How to electrify your life when you rent

Two years ago, Caroline Spears was finally living on her own, roommate-free, in a one-bedroom apartment in San Francisco, where the cost of living continues to go up. She was drawn to its affordability and space. “It was a great work-from-home spot,” Spears said. She didn’t foresee, however, the high energy bills that would result from cranking up the gas heater when her apartment would turn into an icebox in the winter. 

The pollution from using a gas heater was also a major concern. Spears, founder of the Climate Cabinet, a national climate organization dedicated to winning elections, saw this challenge as a new project. So she got to it. 

She hired a contractor to test the apartment’s energy efficiency. Despite the evidence, Spears’ landlord wouldn’t budge. The test didn’t identify a quick fix — only a hefty renovation. Surely, she could at least improve her air quality by keeping the gas heater off and purchasing a portable heat pump, an increasingly popular device that uses electricity to move heat in and out of the home. Spears may have invested in the $5,000 machine if a government rebate or tax credit were available to renters, but she couldn’t find one.

“That was my last attempt,” she said. Ultimately, she moved to a more modern apartment elsewhere in San Francisco.

Despite the evidence, Spears’ landlord wouldn’t budge.

Whereas homeowners can electrify their homes if they choose, renters can’t. They must answer to their landlords. Renters have limited control — and limited financial incentives. Why spend money on a device for a home you don’t own? They can’t easily take these with them once they move. Policymakers haven’t yet built a solution for renters despite a need to decarbonize the entire housing sector. 

The US government has pledged to cut its carbon pollution in half by 2030 to prevent the planet from further overheating. Such reductions require massive infrastructural changes, especially in our homes, where water and food are often warmed with what is known as “natural gas” but is better understood as methane gas, a potent greenhouse gas that contributes to climate change. 

Many environmentalists and policymakers have looked to household electrification as a necessity to reduce carbon emissions — replacing fossil fuel-powered appliances like gas stoves and oil-fired water heaters with electric ones like induction stoves and electric water heaters — but this solution ignores a major segment of the population: renters.

In the US, 36 percent of households rent, according to the Pew Research Center. That’s over 44 million households. Though one 2022 study found that renters are more likely to have electric appliances than homeowners, some 15 million renters like Spears move into an…