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Clean energy journalism for a cooler tomorrow

This is part of our special series "Home of the Future." Read more.

Guest Author
Gaurab Basu

We need to get fossil gas out of homes, for the climate and our health

Dr. Gaurab Basu electrified his home with incredible results. He believes that with the right policies in place, everyone can do it.
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a stylized graphic showing a blue house connected to a green electrical plug against a green and yellow background

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Canary Media thanks Sense for its support of the Home of the Future series.

On a lazy Sunday morning in October 2018, I grabbed my phone to browse through some news while lying in bed. What I read would change my life. Major climate report describes a strong risk of crisis as early as 2040,” the headline blared. The United Nations Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change had just released its most recent report, and its predictions were dire.

Of course, I had known that climate change was a threat, but I had not understood that we could hit 1.5 degrees Celsius of global warming by as soon as 2030, and how deeply and quickly we needed to cut emissions to save the planet. I walked downstairs to find my pregnant wife and toddler. With hands shaking, I showed my wife the phone and said, This is much worse than I realized.” For months, I stayed up late at night after everyone else was asleep learning all I could about the crisis.

Climate change worsens everything I care about as a doctor. It increases health risks from heat waves and natural disasters; it exacerbates the burden of infectious diseases, mental health conditions, food insecurity and water scarcity; and it’s caused primarily by the burning of fossil fuels, which results in air pollution, itself a major threat to public health. I knew I needed to act.

So I got to work. As the head of the Cambridge Health Alliance Center for Health Equity Education and Advocacy, I started developing curricula for our courses that highlight climate change’s impact on health and how those impacts fall more heavily on low-income communities and communities of color. I also started a climate fellowship that teaches community-organizing skills to health professionals who want to advocate for action on climate. And I became an advocate myself, taking part in both an environmental advisory committee in the Massachusetts governor’s office and the city of Cambridge mayor’s Climate Crisis Working Group. My goal with these groups has been to bring the health risks of climate change and air pollution to the forefront of the conversation.

The thing about the climate crisis is that once you wake up to it, you see it everywhere. Now with two young kids, my wife and I suddenly saw the sources of greenhouse gasses and air pollutants right in front of us. Nitrogen dioxide is a pollutant released from the combustion of fossil gas, a common fuel that we, like so many others, used for cooking, heating and other household tasks without a second thought. This pollutant is known to harm children’s respiratory tract and cognitive development. In fact, a recent study revealed that gas stoves are associated with 12.7% of childhood asthma cases across the United States. According to another major study, Boston-area homes fueled by gas were exposed to 21 hazardous air pollutants, including dangerous carcinogens such as benzene. And most of these emissions occur, yet another study showed, when gas stoves are turned off.

House with solar panels
Solar panels powering Gaurab Basu's family residence in Cambridge, Massachusetts (Gaurab Basu)

As these realizations set in, the problem of air pollution felt even more personal. So my wife and I decided to electrify our home to get rid of all the sources of pollution and greenhouse gas emissions within it. We worked with a neighborhood program to install solar panels on our roof in 2019, but getting rid of our gas appliances took more time. Before we could install heat pumps, an induction stove, a heat-pump water heater and an electrical clothes dryer, we had to update our electrical system.

We needed a company that could oversee the whole project and knew how to sequence and coordinate all of the elements. We started with the Mass Save program, which did an energy audit on our home, and this ultimately led us to the Boston Standard Company. For the most part, the process was seamless — our heat-pump installations and associated electrical work were completed within two weeks. Getting an updated electrical line from our utility pole took longer, but all in all, we were able to get rid of all of the gas appliances in our home within three months.

A side view of a beige LG heat pimp attached to a house with beige siding
An electric air-source heat pump outside Dr. Basu's home (Gaurab Basu)

We are thrilled with our newly electrified home. So many neighbors have stopped by, asking us questions about how we did it, and now more houses with solar panels and heat pumps are popping up on our block. Probably my favorite addition is our heat pumps (which also are the appliances that have done the most to cut down our household emissions). Last December when it was 14 degrees outside, they kept us nice and warm inside. During summer heat waves, they keep my elderly parents cool and comfortable. Our induction stove cooks better than our old gas stove. But mostly, it all just feels very normal. And now it feels alarming that we ever allowed volatile gases into our home that cause disease and contribute to climate change.

My family was fortunate to have the resources and a high level of motivation to take on this project. But in order to ramp down the public health risks of methane gas in homes and to mitigate climate change, we need policies in place that make home electrification accessible to everyone. The Inflation Reduction Act includes rebates and tax incentives that will give this work a major boost. But it’s much easier to never install gas hookups in the first place than to have to replace all the gas appliances in your home. So to meet the country’s climate goals, we must stop gas hookups in new construction and renovations. Places such as New York City, Massachusetts and California are taking the lead on this front.

A man with short brown hair and a beard wearing a blue t-shirt and jeans smiles next to a shiny silver range and vent hood
Dr. Basu stands next to his new induction stove, which now allows his family to cook without using fossil gas. (Gaurab Basu)

To help generate broad support for this transition, policymakers need to emphasize the connections between air pollution, climate change, electrification and public health. Studies have shown that indoor air pollution from gas stoves can regularly exceed Environmental Protection Agency standards for safe outdoor air quality. The Clean Air Act has made groundbreaking progress on outdoor air quality — now we need policy that will enable the EPA to also regulate indoor pollutants.

What’s more, policymakers must ensure that home electrification is carried out equitably. The homes of lower-income families are at risk for higher air pollution burdens from gas stoves because these homes tend to be smaller and are less likely to have adequate ventilation. Products such as small, portable induction cooktops may prove to be an accessible way for many to bypass their gas stoves.

Completely transforming the way we power our lives is a daunting challenge. But we are already making a remarkable transition from gas-fueled cars to electric ones. With new federal and state laws, we can do the same with our homes. The threats of climate change may be all around us, but so are climate solutions. And climate solutions are health solutions too. 

Canary Media’s Home of the Future series is supported by Sense.

Consumers need better tools to make their homes more efficient and to foster electrification. Sense technology is built on a simple, proven premise: Customers need real-time information to engage. With the first-of-its-kind Sense app, consumers can see exactly where and how to save energy in their homes. Sense works for utilities, for consumers and for the grid. Leading meter manufacturers are partnering with Sense to create consumer-ready smart meters that take home-energy management to the next level. Learn more.

Gaurab Basu is a physician and a Health Equity Fellow at the Center for Climate, Health, and the Global Environment at Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health.