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"The impossible challenge of reducing carbon emissions in my household has become a maddening and haunting endeavor."
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“The impossible challenge of reducing carbon emissions in my household has become a maddening and haunting endeavor.”

I live with my spouse in a green, two-story Colonial house at the end of a cul-de-sac in Burlington, Vermont. During springtime, the front of our house is adorned with lilacs, crocuses, and peonies. Our backyard is filled with tall black locust trees. Sometimes, we catch a glimpse of a fox or toddlers from the nearby daycare exploring the woods from our office windows.

The house is quite picturesque, except for one aspect – it relies on natural gas to operate. The boiler, responsible for heating both the house and water, utilizes this resource. The stove, dryer, and even the living room fireplace also consume natural gas.

Approximately 60% of American households rely on gas, which is mainly composed of methane, a powerful greenhouse gas. In the past, our reliance on fossil fuels did not bother us much. Recently, when our furnace needed to be replaced in late 2018, we found it to be the most convenient option. We also didn’t mind using gas for other appliances since it was not oil. However, our contractors were not knowledgeable about alternative options and we often had to make quick decisions. When we did consider switching to cleaner sources, the cost was a major factor. We questioned if an induction stove was really worth the high price.

After five years, the situation had changed significantly. The Earth was rapidly approaching a dangerous increase of 1.5C (2.7F) in temperature, and household energy consumption was responsible for one-sixth of the greenhouse gas emissions in the United States. As we were looking to start a family, we became aware of the potential health consequences of burning methane indoors. Then, the Inflation Reduction Act was passed, providing billions of federal dollars to make clean technology more accessible and affordable. By the beginning of last year, we were prepared to reduce carbon emissions.

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I had no false beliefs that it would be a simple “five-step” process as some supporters may suggest. However, as journalists covering climate, my spouse and I assumed a couple of weeks of research and preparation would bring us close to achieving our goal.

Over the course of a year, a series of events and challenges caused financial strain and pushed us to reassess our idea of comfort and willingness to make sacrifices. While I enjoyed spending late nights analyzing spreadsheets to calculate the payback periods for heat pumps and solar panels, I became increasingly anxious when the solar company we had chosen went bankrupt. My nerves were almost at their breaking point when I realized the steep cost of all these changes, and they shattered completely when we realized we would also need to upgrade our electrical panel. Both my wife and I reached our limits when we had to decide between reducing emissions or cutting down trees.

Feeling overwhelmed and distressed, I reached out for assistance.

“I’m not surprised,” David Lis, with Northeast Energy Efficiency Partnerships, said of my predicament. Once people discover that going electric is an option, most run headlong into the complexities. “Your experience of having to navigate a lot of market actors is a big barrier.”

As we progressed, our certainty of achieving decarbonization grew. The main consideration then became whether we were willing to pay the price.

Each year, residential properties in the United States release approximately 900 million metric tons of carbon dioxide, which is roughly double the amount produced by all of France. One-third of these emissions are caused by direct combustion of natural gas and other fossil fuels on the premises, while the rest is generated by the electricity consumed by households.

Our home is a typical one, constructed in 1940, featuring three bedrooms, two bathrooms, and a living area of 1,672 square feet. We consume approximately 65,000 cubic feet of gas annually for heating, cooking, and laundry tasks, which is the average in the northeastern region. Transitioning to electric appliances would transfer these emissions to the cleanest power grid in the nation, as almost all of Vermont’s electricity is derived from renewable sources. These benefits are why environmental advocates often encourage individuals to “electrify everything”. However, as we discovered, this change can become exceedingly complicated.

“It is crucial to enter with a solid plan,” stated Cora Wyent, the director of research for the non-profit organization Rewiring America, which recently launched a personal electrification planner to assist individuals in mapping out their decarbonization journey. I contacted Wyent at the halfway point of our plan and regretted not doing so earlier. According to Wyent, creating a roadmap enables individuals to take full advantage of incentives offered by the Inflation Reduction Act (IRA), some of which are available annually. It can also prevent unexpected and expensive electrical updates to ensure that one’s home is capable of providing the necessary electricity. “Having a plan can also prevent exceeding the capacity of your electrical panel.”

According to her, the choice of priority depends on your motivation. For those focused on reducing greenhouse gas emissions, switching from fossil fuel heating would have the greatest effect. For those prioritizing indoor air quality, starting with appliances, especially stoves, may be preferred. If uncertain, switching to electric when something needs replacing is often the easiest path to a more environmentally-friendly home.

Wyent joked that we should “electrify” when the item dies, meaning only paying for necessary replacements and breaking up larger projects. This was our approach last year when our aging water heater became a hazard. Next on the list were our stove and heating system, with no specific order. The dryer could wait, but we needed to remove the gas line. We planned to tackle as many renovations as possible while also preparing for the arrival of our new baby. Fortunately, we had enough cash from the sale of our previous home that financing was not an immediate concern, as long as we deemed the investment worth it.

We first tried a heat pump water heater to get rid of gas. It functions similarly to an air conditioner in reverse, using the warmth from the air to heat the water. This technology is becoming more popular. In addition to being energy-efficient, it also helps to reduce humidity, something our damp basement desperately needed. The installation process went surprisingly well.

We collected multiple quotes, which Wyent and others emphasized as crucial for cost management. The lowest quote for installing a 50-gallon tank was $2,825, which was higher than Energy Star recommendations but still significantly lower than the other quotes. With a $600 instant rebate from the state and an $800 post-purchase rebate from the city, the total cost was reduced to $1,425. Additionally, since my friend also needed a tank, we received an extra $150 discount for doing the installations together. While the IRA offers a tax credit of 30% of the entire cost (up to $2,000), we will only receive it after filing our taxes.

In total, the cost of the bill will amount to $428, with an additional charge for hiring an electrician to wire it. The installation process was completed in less than a day and the water heater is now functioning efficiently in our basement. While the reduction in emissions may not be significant as we still require our boiler for heating, this was a promising initial step towards decreasing our reliance on gas.

Encouraged by the achievement, we set our sights on the stove and dryer.


Currently, using appliances that run on electricity does not have a significant impact on the environment. On average, a dryer consumes approximately 2,000 cubic feet of natural gas per year, resulting in the release of carbon dioxide.2

The amount of emissions produced by using a gas stove is comparable to driving 300 miles. Switching to an electric stove can completely eliminate these greenhouse gases, but the benefits are not as significant in areas outside of Vermont where the local utilities are not as environmentally friendly. In the US, the majority of electricity (60%) is generated by fossil fuels, with 43% of that coming from natural gas. As long as this remains unchanged, getting rid of a gas stove would have little impact on the planet.

Our primary reason for getting rid of our gas appliances was the flashing light on our air purifier. We had read studies demonstrating that using gas for cooking emits benzene and nitrogen dioxide. However, the sight of that small light changing from a gentle blue to a bright red every time we cooked was a disturbing reminder of the potential dangers. It became even more concerning when we became parents, as gas stoves have been tied to approximately 13% of childhood asthma cases in the country.

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According to both climate experts and chefs, the most favorable option is an induction stove that utilizes electromagnetic energy to heat cooking vessels. These stoves use less energy compared to traditional electric ranges and provide better temperature regulation. However, while searching for alternatives, we discovered that this technology is not inexpensive. The more affordable induction stoves start at $1,100, which is almost double the price of a basic gas stove. Supporters of the technology argue that costs will decrease as it becomes more widely used, but this did not benefit us. Furthermore, our city’s rebate was only $200. In hopes of reducing the financial impact, we waited for Black Friday, which meant delaying our purchase by a few months. During this time, we considered whether we wanted additional features such as a convection oven (which we did) and, in November, we went to Lowe’s to make our purchase.

Due to my tendency to purchase unnecessary power tools, my wife guided me straight to the appliances section. Unfortunately, the store only had one induction model available for display and it was not the specific one we were looking for. However, we were able to compare it to the traditional stoves to get an idea of how the induction version would work in our kitchen. After much consideration, we decided on a Samsung induction model with knobs instead of buttons, as we were aware from a relative’s experience that button-operated models could be difficult to use. The original price was $2,249, but we were able to purchase it on sale for almost half the price.

On our exit, we addressed our issue with the dryer by stumbling upon a highly rated electric model that was also priced at a discounted $648. We took out our phones to compare it to a heat pump dryer, which would have saved on electricity and eliminated the need for an additional outlet and vent installation. However, it was significantly pricier (even with an added state rebate) and had only half the capacity. Due to the large amount of laundry that newborns require, we opted for the traditional technology, with the expectation that larger models will be available when we next need a dryer.

As I left the store, I almost spent all of our savings on a track saw. However, I am glad that I controlled myself because the cost of installing outlets for the saw would have been more than expected. The electrician charged us over $600 for the stove connection, and when we are ready to revamp our basement to accommodate a dryer, it will likely cost the same. While this is about two-thirds of the cost of the appliances themselves, we quickly realized the advantages of switching from gas.

My spouse takes charge of cooking and is amazed by the speed of an induction burner. It brings water to a boil much faster than a gas stove and even quicker than our electric kettle. “It feels almost immediate,” they exclaimed. “The bubbles are insane.” The heat is also precise, allowing us to keep pasta sauce at a steady simmer and keep food warm while we prepare our dinner plates.

It has been several months since the red light on our air purifier has appeared, which is the best part.

After addressing the minor issues, the main energy-consuming problem that remained was the heating system.


Based on data from the US Department of Energy in 2020, heating and cooling make up over 50% of a typical home’s energy consumption. In our northern Vermont summers, our gas usage remains minimal, suggesting that the majority of our methane consumption is used for heating. This equates to approximately 3.6 metric tons of greenhouse gases emitted each year, equivalent to the emissions from driving 9,200 miles. Switching to electric energy would significantly reduce our carbon footprint.

To begin, we conducted a home energy evaluation to check for any significant weather-related problems that needed attention. According to professionals, repairing air leaks is one of the simplest and most economical methods to lower energy expenses and lessen your environmental impact. The evaluation revealed that our home had a moderate level of air leakage, which is not surprising considering its age. However, there were no apparent issues that needed to be addressed. The auditor advised against making a substantial financial investment, such as replacing windows, as the issue was not severe enough. However, insulating the basement was recommended and is something we plan on doing in the future.

Our gas heating system, alongside other modern boilers, is able to convert 90% of the energy it utilizes into heat. While this may seem impressive, heat pumps are actually two to five times more efficient. This is because heat pumps transfer existing heat instead of generating it, allowing them to raise the temperature inside a building or cool it down. Additionally, heat pumps are a great option for upgrading existing homes because they can be used with or without ducts in the floors or walls.

There are two main types available. Ground-source heat pumps use tubing buried underground to draw out heat, while air-source models utilize surrounding air. The ground-source pumps, also called geothermal, cycle a mixture of water and antifreeze through the tubing.

Geothermal systems are superior in efficiency, noise reduction, and longevity compared to air-source systems. They are not affected by weather changes as the underground temperatures remain consistent. The buried piping can have a lifespan of 50+ years, while the indoor components last half that amount of time. However, installation is costly as it involves drilling or digging. On average, installation for a home can cost between $25,000 to $45,000, even with available rebates and incentives from the government.

Wyent explained that the primary factor inhibiting him from discussing geothermal with others is the initial expenses. However, if you have the means to cover the upfront cost and intend to reside in your home for an extended period, it’s definitely worth considering due to its exceptional efficiency.

When looking at geothermal and air-source models, it is evident that the latter consumes more energy, has a lifespan of approximately 15 years, and experiences reduced efficiency in extremely cold temperatures. However, air-source models are generally much cheaper, making them a more popular choice and surpassing sales of gas boilers in the previous year. This was a major factor in our decision. (Note that none of the geothermal installers I spoke to were especially persuasive. In fact, a couple of them outright advised against it.)

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Due to our home’s current use of baseboard heaters instead of ducts, we were drawn towards a “mini split” system. This system utilizes a condenser that is placed outdoors, along with an indoor unit known as a “head” that contains a thermostat and a fan to disperse hot or cold air. The initial contractor we consulted with proposed installing two condensers outside and five heads throughout our home. He also advised using systems specifically designed for harsher climates, ensuring operation in temperatures below freezing.

However, the person did not continue with sending a quote. The following proposal was priced at $25,950, which seemed to be expensive. We obtained two additional evaluations, with the lowest one costing $19,637. This figure consisted of several state discounts that were applied during the buying process. Additionally, if we include a $2,500 city subsidy and the $2,000 IRA credit we will receive during tax season, the total expense would be approximately $15,000.

However, there was a problem: we were informed that if we used heat pumps, our electricity costs would skyrocket. According to Efficiency Vermont, the energy efficiency agency for the state, the system would use around 10,000 kilowatt-hours (kWh) per year for just heating. At our current rate of $0.17/kWh, this would equate to an annual spending of $1,700, significantly higher than the $1,100 we would normally spend on gas for heating.

This would result in heat pumps being too costly to use.


As we considered how to make heat pumps more economic, we thought of the sun. It generates an abundant amount of energy that can power the entire world, and every gigawatt of energy we harness from the sun can reduce hundreds of thousands of tons of greenhouse gas emissions. The United States is utilizing this vast resource more and more, increasing from 5 gigawatts in 2011 to over 145 gigawatts in 2022. According to the Solar Energy Industries Association, 7% of all homes in the country now have solar panels installed. We hoped that becoming one of these homes would assist in decreasing our energy expenses.

We inquired with our neighbors about the company who installed their system. A friendly salesperson then visited us to give us an estimated cost. He pointed out that the peak of our roof had a wavy ridge cap, a clear indication that it needs to be replaced. Since the solar panels we plan to install have a 25-year warranty, it would be better to address the issue now rather than facing the costly task of removing and replacing the panels in the future. This prompted me to contact other roofing companies for additional quotes. The best offer we received was $10,000. Although it meant taking on another project and expense, it was necessary in order to have solar energy.

After resolving our roofing issues, we discovered that the original owners of the solar company had left and closed down the business. We had to deal with a different installer, SunCommon, and ultimately chose a 26-panel system that could produce 10,530 kilowatt-hours for a cost of $31,765 before rebates. This price was slightly lower than the average per watt cost in our region, and significantly lower than the initial estimate given by the company. This was a successful outcome from our negotiations.

Vermont does not provide incentives for the installation of photovoltaic panels. However, the Internal Revenue Agency (IRA) has extended the federal tax credit of 30% until 2032. This means our eventual expense will be $22,236. The installer suggested that we could include the cost of the roof in the tax credit, but our accountant informed us that this is not allowed according to IRS regulations. Despite this myth being widespread, it has been debunked by solar companies and Reddit users. Our next step was to have SunCommon verify that the estimated system output based on satellite images was accurate for our roof.

On a gloomy morning in December, a technician came to our house. He got some gadgets, tools, and a ladder from his truck and then spent about two hours testing and inspecting our roof. Did we follow all the rules for how far away the panels should be from the edge of the roof? Could our rafters hold the panels? How much sunlight did our roof get? The answers to these questions and more would impact the amount of energy our panels could produce.

The outcome would prompt one of the most difficult choices in our adventure.

Every spring, black locust trees rapidly grow leaves and take on a bushy appearance. In our backyard, there are more than 12 of these beautiful, towering trees that provide shelter for various birds and animals. When winter comes, they also become a roost for a group of crows. These trees are over 100 feet tall and create large shadows, but not enough to reach the front of the house. With 14 solar panels in that area, they would only be able to absorb 83% of the sun’s rays. However, the 12 panels in the back of the house would only receive enough sunlight to operate at 55% efficiency, which is significantly lower than what SunCommon recommends for a worthwhile installation.

Our current setup, shielded by an abundance of foliage, is estimated to generate only 6,900kWh annually, significantly lower than the projected amount by the manufacturer. Removing approximately six trees could potentially result in a gain of 2,000kWh per year, but this would have negative impacts on both our finances and the environment, as trees act as natural carbon sinks. Additionally, my wife would rather lose a limb of her own than unnecessarily cut down a tree.

After making the decision for the black locusts to remain in place, we were able to gather sufficient information to determine the expense of electrification and assess its value.

My spreadsheet, named HOME DECARBONIZATION, is organized with all caps and has three tabs. Two of them compare the advantages of using different sizes of solar arrays – covering the entire roof or just the sunnier front side – while the third tab focuses on various heat pump configurations. Despite its small size, it took me hours to create. I found myself waking up at odd hours to adjust equations, tweak parameters, or analyze the data in hopes of finding an answer. It was frustrating to realize that, as Lis from Northeast Energy Efficiency Partnerships mentioned, the ideal scenario of an “easy and affordable” solution to decarbonization is still far from reality.

Despite the advantages of having a renewable energy-powered home, the cost can be overwhelming for many. To tackle this issue, the IRA has allocated billions of dollars towards supporting those who may struggle to afford the switch from fossil fuels. This funding is expected to become accessible in the near future and could potentially cover the entire cost of eco-friendly appliances, such as heat pumps or induction stoves, for low-income households. Certain locations also offer financing options based on income, such as Vermont’s program which offers a 0% interest rate.

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One of Wyent’s favorite suggestions, that almost anyone can take, is to buy an induction hot plate, often for less than $100. They are essentially a single-burner induction stove and, she said, “an electrification project that works for renters, too”. Energy audits are another great place to start, she suggested, as they can pay for themselves in utilities savings (plus there’s a federal tax credit of up to $150). But even for homeowners ready to take larger steps, the process can entail a lot of hand-wringing.

Wyent mentioned that more guides would be beneficial, so I pulled up my spreadsheet to assist with navigating the maze.

After adjusting the cells, it became evident that choosing to switch to solar power would be most financially beneficial if we installed the complete system. While it may seem appealing to only place panels on the front, the cost of installation would not decrease proportionally. This is due to fixed expenses such as design, permitting, and wiring, which would make each panel less expensive if the entire system were installed. Assuming the panels operate for the full 25 year warranty period, going all-in would guarantee an electricity rate of $0.136 for 6,900 kWh per year. However, only installing panels on the front would result in a higher electricity rate of $0.142.

Based on an expected annual increase in electric rates of 2.28% and an annual degradation of system productivity of 0.5%, I projected that the full system would yield a return in approximately 17 years and save over $14,000 in energy costs after 25 years. This results in an annual return of around 2% on our initial investment.

Labor costs for repairs and early roof replacement are not included in the warranty, only parts are covered. If the system is financed at the current interest rates, which are approximately 7%, the financial gains would be reduced. Paying with cash also has its own downsides, such as the opportunity cost of investing that money in the stock market, where long-term returns can be higher than 8%.

Perhaps most relevantly, the climate benefits of going solar are limited in Vermont, because the grid is already so clean. Rewiring America’s model showed that our system would eliminate about a ton of carbon emissions annually, or roughly what a car generates driving 2,500 miles. Given our other concerns – from aggressive sales tactics to the need to replace our roof – we decided to hold off until we can find a way of bringing the overall price down. We may also explore community solar, which allows individuals to invest in larger projects.

According to Wyent, your current location is not ideal for economically beneficial rooftop solar systems. This technology is more practical for those living in different areas; for example, she resides in California and projects that a household with a monthly electricity bill of $500 in Los Angeles can save $62,000 over a span of 20 years with a $0 solar loan. Choosing to invest in this technology solely based on financial gains is a wise decision.


Even though we were disappointed about the solar option not being feasible, we were relieved that we didn’t have to spend a large sum of money just before our baby was due. However, we were still hopeful about using heat pumps. Unfortunately, the calculations involved were more complicated, so we sought assistance from Efficiency Vermont. Shortly after, Matt Sharpe, the senior engineering consultant, pointed out that our design, which consisted of two condensers and five heads, was not as efficient as it could be.

According to Sharpe, the optimal ratio for air-source heat pumps is to have one outdoor unit for every indoor unit. This ensures consistent and efficient operation, as opposed to short, ineffective cycles. However, this may not always be feasible, especially for larger systems like ours. In such cases, Sharpe suggested installing three condensers, one on each floor, and utilizing attic ductwork to reach the upstairs bedrooms. This alternative would not only be neater, but also consume 30% less energy compared to the original proposal. Although the revised system would cost an additional $3,000, the city provides a $1,750 rebate for ducted systems like this. Furthermore, making this switch would result in a yearly heating cost reduction of about $600, bringing it down to approximately $1,100 and accelerating the payback period.

According to experts, if more people switch from natural gas to heat pumps, the operating costs for heat pumps would eventually become comparable to those of a gas boiler. Additionally, this transition could lead to long-term savings for consumers. However, as fewer people rely on natural gas, its remaining customers may see an increase in costs at a higher rate compared to electricity rates. Lis stated that both options are expected to become more expensive, but electricity rates have historically remained more consistent than natural gas prices.

However, it was unlikely that we would recover our $15,000 spent on heat pumps through operational savings alone. This does not factor in the daily gas hookup fee of 88 cents that we pay to keep the boiler on standby, as advised by Efficiency Vermont for the first couple of winters to ensure that the heat pumps can effectively operate on the coldest days. (We intend to continue using the baseboard heaters on the first floor for a little while longer for this purpose.)

The ductwork and wiring will have a longer life than the heat pumps, saving us from having to spend more money in the future. We will eventually be able to remove the unattractive baseboard heaters and have more flexibility in arranging our furniture. Additionally, the heat pumps will also provide air conditioning, which we had been considering purchasing due to increasingly hot Vermont summers. This will be a cost we can avoid.

Without factoring in one-time costs, the cost of our heat pumps totals approximately $10,000. If our boiler was inoperable, choosing a gas system and air conditioner would have been a simple decision, as it would have cost around the same amount. However, since our boiler still has the potential to last for another 10-20 years, this justification becomes less relevant. From an environmental standpoint, switching away from gas would be highly beneficial.

According to Wyent, the heat pump is the most effective way to reduce emissions in your home. Over 15 years, our heat pump could prevent around 54 tons of carbon dioxide emissions. A study published in Nature in 2022 determined the cost of societal damage caused by each metric ton to be $185, making the switch to a heat pump a financially responsible decision at $9,990 saved. Furthermore, studies have shown that individuals are more likely to make environmentally friendly changes if they witness others doing so.

In the end, we completed the necessary documents.

Shortly before Christmas, a payment was made to Phillip Martin from Red Merle Mechanical and his services were booked for the beginning of January. We then informed the electrician that they would be responsible for connecting the heat pumps –this discussion made me nervous.

He requested the model numbers for the devices, calculated on his own, and phoned me again. I remember him telling me, “I have some unfortunate news.” The additional appliances in our home – the oven, laundry machine, heating pumps, and electric car charger – were exceeding the maximum capacity of our 200 amp panel. This was the exact issue that Wyent had warned could occur, and we would need to pay at least $5,000 for an upgraded panel.

I was on the verge of cancelling the entire project due to the terror it caused me. However, I contacted Sharpe at Efficiency Vermont during my state of panic and he was able to alleviate my concerns. He explained that the issue is a common one and can easily be fixed with a circuit splitter. This device allows two appliances to share one breaker, reducing the maximum load on the panel. This means that two high-powered appliances, such as an induction stove and an electric vehicle charger, can safely be used at different times. Installing a circuit splitter would only cost $750.

After avoiding disaster, Martin arrived in his white truck and towed a trailer filled with gleaming heat pump components. His initial task was to install the ductwork in the attic and create ventilation holes in the ceilings. We coordinated the project to coincide with our absence from the house, so as not to inconvenience Martin. I received a text notifying me that the thick plaster ceilings in our home were causing drill bits and saw blades to wear down quickly. Eventually, he was able to break through and install the ducts, and then neatly arranged the condensers under the deck. We returned home just in time for the final wiring.

“I am unsure of who is more thrilled, either you or me,” Martin remarked while adjusting the settings on the thermostat. Suddenly, the heat pumps came to life, emitting a warm rush of air. The gentle hum of a fan filled the room, replacing the noisy clanking of our old baseboard system. The next morning, my spouse and I used a saw to disconnect the water lines connected to the upstairs baseboard heaters, and discarded them outside. This allowed us to finally create a nursery for our baby. And, as we completed this cathartic task, we made the decision to no longer rely on natural gas. As a final step, I switched off the boiler.

Unexpectedly, I received a call. Our neighbor noticed Martin’s truck parked in our driveway and asked to hire him. In a matter of weeks, she also had heat pumps installed. My father plans to be next, according to him.

Source: theguardian.com