Two years ago, Caroline Spears was finally living on her own, roommate-free, in a one-bedroom apartment in San Francisco, where the cost of living continues to go up. She was drawn to its affordability and space. “It was a great work-from-home spot,” Spears said. She didn’t foresee, however, the high energy bills that would result from cranking up the gas heater when her apartment would turn into an icebox in the winter.
The pollution from using a gas heater was also a major concern. Spears, founder of the Climate Cabinet, a national climate organization dedicated to winning elections, saw this challenge as a new project. So she got to it.
She hired a contractor to test the apartment’s energy efficiency. Despite the evidence, Spears’ landlord wouldn’t budge. The test didn’t identify a quick fix — only a hefty renovation. Surely, she could at least improve her air quality by keeping the gas heater off and purchasing a portable heat pump, an increasingly popular device that uses electricity to move heat in and out of the home. Spears may have invested in the $5,000 machine if a government rebate or tax credit were available to renters, but she couldn’t find one.
“That was my last attempt,” she said. Ultimately, she moved to a more modern apartment elsewhere in San Francisco.
Whereas homeowners can electrify their homes if they choose, renters can’t. They must answer to their landlords. Renters have limited control — and limited financial incentives. Why spend money on a device for a home you don’t own? They can’t easily take these with them once they move. Policymakers haven’t yet built a solution for renters despite a need to decarbonize the entire housing sector.
The US government has pledged to cut its carbon pollution in half by 2030 to prevent the planet from further overheating. Such reductions require massive infrastructural changes, especially in our homes, where water and food are often warmed with what is known as “natural gas” but is better understood as methane gas, a potent greenhouse gas that contributes to climate change.
Many environmentalists and policymakers have looked to household electrification as a necessity to reduce carbon emissions — replacing fossil fuel-powered appliances like gas stoves and oil-fired water heaters with electric ones like induction stoves and electric water heaters — but this solution ignores a major segment of the population: renters.
In the US, 36 percent of households rent, according to the Pew Research Center. That’s over 44 million households. Though one 2022 study found that renters are more likely to have electric appliances than homeowners, some 15 million renters like Spears move into an apartment connected to gas. Those who want to electrify their appliances often encounter the same roadblocks Spears did: reluctant landlords; outdated infrastructure; high costs; and little government assistance to navigate those obstacles.
I live in New York City, where most people (myself included) rent. I’d love an all-electric apartment unit, but most housing in the city was built over 50 years ago. In my kitchen, my gas stove is so old that it always has two pilot flames burning. Gas stoves emit lung irritants like nitrogen dioxide and particulate matter.
A study last year found that nearly 13 percent of current childhood asthma in the US could be linked to gas stoves. I’d love to ask my landlord for an induction stove that will cook my food via electromagnetic energy rather than fossil fuel combustion. But I grow anxious just thinking about it. If he makes a fuss over replacing door knobs, how will he react to a stove?
“I worry about situations where renters don’t have as much control over their living situations,” said Jamal Lewis, a regional director of state and local policy for Rewiring America, a nonprofit dedicated to electrifying homes.
So far, the US government has largely focused its electrification efforts on homeowners. The Inflation Reduction Act, President Joe Biden’s landmark climate law, allocates nearly $9 billion in rebates for home energy efficiency and electrification, but renters don’t yet have access to rebates at the point of sale for heat pumps, electric water heaters, or induction stoves the way homeowners do. These benefits will vary regionally as different states and municipalities develop their own programs to implement the federal dollars they receive from the law, explained Leah Stokes, associate professor of energy politics at the University of California, Santa Barbara.
“This money is not enough, but these are the beginnings of these programs,” she said.
Money is key because electrification isn’t cheap. A survey of 90 people from the sustainable-focused research group Carbon Switch found that the total cost of installing an induction stove, on average, can be upward of $3,000 when you factor in the electrical work. Induction stoves require higher voltage and proper electrical wiring. Older buildings, in particular, may require new wiring that can safely handle the heat being generated. Shoddy wiring can overload a system or spark a fire.
“What matters in electricity is heat,” said Nathanael Johnson, an electrician and former environmental journalist. “The more electricity you pull through the wire, the more heat it ends up generating. But if the wire is thicker, it can handle more electricity without heating up. Bigger appliances get bigger wires.”
The work becomes even more costly and complicated if you’re rewiring an entire building. Wires are hidden under floorboards and behind walls; reaching them can mean gutting a room. A project can become especially unwieldy in apartment buildings where property owners have to answer to regulators and inspectors who may require more upgrades than a landlord envisioned.
In New York, environmental justice advocacy group WE ACT for Environmental Justice ran into this issue when developing an initiative in 2021 to replace gas stoves with induction for 20 families in public housing in the Bronx. The building’s electrical capacity limited which apartment units could join the program. Each power line, which fed six units (one on each of the building’s six floors), could only support two stoves before overloading and shutting off power to every unit on the line.
The program successfully completed in 2022 despite that hurdle, but it highlighted the challenges the New York City Housing Authority (NYCHA) faces if it’s to cut emissions by 80 percent come 2050 as required by local law. WE ACT’s program could stick with two stove replacements per line, but that won’t work in a building-wide effort.
“Those deficiencies need to be addressed in order to then meet our climate goals and electrify our housing,” said Annie Carforo, climate justice campaign manager at WE ACT.
That begins with stronger building codes and performance standards that would not only help the US meet its emissions targets but also protect families from lung irritants like nitrogen dioxide that gas stoves release, said Lewis of Rewiring America.
Investing in the right technologies can help, too. Some companies are developing induction stoves with a built-in lithium battery that won’t require the sorts of costly electrical updates that can discourage property owners from electrification altogether. Unfortunately, these new stoves cost over $4,000, so NYCHA announced a competitive challenge in July to help spur the design of more appliances like these that are cost-effective, too.
Changes like these — whether at the policy or tech level — won’t happen overnight, so some renters have grown creative to decarbonize their homes on their own.
Stokes, who has been temporarily renting in Massachusetts since September for a fellowship, doesn’t use her gas stove at all. Instead, she has covered it with a cutting board on which an induction cooktop sits. “I have kids, and I don’t want to cook on gas,” she said. Her twins were born prematurely, so they’re especially vulnerable to lung disease.
Stokes is not alone. In Berkeley, climate advocate Sage Welch has been using induction tops for the past five years. As a renter, she didn’t have any permanent options to remove gas from her home, so she opted for a portable cooktop instead. She also uses other electric appliances like her air fryer and toaster oven.
“Between all the different electric appliance options, it’s actually a way more convenient way to cook anyway,” Welch said.
Even Spears is considering trying to electrify again in her new apartment. She only hopes that this time will be easier.
“My last place was out of control,” she said. “I’m tired. This needs to be easier for renters.”