As gas bills continue to climb, Chicagoans are struggling to keep up with prices, and there’s no relief in sight. Yet, cheaper and cleaner alternatives for heating our homes and cooking our food are within reach.
Mayor Lori Lightfoot’s administration has developed a blueprint for equitably electrifying buildings with the help of local businesses, community, and environmental justice advocates. What we need now is the political will to put that plan into action.
It comes at a time when Peoples Gas announced a $402 million rate-hike request, a 60% increase over the rates approved by state regulators in 2015. This will undoubtedly make it harder for many in Chicago’s Black and Brown communities, who are already struggling, to keep up with their bills.
The increases are due to both the rising cost of gas and fixed charges used to fund a Peoples Gas pipeline modernization project, which will take more than a decade to finish and cost an estimated $8 billion to $11 billion, astronomically outstretching the original budget of less than $2 billion. Such a project will be obsolete by the time it is finished.
A new analysis by Energy Futures Group for the Natural Resources Defense Council shows that switching to electricity buildings rather than laying more gas pipes would result in cost savings as well as health and environmental benefits too substantial to ignore.
These benefits are urgently needed. The same neighborhoods struggling with energy affordability are also hit hardest by poor air quality because of polluting industries and their location near expressways with heavy vehicle traffic. Residents of these communities, unsurprisingly, have higher rates of respiratory health issues than the rest of the city.
Poor air quality is also a problem in their homes. Recent studies by Stanford and Harvard universities demonstrated how gas stoves can leak methane even when they are turned off, and how other toxic chemicals — including benzene, hexane, and toluene — are introduced into a home simply by having a working gas stove.
Gas stoves and heaters create indoor air pollution that circulates and impacts lung health, especially for those with asthma. And poor building materials, lack of insulation and utility shut-offs mean it’s not uncommon for people to rely on stoves for space heating in the cold winter months.
The daily threat to our health and financial security from relying on gas are real.
In addition, our buildings are a huge source of carbon pollution because they rely on gas for heating, cooking, and drying clothes. Chicago’s buildings contribute more to carbon pollution than all of the city’s cars and trucks combined.
Any long-term solution to the climate crisis for Chicago will have to include a transition away from fossil fuels at the level of every building. And if the transition is done well, it will also address urgent affordability and health concerns.
That’s why advocates are pushing for solutions that include stronger standards for phasing out fossil fuels in new construction and reducing carbon emissions and energy use in existing buildings with community oversight to ensure the transition happens in an equitable way.
The Lightfoot administration recently released a report with recommendations for a fossil fuel phaseout which include great ideas from business, community and environmental justice leaders.
We have the blueprint for policies that will make the transition happen, but in order to ensure it happens equitably, it will take voices from communities that are bearing the brunt of the biggest costs — both to our wallet and health.
Chicago’s environmental justice leaders have been working on these issues for decades and know best how to ensure these policies reach their neighborhoods. The city can leverage crucial partnerships by creating an oversight process that empowers community leaders and other stakeholders with the authority as well as the technical and financial resources to meaningfully guide the transition toward cleaner, healthier and more affordable homes.
It’s clear we can’t burden our communities with billions of dollars for an expensive labyrinth of pipes that will soon become obsolete. We can’t wait for change. Chicago’s leaders must act to make our city’s buildings cleaner, healthier and cheaper to maintain now. We stand ready to work with the city to make it happen.
Courtney Hanson is deputy director of People for Community Recovery. Gina Ramirez is Midwest outreach manager for the Natural Resources Defense Council.
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