An Extremely Abbreviated History of the American Home
Most of us probably didn’t need Maslow5 to inform us of the crucial role shelter plays in our well-being. Across time and geography, the home has always played a big role in both individual lives and more broadly in communities and cultures. But there is something distinct about the role the home occupies in American life.
In 1942, President Franklin D. Roosevelt publicly called the United States “a nation of homeowners, of people who own a real share in their own land” (and also that this would make us as a nation, “unconquerable”6 ).7 This wasn’t an announcement of a new course of action as much as it was an articulation of a longstanding general sentiment. Governmental involvement—from big actions like the creation of the Federal Housing Administration in 1934 to innumerable smaller actions like zoning mandates on the local level—have long provided a de facto bureaucratic blessing on the home.
Add in the technological innovation (i.e. the automobile) that made it possible to commute to cities and much more convenient to live in areas without dense public transportation options and we saw a whole new approach to residential planning: the expansion of suburban sprawl from the urban core. This made big lots and bigger homes much more realistic. Friendly loaning practices, and economic growth in general, have run alongside these trends to 1) make it possible for people to afford larger homes and 2) spark the desire to do so—both for the lifestyle benefits as well as the potential return on investment that’s expected with home prices generally appreciating.
That’s a quick recap but one end result is that most Americans today consider a home to not only be an asset, but their biggest asset. Over 64% of the 139 million homes in America are owned by the people that reside in them8 and homeownership is commonly considered a benchmark of progression toward the elusive American Dream.
Another result is that, for those able to purchase a home, homeownership largely becomes a constant balancing act between comfort and responsibility—we want our homes to look, feel, and function a certain way but that all comes with a financial and environmental cost. If we let the costs creep up too high then our homes become liabilities instead of the assets we planned on them being when signing the dotted line on an enormous loan. And continuing to practice unsustainable habits that harm the world aggravate a persistent guilt many of us feel, which is at direct odds with the home-as-a-haven ideal we’re all aspiring to.
The Cost of Homeownership
Census data showed the median monthly cost of a mortgage in America being just north of $1,500 in 2019.9 Data from the prior year showed the most affordable state (Arkansas) tallied a median of $1,071 and the most expensive (New Jersey) came in at $2,439.10 For most Americans, that’s a formidable chunk of cash to produce every month, year after year, for decades.11 And that doesn’t include expenses like utilities, repairing the AC, or buying a new mattress. Not to mention the countless succulents, picture frames, rugs, and decorative hand towels et cetera et cetera that “make a house a home.” It gets expensive, is the point.
And although there are a ton of variables involved, many of which you do have some control over (such as your taste in decor or how much you’ve saved for a down payment), the energy bill is a unique element of this balance between comfort and cost. The need to pay for your energy is about as certain as death and taxes but it feels more visceral and influenceable than the other big home expenses. Unlike homeowners insurance, for example, energy costs come with daily reminders—every adjustment of the thermostat, every time someone in the house leaves a window open, or every time you run your washing machine. This one is literally influenced by the flip of a switch.
According to the EIA, the average monthly cost of electricity in 2018 was $118.12 Do some quick math with the median cost of a mortgage and most homeowners are tacking on a monthly electricity payment of approximately 10% of their mortgage. In some places, for some people, this might not be a big concern. But others could be just one rate hike or one unexpected winter storm away from not being able to afford that monthly cost. And, unfortunately, the general trend is putting more and more people in that second category.
The environmental implications of homeownership can be equally concerning. Roughly 20% of all the greenhouse gases emitted in the US each year come from residential energy.13 Views on climate change tend to map pretty well to political views so it’s not fair to say all Americans see the specifics of this concern the same way. But data does show that it is fair to say that most of us believe human activity has at least some influence on the environment and, more to the point, that most of us worry about it.14 And worry is not a welcome house guest.
So what role can the sun actually play in all of this? Is it a serious solution to the problems that get in the way of us creating the kind of homes we want to live in? Are we really at a point where we’ve figured out how to effectively power the modern home with the sun?
The short answer is: yes. The slightly longer answer is: yes, once the home is electrified.
Revolution By Way Of Electrification
Most of us have probably never lived in a home without electricity so, in a certain sense, all we know are electrified homes. Prior to 1900 only wealthy homes had electric lamps, but since that point it has become the norm to live in a home flowing with electricity.15 But as problems with that grid have intensified and conversations about fixing the problems have become mainstream, what “electrifying the home” has come to mean is the complete electrification of the home.
The furnace, air conditioner, and water heater are just three of literally hundreds of appliances you’ll find in the average American home but together the three of them account for nearly half of the total electricity consumption.16 And presently, most of them across the country rely on fossil fuels, in one way or another. So they’re the biggest piece of the home electrification puzzle.
What’s Powering Your Power?
Most of us don’t spend a lot of time thinking about where we get our power. As long as the lights come on when we flip the switch or the heat turns on when it gets cold outside, we’re satisfied. I don’t think that means we’re lazy or careless. Life is busy and there is just a certain amount of our day-to-day existence that needs to move to autopilot to avoid being entirely overwhelmed and anxious all the time. But the truth is that not all electricity is created equal because not all electricity is created in the same way. Raw energy, from any source, needs to be converted to be usable in your home.17
For the majority of our uses, that conversion happens at the nearest power plant and the electricity that comes from it is then distributed through the grid to reach your home. What it was before being converted and passed along to you depends on the fuel sources used by your local utility. This could mean a mix of fossil fuels and natural gas, possibly some nuclear, and maybe smaller portions coming from renewable sources like wind, hydro, or solar. By the time it reaches your home, you can’t tell the difference between grid-provided electricity that came from polluting sources vs. clean sources. (But, at the risk of stating the obvious, our earth can tell the difference when it comes to the types of emissions emerging from your local power plant due to these various fuel sources.)
In other cases, the conversion happens right within the appliances in your home. Take a natural gas-powered furnace, for example. This requires a natural gas line to your home from your natural gas provider (usually your local utility). Your furnace will convert that natural gas into heat that can then be distributed throughout the home. It is important to remember that electricity is still a crucial part of the process because the blower fan (which pushes the hot air throughout your home) runs on electricity. This is why your furnace won’t work during a power outage.
The point is that polluting fuel sources are still a big part of the electricity running through your home—either because they’re being used at the local power plant or your appliances themselves are using them. When we talk about “electrifying the home,” we’re talking about eliminating those pollutants from the equation altogether.
How Do We Electrify America’s Homes?
In theory, electrifying the home is actually very simple: replace fossil fuel-dependent appliances with electric ones.
In practice? Unfortunately (and sadly/unsurprisingly), there are some obstacles standing in the way.18 But the good news is that none of them are insurmountable, even with existing technology that everyday homeowners are already using today.
As mentioned earlier, the place to start is the appliances19 that use the most energy and that are most commonly powered with polluting fuel sources. Heating or cooling (whether it’s your air, water, or food) covers the lion’s share of most homes’ energy usage. And furnaces,20 water heaters, and stoves are still commonly powered by gas.