policy in cities and building electrification was one of three or four key pathways that cities need to pursue to reach their climate goals. As electricity gets cleaner and cleaner, moving away from fossil fuels and towards efficient heat pumps can make a lot of sense. Laura herself lives in Colorado, but BEI works all across the country. One of my first questions was where exactly they’re working now.

Laura (01:15):

Yeah. So right now we’re working in about three different regions. So we work in the East coast – New York city being one of them, Burlington, Boston, Washington, DC. We were in the Rocky mountain area. So salt Lake city, Denver, and Boulder. And then we have some California cities as well, too. San Jose, LA, Berkeley.

Robb (01:39):

So I kind of put Laura on the spot for that question to list all the cities that we’re working with. And she realized later on that she forgot to list to Philadelphia. So you can add Philadelphia to the list. Laura herself started out working in international affairs and education. She went back to grad school for sustainability management and she got her first taste of meaningful climate policy work at the New York city mayor’s office.

Laura (02:07):

I started working with the New York city mayor’s office of sustainability initially as like, you know, an intern and loved that idea of the big thinking, you know, being really ambitious, but also kind of having the connection to, you know, local people, local issues, being able to really kind of impact policy that that could change how people are building buildings, change how people are operating them. You know, thinking about programs and supportive trainings and education to kind of help people understand these concepts as well, too. So it was really invigorating and exciting to kind of work on the policies, policy component of things really understanding kind of the, the breadth by which you can really impact the future.

Robb (02:57):

Cool. One of the big initiatives that some cities have played with, which certainly gets lots of press, even in mainstream press, is, is gas bans, natural gas bans. You said you work with Berkeley and Berkeley was, was one of the cities that maybe kicked that off. Can you talk about how, how those work or how cities came about to kind of do something that seems pretty draconian to a lot of people?

Laura (03:28):

Gas bans often kind of get a lot of misconceptions around it. I think that, you know, a lot of people think that this means that, Oh, you know, the city is coming in and gonna take away my gas stove that I’ve been, you know, working with for the last year 20 years. You know, I think that `we see cities kind of leading in this concept is, is really around, you know, requiring electrification where it makes the most sense. So this does make sense in new construction today. I think that we see that building electrification in new construction can be built less expensive compared to a mixed fuel building. And, you know, can have that really tight envelope in order to make sense for building electrification. And also people are becoming more and more aware of the impacts of gas particularly on health, particularly from cooking. And so, you know, as a result we’ve seen kind of these really strong examples of people leading with building electrification in new construction. I mean, we see this of course in areas like New York city. But we also see in places like, you know, salt Lake city and there’s this awesome organization called Pragmatists for clean air, and they are making all of their plan sites, review process, you know, open source, they’re sharing their costs, they’re sharing their data. So we’ve seen kind of that works in new construction, that building electrification works in new construction. I think as a result, you know, the cities are kind of saying this is a win-win, you know, people get a better home. People get cooling, people get, you know, cleaner cooking, cleaner appliances. This is lower cost to build. Why are we not saying you should go all electric in new construction? And so that’s what we’re seeing. You know, we’re seeing cities that are either saying we’re going to outright require it in certain buildings. We’re seeing cities saying we’re going to require it for, you know heating and cooling and hot water, but maybe, you know, they’re going to allow exceptions for cooking or gas fireplaces. Sometimes they’re allowing exceptions for that as well too. But we’re really seeing that kind of saying this just makes sense. And we just need to make sure that we are, we are going in that direction, our buildings that we’re building today that are going to be around for however many years in the future are kind of the best, the cleanest, the most cost-effective as well as the healthiest.

Robb (05:56):

So on the gas bans, were all the gas bans that different cities have had enacted or thought about really just for new construction?

Laura (06:07):

Yes. I think that those that have passed to my knowledge, have all been really kind of focused on requiring a level of of electric within new construction buildings. I don’t believe that any of them have considered major renovations, but, but i could be wrong on that one. If it is, it would be only looking at major renovations. I think that there is a little bit of difference with like the gas moratoriums that we saw in New York that were more driven from the gas utility side, rather than like the city local government side. I believe that did have an impact on existing buildings. But that really came out of kind of a constraint on the supply side, while the local governments in their terms of their policies mostly are really much really focusing on requiring all electric to some extent, as I said, in, in new construction.

Robb (07:03):

Okay. All right. And, you got into this a little bit, Are, are they differentiating? I mean, I’m with you, for say single family, new construction, single family homes, anything, but all electric just doesn’t make sense to me anymore, but when you get into restaurants or, you know, places with commercial kitchens with big intense thermal loads you know, Berkeley and Brookline, Massachusetts are the two kind of that come to mind for me. Did they put in exceptions for, for say kitchens for restaurants, or was it much more a kind of blanket ban?

Laura (07:47):

Brookline actually did a fair bit of stakeholder engagement as I’ve heard with the restaurant industry. And they brought up real concerns about having electric alternatives for some of their, you know, restaurant specialty kind of type of cooking. And so that they allowed commercial cooking and might’ve even allowed residential cooking to be gas in terms of their requirements around all electric. So there’s definitely different flavors if you will, of all electric requirements. And that’s why I keep on saying like, there there’s that variety, you know, some are saying this is only going to be residential. Some are saying, we’re going to allow for residential cooking. We’re going to allow for gas fireplaces, we’re going to allow for you know, domestic hot water in multi-family buildings. So again, I think that there are nuances to these and that’s what I think that is often missed a little bit within the press that you know, I think that the local governments, they work closely with their stakeholders. They are kind of the closest government that understands their, their constituents. So, you know, a lot of times that while they do want to be aggressive and ambitious with our goals, they also of course want something practical. So, you know, they, they try to kind of really balance that out. And, and so they’re not going to try to kind of put something forward that is completely impractical often. So, so again, I think those exceptions do really exist when, when they’re considering these types of policies.

Robb (09:20):

Cool. Cool. And what else on the new construction side, what, what kind of innovative strategies have you seen people try that either have worked, or you’re really interested to see how well they work other than something, you know, press grabbing headlines like gas bans?

Laura (09:40):

As I mentioned, it kind of is this, this cycle, I would say where there are pilot projects that you can really kind of highlight and demonstrate, and this might be through, you know, buildings of excellence type of you know, marketing and awareness and awards. It might be also education around kind of the health impacts of gas appliances as well, too. And we’ve seen different kind of organizations and partnerships with health groups and other local like community groups in order to kind of help bring out that messaging around the health impacts. You know, and then of course we’ve seen really kind of some, some leading developers, as I mentioned lead in terms of showing kind of how that they can do it and showing the data showing the analysis that goes behind it. And so I think that that pilot project kind of component has been really successful and sharing kind of information has been really successful. And now we’re seeing people transition into that, that requirements. You know, I think that, that there are kind of the requirements of saying how you can build, but there’s also kind of the I guess, financial components as well, too. And so, you know, are some places such as, as Seattle is looking at kind of how do we tax the, the oil that is being used for heating and hot water in order to kind of use that as a financial driver for people to kind of continue to looking at electrification but also using that funding to really make sure that it’s going to, you know, low-income housing to kind of support electrification there, where again, it has often the biggest impact and health and safety, but I will say that, you know, part of this is also kind of making sure that these local governments have all of these tools in their toolbox. And what we’ve seen across the country is actually this growing number. And I believe it’s up to 10 right now of state ballot measures or state legislation that actually would prohibit any kind of all electric requirement in local governments. Started with Arizona. It passed super quick in Arizona, but now we’re seeing across the country it was introduced in Colorado, it’s in Utah. I believe it was introduced in Mississippi, a number of them that are happening oftentimes of really similar language. So there’s kind of some, some questions about, you know, oil and gas kind of industries behind a lot of these components and influence state legislatures, but this would restrict the local governments ability to kind of pass these really ambitious policies that I mentioned really impact and improve the lives of the people living in these buildings. So that is something that I think that, that as, you said, like, you know, the gas ban press kind of gets wider as local governments get more ambitious. What they’re also going to be experiencing is this backlash, particularly from the oil and gas industry. And so now local governments are trying to figure out how to band together, how to get op-eds in there, how to kind of change the conversation in order to galvanize against kind of these, you know, immediate impacts of, of these, these gas ban prohibition legislation that’s happening at the state level.

Robb (12:58):

Wow. So something to stay tuned to probably there. Interesting, well, all the gas bands and the really all electric requirements are really focused on new construction. In my experience, existing buildings are much different and larger challenge. What, what are you seeing on that front? If anything

Laura (13:24):

Existing buildings are definitely more challenging. Retrofits of any kind are hard in existing buildings compared to new construction. And of course building electrification is no exception. And it has, of course, these additional layers of complexities. As I mentioned, kind of that cycle of like pilot projects, education, outreach, marketing, and then kind of requirements, I would still, I would say that for the most part, existing buildings are kind of still in that kind of line of how do we make sure that there’s more examples out there today of this being done successfully of this having real impacts on the tenants and residents in these buildings? So we have to scale that, right? We have to kind of understand the underlying challenges of workforce, of costs of education and awareness. You know, I think that, that this of course comes in a few different flavors, you know, I think that we see Denver as a, a leader in a lot of these things, they were actually able to pass a sales tax ballot last year that actually will provide, I believe it’s 20 to $40 million annually for climate initiatives, which is, is going to be critical. But I think that there’s other kind of components too. And it’s kind of thinking about you know, are there other financing opportunities, utility-led financing opportunities, which we’re working in Boulder with exploring. I think that, you know, also of course the workforce is a component as well too, and we’re thinking that in terms of actually Berkeley and San Jose, understanding kind of what does the local supply chain look like in San Jose and Berkeley, you know, where are these contractors coming from, where is kind of the challenge in terms of the supply chain? So the cities are really trying to figure out kind of what are those training projects linked to demand projects that can make sure that people are coming in and being trained and able to take advantage of the economic opportunities that are coming from you know, incentive projects or programs or things like that. So I think that that is a big you know, focus as well, too on the workforce. You know, I think that what we are looking at is saying, and this might be, you know, a component of different programs that we’re looking at in different cities. How can we have certain kinds of workforce training requirements within these demand generating programs and demand generating kind of incentives? So if this is the kind of training requirements, or if these are requirements around labor standards, to make sure that these are good paying jobs or having, making sure that these jobs are going to people who are most in need of it and you know, minority and women owned businesses, you know, how can we include that within kind of this overarching program in order to make sure that people are able to install these well. And these are kind of an equitable transition that we’re looking at.

Robb (16:12):

Yeah. Workforce is in, in parts of the East coast where I work mostly. I mean, there’s just a shortage of contractors, even, you know, you know, during COVID unemployment is a big, is a big deal, but there’s still a shortage of good HVAC contractors. And because of that, their prices are going up. So, you know, electrifying buildings switching from a fuel burning equipment to electric equipment is getting more and more expensive. One of the reasons is just that, you know, supply and demand for the contractors who know how to do it. So yeah. Oh yeah, yeah. I’m not surprised you’re saying that consistently around the country,

Laura (16:54):

You know, we asked people to kind of how they hire and they say, honestly, we looked through the other competitors and that’s where we have to like, get the trained, experienced talent. And I think that that is not sustainable for anyone. You know, we need to kind of have that pipeline going in. And if that is a bit of like the education and awareness, that these are really good paying jobs you know, these have good benefits for you as well, too. And then if it’s also kind of, of course, including additional training, the training, that’s necessarily, as we think about like more, I guess, complicated you know, high tech kind of equipment that people have to understand. That’s of course the other component as well.

Robb (17:37):

Yeah, yeah, yeah. I mean, one of the really puzzling things to me, which I, I haven’t seen a good solution to is, and lots of natural gas is still cheaper to operate, to heat a building, to heat hot water, natural gas is less expensive than heat pumps. And that’s just the way that the pricing works. Right now, in many areas. In new construction, you can mitigate that by just, you know, making the load so low that just, you know, investing in the infrastructure for gas for another utility just doesn’t make sense, but in existing buildings, especially in, where it really frustrates me and others is, is on low low-income low and moderate income folks. You know, there’s push to not leave these low and moderate income people behind, but also moving them off natural gas onto heat pumps could increase their operating costs. And it’s it’s a head scratcher. Have you seen really clever ways to address that, to think about that?

Laura (18:52):

I think the operating cost is as much if not higher of a concern as the upfront cost, right? The upfront cost, you can understand how to use like incentive and financing to possibly drive that lower. The operating costs are, are definitely challenging. And in no way, do we want to be increasing the operating cost, particularly low income residents because as we know a lot, so many of them are energy burden today. So I think that there’s a couple of, of techniques, I guess, what we’ve seen you know, one is the commitment to ensure that the operating costs are lower. And I know that sounds really lofty. But we’ve seen this in, in California, and I know that California is sometimes a higher example to pull from, particularly for the colder East coast, but just kind of as an example, there’s the California low income weatherization program, the LIWA program, and they have a commitment to make sure that the operating costs don’t increase. And they’ve had a number of multi-family electrification projects in which they’re benchmarking the information, they’re including solar, they’re including energy efficiency as well. And they are benchmarking to make sure that post retrofit, the operating costs are going lower. And if it’s not, if they’re higher operating costs for the residents, then they’re going to be committed to going back and making sure that there are ways to kind of drive down the cost with a combination of, again, solar more efficient operation or energy efficiency. So I think that that’s like one example. I think that another example is looking at at rate design which I’m definitely not an expert expert on, but, you know, exploring about, you know, are there heat pump rates, are there electric heating rates that people can think about in terms of implementing that would actually help. Yeah.

Robb (20:38):

Even for folks who may have plenty of money you know, residential, commercial, institutional, there’s just a lot of inertia. I have a building it’s not efficient. I heat with gas. I can afford it. I don’t want the hassle of doing anything. I suspect that’s a huge slug of the building stock out there. Do you, have you seen strategies on that front that, that work?

Laura (21:05):

We completely recognize that we have an uphill climb on this there’s misconceptions around electric heating. Everyone thinks about electric resistance heating. Say, I don’t want that. You know, I guess inertia is the right way to capture that. There’s only so far that voluntary programs can go, right, in talking and go out these great incentives and programs and workforce and training and education and all of that. There, there is so far that that goes right. It really comes down at some point to put in requirements. And we have seen these kind of through building performance standards or, you know, the New York city local law 97 2.0, if you will. That started in New York city and DC, St. Louis passed it this past year. We’re seeing this in at least, you know, five to 10 other cities being developed currently, and States as well, these building performance standards, which kind of, of course put this cap on how much carbon or energy you can emit with certain target dates, usually going out to about 2050 or so. And if you’re above that cap, you know, you pay a penalty or you have to figure out how to get below that cap. This is kind of, I think, where we see the biggest kind of step forward around existing buildings, because you’re right, like there’s so much inertia. And, and to some extent there has to be a long term vision of saying, this is where you have to be eventually to allow for that time of saying, how do I transition my building? How do I wait for the kind of the end of equipment life to kind of transition those to higher, efficient electric options. And that hopefully kind of will direct kind of the industry a little bit past that at inertia to say, I don’t want to do this, but, but maybe I have to do this. So I’m going to figure out how to do it by, you know, whatever timeline it, that local government sets. So, you know, I think that for the building performance standard, which again has been really taking off, I think across the country, in terms of local policies, kind of having that long-term vision, that long-term requirement, I think that having some clarity about saying, you know, this is an all electric requirement, or this is like a fairly electric requirement, if you will, you know, to have that certainty to kind of point to in the long term I think will really help kind of in terms of driving people towards that, you know, voluntary programs can’t do. Though saying that, voluntary programs are, are critical in these next five, 10 years, especially to kind of help people get there.

Robb (23:46):

It’s impressive to me to see that, that these are being enacted. I mean, I think it takes a lot of political will to to get something like that, moving, you know, not just new construction standards, not just building codes, but yeah, this building was built eight years ago, it has to meet some standards now it’s yeah, it’s very different.

Laura (24:13):

Yeah. I mean, they are re I completely agree. They require a lot of, political will a lot of commitment from the city. A lot of stakeholder engagement, you know, we are seeing these taking, you know, a year or more to develop, oftentimes because of the number of different types of stakeholders that, of course they’re involved in existing building have to be included, listen to feedback incorporated having that real kind of creation process with them in order to develop a policy that people will get behind that people think is, is reasonable. That people think is also ambitious. So it does, it’s a huge lift, but I do think, you know, this is basically putting a line in the sand of saying, this is how we envision our buildings by 2050 or 2040 or whatever we have to start getting there in a real way.

Robb (25:03):

So if people want to find out more about you about what you’re up to, or what their cities or States might be up to, where, where can they find out more info?

Laura (25:17):

Sure. So we have really exciting website, as a five-person team, you all kind of, kind of roll up your sleeves and help with. So I I’m actually in the current process of updating it, it’s very exciting. So it’s Beicities.org. It has both all of our cities, as well as a summary of the work that we’re doing with our cities. And it also includes some example resources that we’ve been actually developing. So these can be like customer economic analyses our market segmentation, so that cities have a better understanding of the buildings in their in their area, analyses on the supply chain educational presentations and things like that. So that’s all all on our website or will be on our website shortly.

Robb (25:59):

Cool. Yeah. We’ll put links to, certainly to your website and any other resources you think might be really relevant. We can put those links in the show, in the show notes.

Laura (26:10):

Great. Yeah. This has been really exciting. Yeah. What we need is more people to kind of understand that this is a massive challenge, right? This is going to be really hard. But this is where we have to go. And I think that what we need is just more and more people to be maybe excited by that challenge, not, not deferred by that challenge, but willing to kind of really roll up their sleeves and trying to figure out how to overcome some of them. Because, you know, we’re not, we’re not completely naïve. We know how hard this is, and we know how hard is to especially consider how to do this equitably. And so, you know, we just want more partners, more people in the mix more people from different kinds of experiences and backgrounds in the mix to kind of help figure out the solutions over them, because this is where we’re going to have to go eventually. And it’s just a matter of time.

Robb (27:06):

Thanks for listening. And thanks again to Laura. BEI’s website is Beicities.org. That’ll be in our show notes, obviously with lots of other interesting links and other stuff. And if you’re interested in climate and climate policy in cities, check out Kelly’s interview with Lori Kerr from 2019, that was a good one re-listen. Buildings and beyond is produced by Steven winter associates. We are focused on better buildings, healthier buildings, more sustainable buildings, more accessible, efficient, resilient, comfortable, better all around, really check us out @ swinter.com. That’s S w I N T E r.com. This is swinter.com/podcast is where our show notes live and links to the other episodes and check out our careers page. If you’re looking for opportunities, we have postings now for all our offices, Boston, Connecticut, Manhattan, and DC. Thanks again to Laura and thanks to the team here at SWA, Kelly Westby, Heather Breslin, Jayd Alvarez, Dylan Martello, Alex Mirabile and I’m Robb Aldrich. Thanks.

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