Over the last few months, many of us have experienced what has seemed like a never-ending series of 100-year and 500-year weather events, which has shown us how important infrastructure is to both our lives and economy. The U.S. Senate recently passed a $1 trillion infrastructure bill, with billions of dollars for public transit, roads and bridges, water, high-speed internet, clean energy, and electric vehicles.1
As the leader of a company focused on accelerating the path to clean energy and mobility, I can’t deny that the thought of billions of dollars being invested in clean energy and electric vehicles is exciting. While roads, electrical and thermal grids, water and sewer systems, and high-speed communications systems are expensive to construct, operate, and maintain, they are necessary to support our economy and worthy of significant investment.
Our goals for a carbon-free future require significant, sweeping investment at the production, delivery, and use levels for both energy and mobility. It will not be cheap, and it needs to be all-encompassing. The nonprofit, nonpartisan organization USAFacts, an initiative to make government data accessible to all Americans, observes that “definitions of infrastructure go beyond transportation and water facilities.”2 Infrastructure underpins our entire lives, which makes it both complicated to maintain and expensive to upgrade. Although infrastructure tends to be capital intensive, it’s important to consider more than just the up-front cost. Infrastructure upgrades also have an expected useful life that can span not only decades, but also generations.
At a national scale, we expect an investment in infrastructure like roads, bridges, sewer systems, power grids to achieve multigenerational use life and generate a positive return for our communities. But what about infrastructure investments closer to home? For a future where our homes and buildings generate zero emissions, we will need to invest in infrastructure that supports the use of clean energy, not just its generation and delivery.
For a home or business to produce zero emissions, furnaces, water heaters, clothes dryers, stoves, and ovens powered by natural gas, propane, or fuel oil will need to be replaced with smart electrically powered devices, and the infrastructure needed to support these electric systems requires modernization.3 Conventional wisdom says that the best way to accelerate the transition to an all-electric future is to incentivize residential purchases, such as electric vehicles4 and high-efficiency heat pumps.5
Although these incentives are needed to establish and grow new applications, the basic systems and infrastructure to support them add significant costs. Although often overlooked, these costs can be a barrier to purchase for people with lower incomes, many of whom either cannot afford additional household expenses or who rent from landlords uninterested in energy efficiency improvements.6
There’s a sound financial argument to be made for the overall cost effectiveness of these types of infrastructure investments, which will support multiple generations of electric vehicle chargers, heat pumps, water heaters, and next-generation laundry machines and cooktops. But without a comprehensive plan to upgrade the infrastructure within the spaces where we live and work, these solutions will be largely limited to those with high incomes and the capacity for investing.
Investing in the infrastructure to electrify our homes and buildings will accelerate the adoption of these solutions, which can drive down their cost and support increased domestic manufacturing. It can also accelerate the development and scaling of the workforce needed to install, maintain, and operate these solutions, which further increases the opportunity for us to realize the full potential of a clean energy economy.
1Cochrane, Emily. September 9, 2021. “Senate Passes $1 Trillion Infrastructure Bill, Handing Biden a Bipartisan Win.” The New York Times. Accessed September 20, 2021. https://www.nytimes.com/2021/08/10/us/politics/infrastructure-bill-passes.html
2USAFacts. May 12, 2021. “What Is Infrastructure and What Does the Government Have to Do with It?” USAFacts. Accessed September 20, 2021. https://usafacts.org/articles/transportation-infrastructure-government-spending-explained/
3U.S. Department of Energy Office of Electricity. n.d. “Grid Modernization and the Smart Grid.” Office of Electricity. Accessed September 20, 2021. https://www.energy.gov/oe/activities/technology-development/grid-modernization-and-smart-grid
4Hartman, Kristy and Laura Shields. August 20, 2021. “State Policies Promoting Hybrid and Electric Vehicles.” National Conference of State Legislatures. Accessed September 20, 2021. https://www.ncsl.org/research/energy/state-electric-vehicle-incentives-state-chart.aspx
5U.S. Department of Energy. n.d. “Heat Pump Systems.” Energy Saver. Accessed September 20, 2021. https://www.energy.gov/energysaver/heat-pump-systems
6Stein, Michael Isaac. February 13, 2018. “The Uneven Gains of Energy Efficiency.” Bloomberg CityLab. Accessed September 20, 2021. https://www.bloomberg.com/news/articles/2018-02-13/energy-efficiency-is-out-of-reach-for-some-americans