Marketplace has a new podcast called “How We Survive,” about solutions to the climate crisis. The latest, “Electrify Everything,” is about how using electricity generated from renewable sources to power our homes is key to weaning us off our dependence fossil fuels.
Donnel Baird, who runs the electric building startup BlocPower, stressed the urgency of electrification in an interview for the podcast.
“We must do that in order to navigate the worst impacts of climate change, the sooner, the better,” he said.
So, how do we get everyone to adopt this century-old technology of electricity in new ways?
Molly Wood is the regular “Marketplace Tech” host and host of “How We Survive.” The following is an edited transcript of her conversation with guest host Kimberly Adams.
Molly Wood: Well, it’s funny, because it sounds really obvious until you realize how non-obvious it is. Because a lot of the conversation about electrifying is, of course, about transportation — cars and buses. But there’s also a need to electrify things like our heating and cooling systems in our homes, our stoves and then our grid on the back end — to install batteries all throughout the grid, so that we can use renewable energy to electrify everything. And so it’s this really interesting conversation that starts with your home, because a real thing that people can do in the face of the climate crisis is install solar, use batteries to store that energy, or use it to power their own electric appliances, and heating and cooling [systems], and cars. Then that scales all the way up to every building in the country and every grid.
Kimberly Adams: So this is really about adoption, because technology is effectively electricity, but getting people on board with it.
Wood: Exactly, and helping people, I think, understand that it’s actually a possibility, that these things exist that you can put in your home. Also, that it is possible to sort of change the way you consume electricity at the house-by-house, block-by-block level. It’s everything from consumers to utilities to policy.
Adams: So the nuts and bolts — what actually needs to happen to make this happen?
Wood: Right. One, of course, is cost, because not everybody can afford to put solar and a battery in their home, right? There are tax incentives for this, but it doesn’t make it affordable for everybody. So one simple question is: How do we make it possible for this to occur in every house? Then, of course, you scale up from the house level to can a whole city electrify? And can they make sure that they’re not necessarily running electric appliances and electric heating and cooling systems with coal and natural gas-based energy? So utilities will have to upgrade.
Adams: You talked with a person in Louisiana who lost power for 10 days during Hurricane Ida but was still able to make it through because they had solar panels and a battery. Is this really feasible for every home in America?
Wood: Yeah, I mean, it’s so interesting, and it really actually is. This person who we interviewed, Devin De Wulf, who lives in New Orleans, his home became sort of a hub for that entire 10 days for other people in the neighborhood. It was almost like its own micro grid. He was able to run an extension cord to his neighbor’s house to keep his neighbor’s oxygen machine running. He was able to put out power strips so that people around the neighborhood could come and plug their phones in and charge up and find out what was happening. And now he is trying to raise money so that the city can put solar panels and batteries on restaurants, so that restaurants could keep operating during a hurricane or some other natural disaster, so they wouldn’t have to waste so much food. They can often be their neighborhood hubs themselves. It does give you the sense that as more people realize that this is an option, that if you can get solar with a nice big tax break installed on your house, you can get a battery that goes along with that to store that energy, then you really do become sort of an island of power that’s a lot more resilient when the weather gets bad.
Adams: Yes, but then you have to convince people to give up their gas stoves, and the cooks here — let me duck for cover — they don’t want to do that.
Wood: I mean, this is this really fascinating subplot of the electrify conversation, because I only recently found out that these electric heating and cooling systems exist, right? You can replace your, like, hot water heater and your AC system and your heat with these electric heating and cooling systems that are great, and they’re super modular. But yeah, if you really want to decarbonize your house, the other thing you have to dump is your gas stove. And some cities are actually passing regulations saying no new construction can include gas hookups, it’s got to be all electric. Then you have other cities and other states saying, well, we’re gonna pass a law to make sure that a law like that never gets passed, because we’re a natural gas producing state. It gets very controversial, and yes, when you try to take a gas stove away from a chef, they get real upset.
Adams: But, you know, subplots to the side, how long is this going to take? And more importantly, do we have enough time?
Wood: The uniform response from everybody who is talking about this or working on it or wants it to happen is that we’re not going fast enough. We’re definitely not. And look, policies that would incentivize this are included in some of the infrastructure proposals that are being debated in Congress right now, and chunks that would be a big part of this are being stripped out, at least so far in negotiations. So it’s going to definitely take — I talked to one source who said we need a Manhattan Project for this in the United States. But you know, look, every little step matters.
Adams: So our local and state and the federal government, are they smoothing the way for this transition? Or is this one of these situations where the bureaucracy is in the way?
Wood: It’s a little bit of both. I think that some states certainly have more incentives than others when it comes to subsidizing installing equipment like this. California, of course, is one of those states. New York is one of those states. Donnel Baird, the startup founder that we talked to for this episode, though gave us the example of a guy in Montana who’s trying to decarbonize his house and install some of this equipment, and is finding it’s prohibitively expensive because there aren’t any incentives. And also, we can’t find qualified installers for things like electric heating and cooling equipment. So it definitely varies state to state, and there are times when you might find that there should be an incentive that doesn’t exist.
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