Tom Bassett-Dilley’s suburban Oak Park bungalow stands out. His front lawn is one large rain garden with abundant native plants. The home is lined with deep-red siding and metal paneling. It’s distinctive looking, but the appearance isn’t the star.
In 2021, Bassett-Dilley decarbonized the bungalow by cutting natural gas connections completely in the poorly insulated house. In the basement, a new mechanical system pumps heat in the winter and cool air during the summer. In the kitchen, the gas stove is gone. He quickly simmers chicken bones for a broth on top of his induction stove, a special type of electric cooktop.
The way he sees it, his home is an experiment into the way houses and buildings in the region could be built to not just lower carbon emissions, but also lower utility bills.
“My monthly bill is $14.56 a month for the whole year,” Basset-Dilley said. “And that’s for all of my energy.”
Oak Park was the first local government in the entire Midwest to pass electrification standards for new construction. The ordinance passed this past summer and will go into effect at the beginning of 2024, which means electricity, not fossil fuels, will be the source of energy for all new homes and buildings.
Activists want Chicago to join Oak Park and other cities around the country that have changed emission standards for new buildings. They say changes would help health, climate — and homeowners’ pockets. The way buildings are heated, cooled and made livable are responsible for about 70% of the city’s total greenhouse gas emissions.
Ald. Matt Martin, 47th Ward, said reducing Chicago’s reliance on the natural gas services driving climate will benefit people across the city
“Now’s the time for us to consider and pass a building electrification ordinance,” Martin said. He added that there’s an openness in the building community around electrification because natural gas is increasingly expensive. Martin said officials are still workshopping an ordinance with the hopes it’ll be out before the end of the year.
Decarbonizing buildings is one of the major linchpins cities across the country are counting on to cut planet-warming emissions. The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency estimates commercial and residential buildings account for 30% of the country’s greenhouse gas emissions.
Since 2019, more than 70 cities and counties in California have passed similar legislation. Nationwide, New York City and Seattle have all updated building codes to require some level of electrification for new construction. The wave of electrification hasn’t arrived without backlash. The first electrification ordinance to pass in the country — in Berkeley, Calif. — was overturned by a federal appeals panel earlier this year. And states across the country have introduced and in some cases passed legislation to prohibit municipalities from implementing local electrification ordinances.
Peoples Gas, the major gas utility that serves the Chicago area, called a previously proposed ordinance to set emission standards for new construction “flawed and unrealistic.”
In a statement to WBEZ, the company said, “Our focus remains on providing customers the reliable energy they depend on, while also investing in emerging clean energy technologies such as renewable natural gas and hydrogen.”
But some Chicago residents are clamoring for change. Last month advocates rallied at City Hall and held signs that read “Protect Kids Health,” “Healthy Buildings Now” and “Stop The Rate Hike.” This past January, Peoples Gas submitted a $402 million rate hike to the Illinois Commerce Commision that if approved next month would add nearly $12 to monthly utility bills in Chicago.
“Enough is enough,” said Veronica Johnson, the outreach director for Faith in Place, an environmental nonprofit that works with religious communities across the state. “We will not stand by and just allow you to charge us more and more for utilities, and yes we are preparing to do something about that as we seek to decarbonize Chicago.”
Back at his Oak Park bungalow, Tom Bassett-Dilley said the demand for decarbonized living is already here.
“We don’t do any buildings that have gas lines in them anymore for the last three or four years,” Bassett-Dilley said. “There’s a lot of people out there looking for it, the demand has definitely skyrocketed.”
He’s already working on a new decarbonized bungalow in Chicago’s Jefferson Park neighborhood. And soon, an electrified bungalow could be the new normal.
Juanpablo Ramirez-Franco covers climate change and the environment for WBEZ and Grist. Follow him on X at @__juanpab.