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Economy

The $2 Billion Plan to Electrify American Homes

Power Forward Communities wants you to have a heat pump.

A heat pump installer.
Heatmap Illustration/Getty Images

Getting fossil fuels out of your home is really hard. You have to find a contractor, ideally one who supports electrification and doesn’t ask why you won’t just stick with natural gas. You have to coordinate between multiple trades — electricians, plumbers, HVAC professionals — as well as lenders and utilities and permitting authorities, most of whom don’t talk to each other. You have to navigate a confusing array of finance options and incentives. You might be left feeling defeated, unable to afford the high up-front costs and unable to secure low-cost loans. And if you’re a renter, all you can do is dream.

These are not easy problems to solve. But a new initiative called Power Forward Communities has a pioneering plan to simplify the process all over the country — and it just got $2 billion to get started.

The money is part of the $20 billion the Biden administration awarded on Thursday via the Greenhouse Gas Reduction Fund, a program approved as part of the Inflation Reduction Act to provide low-cost financing options for consumers, communities, and businesses to transition to clean energy and adapt to climate change.

Power Forward Communities is made up of five core partner organizations — Rewiring America, Enterprise Community Partners, Local Initiatives Support Corporation, Habitat for Humanity, and United Way Worldwide — who will work with communities, government agencies, unions, and housing developers to decarbonize hundreds of thousands of homes and apartments between now and 2031. The coalition has committed to invest at least 75% of the financing in projects in low-income and disadvantaged communities.

That all starts with a four point plan.

First, reduce friction by creating online tools and providing community-level assistance to help homeowners navigate the decarbonization process. Rewiring America is already part of the way there with its “personal electrification planner,” which provides a rough estimate of the upfront cost, annual bill savings, and expected emissions reductions for any given project. Soon, the group will pair that with another, first-of-its-kind tool: a dataset of every electrification incentive in the country. Eventually you’ll be able to plug in your address and income and get a list of all of the programs available to help you pay for your project.

Second, invest in workforce development and create a “contractor marketplace” where building owners can go to find vetted partners for their project.

Third, create new low-cost financial products to help bridge the gap between existing incentives and project costs. Notably, Power Forward plans to allocate more than half of its loans to projects in multifamily buildings, as these buildings tend to serve renters with lower incomes, and decarbonizing them is much more capital-intensive.

The details of the finance aspect of the program are subject to change, but the group’s application for the Greenhouse Gas Reduction Fund proposes an energy efficiency loan for apartment building owners who want to make minor upgrades, which would offer an average of $30,000 per building with a 10- to 20-year term and 1% to 3% interest rate. As part of this program, Power Forward would also work with the building owner to make a plan to fully decarbonize the building down the line, and issue grants to fund the planning process. A proposed “net-zero rehab permanent loan,” meanwhile, would provide financing for full retrofits at an average of $120,000 per building.

Meanwhile, the finance options for single-family homes could be tied to predetermined “packages” of decarbonization measures that homeowners can choose from. This brings me to the fourth, and what I see as the most interesting and innovative part of the plan: the aggregation of demand.

Part of why electrification is so difficult and expensive is that it’s a bespoke process. Some buildings might need insulation, others might need electrical upgrades. Some might require new ductwork for central heat pumps, while others might be better off installing mini-split heat pumps in every zone of the house. There’s no one-size-fits-all solution.

“How do we unlock economies of scale and create an offering that could serve as many households at once?,” Nicole Staple, the head of market partnerships at Rewiring America, posed rhetorically to me in February. “That has historically been incredibly challenging given there's so much customization to heat pump design.”

But there are buildings with similar needs. If there were a way to identify them and then group the jobs together, you could start to solve a surprising number of other challenges. “That's where I think you unlock a lot of speed in [electrifying] full communities,” said Staple.

The most obvious benefit would be lowering the cost of equipment by buying in bulk. You could give suppliers better visibility into demand so they could stock up accordingly. You could help contractors plan ahead and space out jobs so that they have guaranteed work during the shoulder seasons. You could create new markets for union labor, which have historically been shut out from residential work due to the small size of the contracts and high customer acquisition costs. You could pool loans to diversify risk. You could design more effective policies to wind down the natural gas system.

The standardized packages Power Forward plans to offer will enable the group to “pre-define pricing and financial product offers, streamline underwriting and installation, and reduce financing costs,” according to its funding application. It estimates that by aggregating demand, it can reduce the remaining costs of electrification after incentives by as much as 50%.

The application also said the group has obtained letters of commitment from supply chain participants, including Home Depot and Mitsubishi, to lower equipment costs. In return, the coalition will reserve an initial $125 million over the first three years of the program as an insurance pool to guarantee $1 billion in sales volume for select partners.

To unlock all this magical potential, Rewiring America has been working on a large-scale data model to identify homes with similar characteristics, which will in turn help it figure out where there is opportunity to bundle projects in different parts of the country.

The group has also been gathering information and testing out assumptions on what will ultimately lower the costs of equipment and installation in a series of pilot projects, starting with one in the rural, mostly Black community of DeSoto, Georgia, where “107 households survive on a median income of $20,375, grapple with repeated house fires linked to propane gas usage, and strain to pay utility bills,” according to Power Forward’s application.

When I spoke to Staple a couple of months ago, she told me that about 75 households in DeSoto had expressed interest in the program thus far. Each participant would get at least one piece of equipment — a heat pump space heating system or a water heater, for example — fully subsidized. They would also be eligible for electrical upgrades or weatherization improvements as needed.

“Many of the households have not had cooling. Some have had their HVAC systems broken for literally decades,” Staple told me. “There's lots of dimensions of that community that we think help us understand how carefully we need to manage electrification projects, considering the ways that these communities have been failed.”

Power Forward had initially requested $9.5 billion to implement its plans, so it will have to go back to the drawing board over the next few months to map out what it can achieve with the $2 billion it was given. What could it have accomplished with that additional $7.5 billion?

“Our mission is to create hundreds of DeSotos, and ultimately decarbonize housing across the nation,” the coalition’s application says.

Green
Emily Pontecorvo profile image

Emily Pontecorvo

Emily is a founding staff writer at Heatmap. Previously she was a staff writer at the nonprofit climate journalism outlet Grist, where she covered all aspects of decarbonization, from clean energy to electrified buildings to carbon dioxide removal.

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