Opinion: Howard County must build on regional momentum, pass electrification legislation
By Doug Siglin and Liz Feighner
The writers are Howard County residents. Siglin is a policy advisor to the Chesapeake Climate Action Network. Feighner is a steering committee member of Howard County Climate Action.
In the next few days, the Howard County Council has the opportunity to become a real climate leader. Council Bill 5-2023, introduced by Council Chairperson Christiana Rigby, will direct the county executive to identify the changes needed to update the county building codes to require all-electric major appliances in new buildings, additions, and major renovations. Councilmembers need to get this legislation across the finish line.
The Howard County legislation reflects the growing regional and national momentum to tackle a major source of carbon pollution. Washington, D.C., and Montgomery County have recently passed strong electrification bills. If the Howard County Council passes this legislation and amends its building codes, one in five Marylanders will live in a community dedicated to delivering the economic and health benefits of electrification.
Recent amendments by Councilmembers Walsh and Rigby have further strengthened the original legislation, asking the county executive to report on net-zero energy standards for county government-owned buildings; recommend how the county will reduce carbon emissions from both the public and the private sector to become carbon neutral by 2045; and recommend how to maximize the use of federal and state incentives to help residents to electrify their homes.
Howard County painfully knows the consequences of climate change. In Ellicott City, Main Street itself became a deadly raging river in 2016 and 2018 after unusually intense rainfalls, gutting businesses and causing millions in damage. While the state of Maryland and our local leaders have championed Main Street’s recovery, our councilmembers understand that we must act as fast as possible to reduce the odds of events like these. Buildings, which represent 11% of Howard County’s total emissions, are a prime target.
Howard County residents have a large economic incentive for the Council to act soon. According to a 2022 report by the Maryland Office of the People’s Counsel, if utilities continue to make capital investments in the gas system at the current rate, a typical BGE ratepayer will pay up to eight times what they do today for gas service. Gas price spikes have made bills unaffordable for too many, and utility shut offs soared 80% in Maryland in 2022 alone.
Howard County residents ready to switch from methane gas or propane to electric today can save up to $8,000 on the cost of a highly efficient heat pump thanks to the Inflation Reduction Act, which can withstand even the coldest Maryland winters. However the more homes we connect to the gas system, the higher the cost will be to transition those homes to all-electric down the road. Builders also can save $2,000 to $10,000 on the cost of building all-electric homes.
Relying on methane gas for heating and cooking directly impacts the air we breathe both inside and outside our homes. Inside the house, burning gas emits nitrogen oxides, which create poor indoor air quality and exacerbate respiratory symptoms, even if vented properly. Science tells us that children living in homes with gas stoves are 42% more likely to develop asthma symptoms. For appliances that vent outdoors, that pollution can directly contribute to the formation of ozone, which also drives poor health outcomes. The longer we allow gas in our buildings, the longer we will expose our friends and neighbors to toxic air pollution that could exacerbate chronic conditions like asthma, diabetes, or COPD, increasing healthcare costs and undermining quality of life.
The legislation before the Howard County Council is consistent with the county’s long tradition of civility and progressivism and is a strong first step to understanding how we can effectively and swiftly electrify our buildings. After all, we can’t find a solution if we fail to understand the problem at hand.
If the legislation passes, it will be up to County Executive Calvin Ball (D) to ensure that real progress is made. County Executive Ball demonstrated strong climate leadership during his first term by setting high goals, creating a climate subcabinet, promoting solar, and requiring improved government energy use. Now he needs to continue progress and embrace electrification of new buildings and retrofits of existing ones. He has an opportunity with the upcoming revisions to the county’s Climate Action Plan, and he also has an opportunity, as the current president of MACo, to help lead statewide electrification efforts.
The path to creating a healthier, more climate resilient Howard County is clear. We need our elected officials to embrace full electrification to deliver better health, better savings, and a better climate for all residents.