An electric air conditioning fan. (Photo by Peter Dazeley / Getty Images)
As climate change accelerates, one possible solution – relying more on electric vehicles and appliances – remains out of reach of many Americans because of the higher cost.
Electric appliances and technology can cost hundreds or even tens of thousands of dollars more than those that use fossil fuels such as gas, oil or coal, depending on the item.
“As long as they keep prices that high, the rest of us are in hell,” said Diannae Schmidkunz, an Albuquerque resident who is retired and disabled. Although she wants clean-energy items like an electric stove or heat pump, she said there’s no way she could possibly afford them.
These price disparities are something U.S. Sen. Martin Heinrich, New Mexico Democrat and founder and co-chair of the Bicameral Electrification Caucus in Congress, said needs to change so that all Americans can afford to go electric. He said clean products need to be manufactured at a higher rate to lower prices overall.
“We should all agree that a climate solution that leaves low-income families behind is not really a climate solution,” Heinrich said.
Experts say electrification, or the process of moving away from fossil fuel-dependent technology to electric technology, provides health benefits for the environment and people. Many gas stoves release unsafe methane emissions in the air that people in their homes breathe in. The health benefits to electrification is something Heinrich said is only recently being appreciated and is “particularly true in low-income communities.”
“I’ve seen … gas stoves that sometimes aren’t even vented to the outside. That has a really significant public health impact on the people living in that house. The more we can switch these things out at the same costs, the more we’re going to see, you know, kids who have asthma have a healthier place to live and study.” Heinrich said.
Schmidkunz said she doesn’t feel safe around her gas stove — which has a broken burner and chewed wires — and thinks it’s beginning to leak, but can’t afford a new one with her income of $1,000 a month.
Zero- or low-emission technology can help save on utility bills. The average electrified New Mexican household can save $263 annually on energy bills, according to electrification nonprofit Rewiring America.
Heinrich is looking forward to saving on utility bills himself with his recently installed air source heat pump water heater. Those typically cost around $1,000 (which is usually hundreds of dollars more than a fossil-fuel-dependent heater).
But not everyone can afford this price hike. Nearly half of the homes that would benefit from electrification are low- or moderate-income households, according to Rewiring America.
Some minor technology is already more affordable upfront, and Heinrich brought up $50 or $60 single-burner induction plates that he uses himself. But for some, even that is difficult. Schmidkunz said it took three months for her to purchase a $99 air fryer on her budget.
“I make $1,000 a month and I have to try to live on that. How am I gonna afford an electric stove?” Schmidkunz said.
That’s why Heinrich introduced the Zero-Emission Homes Act of 2021 in the Senate last summer, which would provide rebates for zero-emission technology installations, like a heat pump or electric stove, in single-family and multifamily buildings.
“If we can reduce those upfront point of sale costs through a rebate, we’ll have a winning argument to convince many more families to choose electrification as they save over time,” Heinrich said.
However, the act would still need to go through the Senate, House and be signed by the president before potentially becoming law. Last month, the Committee on Banking, Housing, and Urban Affairs held hearings on the legislation following its referral to the Committee on Energy and Natural Resources by the Senate last year.
But what about people who can’t afford the product to begin with? Schmidkunz said rebates would work well if she could afford the product initially, and that’s where action needs to happen for lower income earners.
“Don’t tell me I have to spend twice as much money as I have to get the rebate,” Schmidkunz said.
Schmidkunz urged progressive taxes on people with higher incomes. But she doesn’t see this realistically happening, as many “elitist politicians won’t do anything to help us” afford these cleaner products.
“They’ve just got to pull together and say, ‘Okay, here’s what you’re gonna get if you get rid of your fossil fuel items. This is what we’re going to do for you. We are going to lower your taxes.’ And if you’re on the kind of budget I am, get rid of the tax for that. Start charging the billionaires a fair tax share instead of laying it all on my lap,” Schmidkunz said.
Many Americans have already been financially struggling with gas prices substantially increasing at the pump since Russia’s invasion of Ukraine in February, the New York Times reports. In March, the U.S. announced a ban on certain Russian imports, including oil, hiking up these prices.
As of Friday, June 17
The average regular Diesel gas price is $4.816, more than $1.84 more expensive than last year’s average, according to the American Automobile Association.
Heinrich said this shows the need for America’s independence from Russian fossil fuels, especially after Vladimir Putin’s unprovoked invasions of Ukraine. In contrast to this oil and gas dependence, electricity can more easily be produced and controlled domestically, Heinrich pointed out.
“Even though we produce a lot of the world’s oil and gas, it only takes one dictator to completely ruin the price and run up the kind of very high gasoline prices that we’re seeing in the U.S,” Heinrich said.
The average price of an electric vehicle in February was about $15,000 more than the average for new cars (including both gas and electric vehicles), according to NBC. Similarly, Consumer Reports found that electric cars cost anywhere from 10% to 40% more than their gas-guzzling counterparts.
To help with upfront costs, the government offers a federal income tax credit of up to $7,500 for electric or plug-in cars purchased after 2010. New Mexico is also increasing the number of electric charging stations, along with related infrastructure, across the state with $38 million that the state is receiving over five years from the Department of Transportation.
But that still isn’t enough for many. Schmidkunz can’t afford these upfront “outrageous” prices.
“If you’re not rich and powerful, you can’t afford these things,” Schmidkunz said.
With electric cars, gas savings can average from $800 to $1,000 per year, according to Consumer Reports research from 2020. With the increase in gas prices over the last two years, savings have likely increased even further.
Heinrich said electrification can open up new jobs, including career paths for manufacturing, installation and maintenance. In New Mexico, electrification would generate 1,500 installation jobs, and nationally, it would create 80,000 manufacturing jobs, according to Rewiring America.
He mentioned New Mexico’s Western Spirit Transmission Line, which is a 155-mile transmission line that was finished earlier this year, and the SunZia Southwest Transmission Project, an in-progress transmission line to transport energy from Arizona and New Mexico.
Both initiatives were topics of controversy, with arguments including disruption to rural life and tourism, but the projects passed the necessary regulations and acquired permits to move forward nonetheless. Heinrich said these projects showcase “what the future of electrification and clean energy looks like for New Mexico” and clean energy’s potential overall.
There needs to be better coordination between states in order to get these things to move more quickly, Heinrich said, noting that he’s been working on SunZia for over a decade.
To avoid a climate catastrophe, global emissions must be nearly halved by 2030 and at a net zero by 2050, according to the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change.
“We are absolutely running out of time on the climate fight, and it’s only going to get worse unless we can put more clean energy on the grid,” Heinrich said.
Schmidkunz dismissed any claims that climate change may not be real, and talked about the damage fossil fuel appliances and technology are doing to the planet. But how many Americans can actually afford to change those things?
“We’re killing ourselves. We’re leaving nothing for future generations,” Schmidkunz said.
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