For the first time, electricity beat out natural gas to heat homes nationwide

Philly rowhouses

Philadelphia rowhouses (Matt Rourke/AP Photo)

Electricity beat out natural gas as a home heating source nationwide for the first time in 2020. While more households in the Northeast continue to use natural gas heat over electricity, it’s a significant shift nationwide in the race to cut carbon emissions. It’s also exactly what climate activists want to see.

Buildings comprise the largest source of greenhouse gas emissions in Philadelphia, and natural gas for heating and cooking accounts for the bulk of emissions from residential properties.

About 58 million households nationwide used natural gas to heat their homes in 2020, while about 69 million used electricity, according to the federal Energy Information Administration, which collects the data about every five years for its Residential Energy Consumption Survey. In the Northeast, natural gas still dominates, with more than 11 million homes burning fossil fuels, while more than 9 million used electricity. The majority of the shift toward electric heating is in the South.

Climate activists have pushed to ban new natural gas hook-ups in favor of heat pumps in cities across the country. But the industry is opposing those efforts. Philadelphia Gas Works, which is owned by the city, has lent support to some statewide measures that would limit local government control. Emails obtained by WHYY News show that PGW executives engaged in crafting, and potentially strengthening, a measure that would block efforts to promote electrification.

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In Philadelphia, environmental groups and some City Council members want Philadelphia Gas Works to shift away from fossil fuels in favor of electric heat pumps. PGW has agreed to do a “pilot” study tapping geothermal energy to power heat pumps.

Unlike natural gas, electric heat pumps can provide air conditioning as well as heat. The use of air conditioning has increased about 10 percent in the past two decades. Almost 90 percent of households had AC in 2020.

This week, the Biden Administration invoked the Defense Production Act to speed up the production of heat pumps and other clean energy technology, such as insulation, solar photovoltaics, fuel cells, and grid components.

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