Apr 08, 2022
When Russia's invasion of Ukraine drove up gasoline prices, members of Congress from oil and gas producing states called for increased fossil fuel production. In his March 31 speech, President Biden also seemed to put most of his emphasis on increasing the oil supply. But a growing number of voices are saying that we should use this occasion to move away from fossil fuels as quickly as possible.
Reliance on fossil fuels tethers our economy to authoritarian regimes like those in Russia and Saudi Arabia. "Policymakers must prioritize strategic investments in clean energy alternatives," says Carmelita Miller, who recently joined the clean energy think tank RMI as director of energy equity strategies after working on energy equity policy at the Greenlining Institute since 2013.
Electric vehicles are "three to five times cheaper to drive per mile than gas-powered vehicles."
According to Miller, "Solutions like heat pumps for households, more electric vehicles and shared mobility options, and energy efficiency measures will not only slash our dependence on foreign oil and gas, they will stimulate regional economic investment, improve public health, and reduce prices in the long term."
Experts agree the federal government should take the lead, but, for now, that does not seem to be happening. Critical climate and clean energy provisions contained in the Build Back Better Act remain bottled up in the Senate, thanks to a solid wall of opposition from Senate Republicans and West Virginia Democratic Senator Joe Manchin.
Advocates are pushing for strong federal legislation while calling on state and local governments to take meaningful action to start cutting the fossil fuel umbilical cord. "States and cities need the investments proposed in the Biden Administration's Build Back Better framework to address the climate crisis in a just and equitable way," says Miller.
The first area where this energy transformation should occur is in transportation.
The gas and diesel fuel used to move people and goods around the United States accounted for about 29 percent of U.S. carbon emissions in 2019, according to the Environmental Protection Agency. But the technology to change this exists now.
For starters, we can become less car-dependent by expanding and improving public transit. And we can replace carbon- and particulate-belching diesel buses with clean, electric transit vehicles.
That's not a pipe dream. The semi-rural working and middle class community of Antelope Valley, California, located northeast of Los Angeles, has already done it. In February 2016, the Antelope Valley Transit Authority became the first U.S. transit agency to commit to converting to an all-electric fleet. It replaced its fleet of diesel vehicles with eighty-five electric buses, vans used for a local dial-a-ride service, and commuter coaches that carry long-distance riders to downtown Los Angeles.
As of last May, the conversion had already saved nearly 1.3 million gallons of diesel fuel and cut the transit authority's fuel costs by more than $1.6 million.
For those who need to drive, it's time to think about ditching the internal combustion engine and going electric. While electric vehicles hold a small share of the U.S. market overall, electric vehicle sales grew 83 percent last year, far outpacing the auto industry as a whole.
Noel Morin, president of Hawaii's Big Island Electric Vehicle Association, notes that electric vehicles have multiple advantages. "Internal combustion cars are notoriously inefficient," he explains. "Most of the fuel used, up to 80 percent, is wasted as heat. Electric cars, on the other hand, are up to 100 percent efficient." If that claim seems astounding, it's backed up by the U.S. Department of Energy.
The United States lags well behind Europe in its rate of electric vehicle adoption. Governments, Morin says, "must incentivize the adoption of clean transportation--electric vehicles, multi-modal transportation, and other measures that can reduce the need for transportation." This includes supporting the expansion of charging infrastructure, which is particularly important for renters, who often cannot charge their cars at home.
While new electric vehicles aren't yet price competitive with the cheapest gas-powered cars, affordable used electric vehicles are available now and will become more so as electric vehicle sales grow. Already, electric vehicles cost significantly less to maintain, the Energy Department notes, "because there are usually fewer fluids (like oil and transmission fluid) to change and far fewer moving parts."
Even before the recent increase in gas prices, the Energy Department noted that gasoline costs about 11 cents per mile for a car that gets thirty miles per gallon, compared to between three and six cents per mile to charge an electric vehicle. A March 2022 analysis by the Zero Emission Transportation Association found that electric vehicles are "three to five times cheaper to drive per mile than gas-powered vehicles."
The second main area where changes can help make a break with fossil fuels is in homes and other buildings. Americans use massive amounts of fossil fuels in their homes for things like heating and cooking, with natural gas alone accounting for 42 percent of residential users' energy consumption in 2020. Heating oil, propane, and other fossil fuels are used extensively in some regions.
Home use of fossil fuels presents significant health risks. A recent analysis by the Rocky Mountain Institute found that children living in homes with a gas stove "are 42 percent more likely to experience asthma symptoms and 24 percent more likely to be diagnosed with asthma by a doctor, compared with children living in homes with electric stoves." Cooking with gas has been tied to dangerous spikes in levels of nitrogen dioxide and carbon monoxide in homes and apartments.
Again, technological fixes exist, but the programs to implement them--in a way that protects low-income households that are often already struggling with utility bills--are just getting off the ground.
Multiple cities, including New York City and San Jose, California, have moved to end natural gas hookups in new construction. New York's ban, for example, kicks in for low-rise buildings at the end of 2023 and for taller buildings in 2027. But gas utilities continue to fight such bans, and the laws don't impact existing structures.
One way to get existing buildings off of fossil fuels is through performance standards for buildings, explains Jasmine Graham, Energy Justice Policy Manager at New York-based WE ACT for Environmental Justice. These can be based either on energy efficiency or on a building's total output of greenhouse gasses.
But not all housing is created equal. "Low-income communities and renters are more likely to live in older housing [units] that are inefficient and not designed in a way that would enable solar and other energy retrofits," says Alexis Sutterman, energy equity manager at the California Environmental Justice Alliance. This leads to increased costs and challenges, requiring specific attention from policymakers.
To keep costs down for low- and moderate-income renters, advocates back percentage-of-income payment plans, which cap electricity rates at a certain percentage of a person's income.
Miller says priority should go to those who are most burdened by rising energy costs and "any interventions in building decarbonization must also be paired with protections from utility shut-offs, eviction, displacement, gentrification, and other forms of housing injustice."
As the April 4 IPCC report makes clear, time is running out. This is the moment to hit the brakes on fossil fuels to chart a more sustainable, equitable, and liveable future for all.
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