As winter approaches, we begin to spend more time indoors, cranking up the heat and gathering in the kitchen to prepare holiday meals to enjoy with family and friends.
What we often forget in this festive season is that, in many homes, the appliances that make these moments warm and comforting — like heaters, water heaters and stoves — run on fossil fuels that produce toxic pollutants like nitrogen dioxide, carbon monoxide and ultra-fine particles, as well as formaldehyde and acetaldehyde, all of which are harmful to our health.
The California Air Resources Board warns that cooking emissions from gas and propane stoves are associated with increased respiratory disease — and up to 70 percent of homes with these stoves exceed the EPA clean air recommendations. Young children and people with asthma are especially vulnerable, with recent research suggesting gas stoves are responsible for 12 percent of childhood asthma cases. That’s a striking figure when you consider that the San Joaquin Valley has the highest rate of pediatric asthma in the country, with one in six children struggling to breathe.
Utilities offer free home safety checks and tips each season to help reduce the risks that these common household appliances pose, and at the Central California Asthma Collaborative, we’re dedicated to helping families access healthier home and school environments. But, what if we didn’t have to worry about the health impacts of keeping our families warm and fed during the holiday season?
For nine San Joaquin Valley communities — Allensworth, California City, Cantua Creek, Ducor, Fairmead, Le Grand, La Vina, Seville and West Goshen — this may soon become a reality. On Wednesday, the Public Utility Commission will vote on a proposed pilot program to provide healthier heating options for communities currently using propane and wood. If the pilot goes ahead, more than 1,600 households in the San Joaquin Valley will receive advanced energy efficiency upgrades and cutting-edge, all-electric appliances powered by clean energy, creating some of the heathiest homes that have ever existed.
These upgrades will be provided free of cost — and the transition to all-electric, clean energy homes will save residents considerable cash on monthly energy bills, up to $150 per month and nearly $2,000 a year for some households. That’s money that families can invest in other areas of their life. This is important because low-income families spend a higher percentage of their income on energy bills, often more than twice as high as middle-wage earners, and more than three times as high as high-income families. At the Association for Energy Affordability, where we provide similar upgrades for families across the state, we’ve witnessed firsthand how programs that deliver energy savings improve quality of life.
The pilot will also help slash carbon and other air pollution that contribute to climate change and poor air quality. This is important for the San Joaquin Valley, which is already subjected to dangerous levels of outdoor air pollution. With this help from the PUC, our homes can be a place of respite from dirty air and not another health risk. Homes and buildings are responsible for 25 percent of California’s greenhouse gas emissions, and burning gas and propane in homes and buildings contributes over half of this pollution. In addition, gas is made up of over 90 percent methane, a greenhouse gas that is up to 88 times more potent than carbon dioxide. Replacing old appliances with clean, electric ones will help slash methane pollution, moving the state closer to meeting our climate goals while cleaning up local air.
We hope this pilot program can bring relief to some of the Valley’s hardest hit families, especially their children who suffer most from air pollution. While there are steps we can take to reduce exposure to indoor air pollution from gas powered appliances, the best prevention is moving to healthier, all-electric homes powered by clean energy.
This pilot is a critical part of building California’s clean energy future, and we urge the PUC to approve this program. By building on this experience in the broader San Joaquin Valley and across the state, we can create a map for healthier, more affordable communities. The best gift is peace of mind, and we look forward to a holiday season in which all Californians have access to healthy homes.
Kevin Hamilton is the chief executive officer of the Central California Asthma Collaborative, which is dedicated to reducing the burden of chronic respiratory disease across the San Joaquin Valley. Nick Dirr is director of programs for the Association for Energy Affordability, a leading provider of technical services for energy efficiency in buildings dedicated to fostering and maintaining affordable and healthy housing, with special focus low-income communities.