How to get people to kick fossil fuels out of their homes

A new study of 10,000 Americans suggests decarbonization programs should focus on reducing upfront costs and emphasize health, comfort — and even aesthetic benefits.
By Alison F. Takemura

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A beige square metal heat pump installed on the side of a house with blue siding amid an abundant garden of greenery
(Konrad Kozaczuk/

To cool the planet, homes will need clean energy makeovers.

That entails households making the switch from fossil-fueled cars and appliances to electric vehicles, heat-pump AC/​heaters, heat-pump water heaters and electric stoves, with some even opting for their own clean energy sources — solar panels and batteries.

The historic Inflation Reduction Act makes this transformation easier than ever with generous federal tax credits and $8.8 billion in forthcoming rebates. But there’s no sugarcoating the fact that the pace of consumer adoption right now is too slow, said Kieren McCord, a research scientist in the building systems group at the Pacific Northwest National Laboratory. We need to understand where the holdup is” — and how to boost the mass appeal of these technologies to realize the full carbon-cutting potential of the IRA.

To tease out answers to these questions, McCord and colleagues surveyed 10,000 American homeowners and renters, who were selected to closely match U.S. census demographics. It’s the largest study exploring household energy behavior and motivations in the U.S. to date, said co-author Tracy Fuentes, an ecologist at PNNL who studies human decision-making.

The analysis, recently published in the journal Energy Policy, reveals the key factors residents weigh, from cost to comfort, when considering home energy upgrades. The team analyzed responses from participants who’ve made decarbonizing changes (like installing a heat-pump system) and those who’ve made non-decarbonizing changes (like installing a new gas stove), because if policymakers and program administrators can tap into all residents’ motivations around home energy updates, they stand a better chance of getting more people to embrace energy-efficient, electric equipment, according to the researchers.

So what’s the biggest barrier people face to making home energy upgrades?

By far, it’s the upfront cost. About 65 percent of all respondents had concerns about the expense, more than double the 29 percent of households that stumbled over the next most identified hurdle: unclear costs and benefits. The researchers say that the cost barrier underscores how important it is to publicize and develop programs, like those in the IRA, that help people pay for decarbonizing tech.

Another clear trend is that renters reported rarely making or instigating home energy updates. That’s not surprising since building owners are typically responsible for major renovations and appliances. But it does underscore the fact that renters need more help” to find opportunities to decarbonize their homes, either on their own or working with the building owner, Fuentes said.

Almost half of the participants surveyed said it’s important to them that the equipment for the upgrade is available through big-box stores, such as Home Depot, Lowe’s and Best Buy. Visibility is key, Fuentes told Canary Media. The team recommends programs that promote zero-carbon appliances through these retailers.

As for what motivates people to make home energy upgrades, the team found that across the U.S., residents who have already made decarbonizing updates are strongly spurred by common desires: to reduce their energy bills and environmental impacts, as well as increase the comfort in their homes.

The team also found significant regional variation in the motivations driving past or potential future home energy updates. As a result, the authors recommend that decarbonization programs in each region focus their messaging accordingly.

For instance, respondents based in the West were more interested in reducing harmful health and environmental impacts than those in other regions. As the warming climate creates more demand for air conditioning across the West, programs can stress the health and safety benefits and lower carbon emissions that come with selecting a two-way heat pump rather than a conventional central AC unit.

In the Midwest, people are more motivated by cost savings and boosting home safety. Program leaders could tout the resilience benefits of having solar panels and a battery to ride out power outages during storms, the authors suggest.

In the Southeast, residents are more driven by a home’s aesthetics. Linking that to decarbonizing tech might be easier in some cases — think of sleek EVs, Tesla Powerwall batteries and shiny solar panels — than others, though there are efforts to make decarbonizing tech more attractive; in 2023, LG debuted a heat-pump water heater that looks straight out of Star Trek. The PNNL team also recommends working with contractors to fold in information about decarbonizing upgrades when residents are giving their kitchens and bathrooms a facelift.

A gleaming heat pump water heater with a digital display stands in a bathroom alcove with a steaming tub in the background.
Clean lines on an inverter-based heat-pump water heater (LG)

Where people get information about home energy upgrades also differs across the U.S. For example, Oklahoma, Texas, Louisiana and Arkansas rely on social media a lot more than the other regions,” McCord told Canary Media. In contrast, Northeasterners lean more heavily on contractors, meaning that they could be recruited to serve as trusted resources for home electrification.

The regional piece is going to be really key” for home decarbonization initiatives, Fuentes said, including the state-level rollout of the IRA electrification and efficiency rebate programs that’s expected to start this year. PNNL plans to make the study’s underlying data available later this year for local groups to dissect themselves, so they can tailor their campaigns to their own populaces.

We’re just thrilled” that PNNL has done this work, said Jill Vohr, director of product marketing and communications at Energy Star, the energy efficiency labelling program administered by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency. She works with utilities, retailers and manufacturers across the country to promote decarbonizing tech such as heat pumps. This is just the kind of data that we need to do effective outreach to consumers.”

The PNNL researchers hope that by illuminating what’s in people’s hearts and minds as they make decisions about their homes, they can help turbocharge the residential transition to clean energy. For consumers who don’t yet realize how their personal values and preferences relate to decarbonizing technologies, leaders can make that connection for them,” McCord said. Heat pumps, insulation and electric stoves help the environment, sure — but they also make homes a better place to live.”

Alison F. Takemura is staff writer at Canary Media. She reports on home electrification, building decarbonization strategies and the clean energy workforce.