Pump Heat, Not Gas

In the rural farming community of Pembroke, Illinois, it’s not hard to find residents paying over $500 a month, or even $700, to heat their homes with propane, fuel oil, wood, or old-fashioned electric resistance. We know because the Midwest Building Decarbonization Coalition is involved in an efficiency and electrification pilot in the area that included a recent survey of residents.

Some believe “natural” fossil gas will solve this, since the township currently lacks natural gas infrastructure. Supporters of a gas pipeline helped pass legislation to expand Nicor gas service to Pembroke this year. The pipeline now faces legal challenges for threatening “a sustainable Black farming community while risking a rare and unique ecosystem”.

The August press release celebrating passage of the pipeline legislation celebrated “affordable energy choice” for Pembroke. Yet by now, most of us have also seen these headlines: This winter will be expensive for fossil gas customers. In October, Nicor announced that typical residential customers could expect to pay $43 more per month this winter compared to last.

The higher cost of heating from fossil gas compared to electric heat pumps was a key takeaway from RMI’s recent report The Myth of Stable and Affordable Natural Gas Prices.

“The US Energy Information Administration (EIA) forecasts that residential gas prices will be 27 percent higher than last winter on average, while electricity prices will only increase by 4 percent,” explains author, Talor Gruenwald.

Despite the clever marketing to paint fossil gas as an affordable, cleaner fuel source, gas prices have always been more volatile than electricity prices. Not just this winter. RMI’s analysis includes decades of residential gas and electric prices, and the electric line is noticeably steadier.

Image description: a graph titled “Gas prices are historically more volatile than electricity prices: Historical gas and electricity retail residential prices, inflation-adjusted.” It shows gas prices fluctuating from a minimum just below $6/mcf to a maximum around $17/mcf, with a noticeable spike in this winter’s forecast. In contract, it shows electricity prices fluctuating from a minimum around 11 cents/kWh to a maximum about $16 cents/kWh, with a tiny increase in this winter’s forecast. The time period is from 1967 to 2021 and forecasting beyond. The source citation reads “RMI Analysis of EIA retail gas and electricity prices and forecasts and Federal Reserve Economic Data inflation adjustment factors.”

That’s good news for anyone heating their home with an electric heat-pump, which RMI compared to fossil gas heating in 5 cities, modeled for this winter: Boston, Columbus, Denver, Minneapolis, and New York City.

In all five cities RMI analyzed, single-family homes with high-efficiency, cold-climate electric heat pumps are likely to have lower energy expenditures than single-family homes with gas furnaces this winter.”

The Citizens Utility Board of Illinois projected those savings farther into the future in an October report about residential building electrification in Chicago specifically: “CUB’s research team found that households that “cut the pipe” and switch from natural gas to a heat pump would enjoy lifetime savings ranging from $24,716 to $47,104. In total that could potentially generate between $25.3 billion and $28.9 billion in cumulative savings for Chicago residents over the next 34 years.”

Pembroke Puts Solutions in Action

An hour and a half south of Chicago in Pembroke Township, the Community Development Corporation of Pembroke Hopkins Park (CDC-PHP) isn’t waiting around for a solution to energy affordability.

Together, the Midwest BDC, RMI, CDC-PHP, and Slipstream have been working on an energy efficiency and electrification pilot to update 5 area homes with weatherization and advanced electric appliances: PEEP (Pembroke Energy Efficiency Pilot).

The team completed energy audits of possible homes in August and September, and we’re now working with the final 5 homes on updates and appliances that best fit resident needs. Read more about PEEP progress, including details about the blower door test used in the audits, in this CDC-PHP newsletter.

Investing in efficiency and electrification is a commitment. We expect to spend over $20,000 on each home. But the alternative investments are much more costly. In the recently signed fossil gas pipeline legislation, Illinois legislators and the Governor approved $10 million for Nicor to bring a fossil gas pipeline out to the village of Hopkins Park in Pembroke. More will have to be spent switching propane or oil appliances for models that work with gas. Once we fully transition to renewable electric energy infrastructure, those households will need updates once again because of an investment in outgoing infrastructure.

Pembroke doesn’t need to rely on a pipeline to the past. CDC of PHP is helping residents skip gas, move directly to electric, and get lower bills and healthier air. Together, we’re plugging into the future of healthy, affordable buildings that aren’t tethered to stranded, polluting assets on their way to obsoletion.

The result won’t be models or theories. It will be real people with actual updates and savings in their homes based collaboratively on their desires and our investment. We look forward to sharing more updates and lessons learned as this project continues.

“There are a lot of ways we can invest in supporting communities that are not a natural gas pipeline. Offering electrification and increased efficiency is a concrete way to support folks,” said Johari Cole Kweli, of CDC-PHP.  

“We’re a community of practice, we’re doing it as living examples of what other communities can be modeling.”

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