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Issues of the Environment: The push for electrification in Ann Arbor and Washtenaw County

Julie Roth
City of Ann Arbor
Julie Roth


  • According to EPA’s greenhouse gas emissions inventory, decisions about which fuels we use are responsible for ∼42% of our energy–related carbon emissions. (Source: *directly quoted* https://www.epa.gov/ghgemissions/inventory-us-greenhouse-gas-emissions-and-sinks
  • Household electrification is an efficient pathway to decarbonizing a household. Simple swaps, like changing to an electric induction stove instead of a methane gas cooktop, can save energy. In addition to the environmental benefits, research published by rewired.org shows that home electrification tends to save money for homeowners.
  • The City of Ann Arbor’s Office of Sustainability & Innovationsis partnering with the Green Home Instituteand Michigan Saves to host a free Home Electrification Expo on Friday, July 15th. Visitors to the event can preview less familiar technology (like heat pump water heaters, and induction cooktops, and air-source heat pumps), and meet with manufacturers and local installers to test the equipment and ask questions. Homeowners at various stages of their own home electrification journeys will also offer their personal experiences, and visitors can get a personal energy assessment of their home. In addition, solar installers will present ways of reducing your energy costs through solar, so electrification makes even more sense.  
  • Household electrification is one piece of fighting climate change and reducing greenhouse gas emissions.  Assuming future energy loads are mostly renewables, electrified U.S. household uses substantially less energy than current homes. One area of enormous savings is the elimination of thermoelectric losses in electricity generation. (Source: *directly quoted* https://www.rewiringamerica.org/policy/household-report)
  • The current challenge to home electrification is that upfront costs of electric replacement technology can be a barrier to switching. Although, over time solar and electric tends to save money, the cost of entry can be particularly hard to overcome for lower income homeowners who most stand to benefit from the efficiency-related savings.
  • Julie Roth, Senior Energy Analyst, Office of Sustainability & Innovations for Ann Arbor, says that household electrification is part of the city’s plan to make Ann Arbor carbon neutral by 2030 as part of the A2Zero Carbon Neutrality plan


David Fair: This is 89 one WEMU, and the local movement towards carbon neutrality is a work in progress. I'm David Fair, and on this week's edition of Issues of the Environment, we're going to look at some of the ways you can help and an opportunity at the end of the week for you to enhance your efforts of greater energy efficiency. One of the pathways to decarbonizing your home is through appliance electrification and elimination of thermoelectric loss. Here to enhance our understanding of that today is Julie Roth. She is the senior energy analyst in the Ann Arbor Office of Sustainability and Innovations. And thank you so much for the time today, Julie.

Julie Roth: Thank you so much for having me.

David Fair: How significant is residential energy use and energy loss in America to contributing to the greenhouse gases affecting the climate crisis?

Julie Roth: It's very significant. Most of the time when we think about decarbonization or discontinuing burning of fossil fuels, we often think about our grid--our big power plants, our gas and coal burning power plants. But the truth is that a good quarter to third or even up to 40%, depending on the region of greenhouse gas emissions, are coming directly from our buildings. So, we are burning gas--propane, fuel oil, natural gas--in our buildings for heating our air, our water, cooking our food. And this is a very substantial percentage of greenhouse gas emissions.

David Fair: Now, I know there are, as you mentioned, a good portion of homes, apartments, and condominiums, offices, all with gas-powered appliances. I know a lot of cooks that tell me if you aren't cooking over gas flame, you aren't cooking properly. So, clearly, many have an attachment to gas energy. What in-home benefits come with a switch to all electric appliances?

Julie Roth: That is a great question. There are so many benefits. First off, I think we should talk about health because we are starting to learn the degree of health impacts from burning gas in our buildings. And it is not good. For example, children who grow up in homes with gas stoves have a 40% increased chance of asthma, as well as increased chance of learning deficits and cardiovascular deficits. And we're just really starting to gain a better understanding of how big that impact is. Secondly, safety besides health. Combusting gas in our buildings has both outdoor air quality issues, as well as issues around gas leaks and explosions and things like that. Eliminating gas in the home eliminates all of that risk. And then, comfort. The options for heating our homes now with electric air source heat pumps are dramatic. The technology has improved considerably. So, it's healthier, it is safer, and it is significantly more comfortable than current gas-burning appliances. And for those folks who say if you're not cooking on gas, you're not cooking, I can give an anecdote that my husband with that category. He is the cook for our family. He was resistant. Of course, I won that argument, and he is now a complete convert to induction cooking and could talk your ear off about how responsive it is, how easy it is to simmer, how you can boil water in something like 90 seconds. So, if he is converted, I think anybody can be.

David Fair: WEMU's Issues of the Environment conversation with Julie Roth continues. Julie is senior energy analyst for the City of Ann Arbor's Office of Sustainability and Innovations. And, Julie, you make a clear and compelling argument. Yet, I think if anyone were to take a peek in their wallet as they listen, it's probably quite a bit lighter than it was even six months ago. Isn't retrofitting a home to work exclusively on electric power a rather expensive proposition?

Julie Roth: Absolutely. And so, I think the way to think about this is not to think about gutting your house, tearing out all of your infrastructure. And it's more about having a roadmap in place, so that as it's time to replace aging equipment, you understand what some of your options are that are healthier and safer and better for the environment. So, for example, your water heater, which is most likely gas at this point, has a lifespan. And if you do the research ahead of time and you know what kind of options there are, like a heat pump water heater, which is much more efficient and electric. Then, when it comes time to replace that equipment, you can do it before it's an emergency. You can do it with the knowledge of what your options are and as an educated consumer. So, it's not about doing everything all at once. It's about making the right choices along the way.

David Fair: So, is that the same advice for those who are property developers and management companies who are running multi-family developments?

Julie Roth: Absolutely. And, in fact, the Office of Sustainability is working on a green rental housing initiative, which is in the works, which will help those property managers move towards greater efficiency, health and safety and electrification, which will be of a benefit to those who are renting those spaces.

David Fair: And, hopefully without too much of an increase in rent prices. Now, when we think about development, there's also new development taking place all throughout Washtenaw County. Might the city move towards a policy or ordinance that puts it kind of on the playing field of Veridian at County Farm, where it's all-electric, all-renewable, no gas lines, and self-sustaining?

Julie Roth: Oh, from your mouth to the universe's ears. Well, first, just to mention, the increased rent prices around the Green Rental Housing Initiative. The good news there is that Boulder has implemented a similar initiative, and they are a very similar demographic to Ann Arbor. They've seen no increase in rent prices due to the initiative. So, we're happy to see that example.

David Fair: And that, too, is a college town. So, that's something to consider.

Julie Roth: That, too, is a college town. Exactly. And then, in regard to your second question, Michigan has an interesting legislative landscape where cities and municipalities are not allowed to create building codes that are more stringent than state-level building codes. So, Ann Arbor is limited to some degree in terms of what we can so-call ban, but we are unlimited in what we can incentivize. And so, the Office is working right now with the planning department on what that might look like.

David Fair: Once again, we're talking with Julie Roth from the Office of Sustainability and Innovations in Ann Arbor on Issues of the Environment. That takes us to the state's major utilities: DTE and Consumers Energy. They fight tooth-and-nail to maintain grid monopoly and limit residential rooftop solar, among other things. And while some certainly have issues with the utilities level of grid security, they do have the experience and means to provide reliable service for the most part. How would the city be able to meet that level of grid security if it does move forward with the plan to create its own nonprofit municipal utility?

Julie Roth: Ah, excellent question! So, for those who are not familiar, the Office of Sustainability and Innovations in Ann Arbor, it has proposed a what's called a sustainable energy utility. This would be a utility that runs in parallel to DTE's big grid. It's a utility that would focus on local generation as opposed to widespread distribution. Right now, our electricity is coming from gas and coal plants that are far away from our homes and being transmitted long distances. The SEU would be responsible for implementing solar all over rooftops and carports and common spaces in Ann Arbor, running that solar energy to local businesses and microgritting homes into like a smaller sub-grid underneath DTE's grid. In this way, we can rapidly decarbonize by offsetting and not using all of that coal and gas-generated energy, creating clean energy right here at home. We can also improve resilience and reliability because, if the big grid goes out, those with SEU-owned solar and battery storage will continue to keep the lights on. And, as we expand and build and build, we are quickly decarbonizing, and we can do it legally, according to our energy attorney. We're really excited about this proposal.

David Fair: And we'll follow that along and see how that all plays out. In the meantime, as we discuss the benefits of electrification, this Friday, July 15th, your office has partnered with others to host a free home electrification expo. It's going to run 5 to 9 p.m. Friday at the Ann Arbor's Farmers Market. What avenues of energy change can we learn about?

Julie Roth: We are so excited about this opportunity. This has really come because there has been a surge of interest in our community around electrification, and it is a difficult topic to get a lot of good information about. So, at the expo, we're going to have dozens of vendors everywhere from folks that sell and install air source heat pumps, to replace furnaces. We're going to have heat pump water heaters, manufacturers of this equipment, solar installers, energy auditors that can do evaluations of your home to sort of help guide you in a roadmap to move forward. We will also be having live jazz music all night long and food trucks and free Washtenaw Dairy ice cream.

David Fair: You're pulling out all the stops to get people to show up, aren't you?

Julie Roth: All this stuff. But, like I said, this is really coming in response to community demand. We're fielding questions on a weekly, sometimes daily basis from residents in the area asking about electrification and how to move forward and where to get started. So, we developed this idea of the expo, so that we can bring everybody together with the industry experts to get all their questions answered, to touch and feel and see some of this equipment, and to have a good time.

David Fair: Well, the path towards carbon neutrality by the year 2030 will move forward, and we'll have opportunity to talk about progress as we move on down the road. Thank you for the time, Julie.

Julie Roth: Thank you so much, David. I really appreciate the time.

David Fair: That is Julie Roth, senior energy analyst in the City of Ann Arbor's Office of Sustainability and Innovations. For more information on the topics covered in our conversation, including more about Friday's home electrification expo, visit our web page at WEMU dot org. Issues of the Environment is produced in partnership with the Office of the Washtenaw County Water Resources Commissioner. You hear it every Wednesday. I'm David Fair, and this is your community NPR station, 89 one WEMU Ypsilanti.

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Contact David: dfair@emich.edu
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