Dozens of advocates wear neon green in support of Howard County's building electrification bill at a Feb. 23 hearing. (Courtesy of HoCo Climate Action)
Dozens of advocates wear neon green in support of Howard County's building electrification bill at a Feb. 23 hearing. (Courtesy of HoCo Climate Action)

With new legislation passed on March 6, Howard County became the 100th local-level jurisdiction in the United States to adopt a policy encouraging or requiring fossil fuel-free buildings, according to tracking conducted by the Building Decarbonization Coalition. 

The Clean New Buildings Climate Act, which the County Council passed in a 4-1 vote, marks a starting point for the process of changing the county’s building codes to require electrification of all new buildings. 

“Building electrification and decarbonization is not a question of if — it is a question of when and how,” said Council Chair Christiana Rigby (D) during Monday’s legislative session. Rigby introduced the original bill in January.

The new law, officially titled CB5, represents a step toward county– and statewide climate goals. It requires the County Executive’s office to craft a report detailing what changes the county would need to make to its building code in order to require electrification of all new buildings. 

“Really the important part of this bill is actually reading that report and ensuring that we are making strides towards reducing carbon emissions in Howard County,” said Council member Deb Jung before voting yes on the bill. “Step one — a report. That will be done. Step two — how do we put that report into action. That’s going to take some heavy lifting.”

Howard County’s electrification law echoes similar policies passed last year around the region. In July, D.C. adopted legislation banning most uses of methane, or natural gas, in buildings constructed after 2026. That law, titled the Clean Energy DC Building Code Amendment Act, also requires buildings constructed after that year to be net-zero, creating as much energy as they consume.

In November, Montgomery County followed the District’s lead, passing a law requiring the county to craft an all-electric building code by the end of 2026. 

Doug Siglin, a volunteer organizer with Chesapeake Climate Action Network, worked on advocacy efforts for all three of the recently-passed building electrification bills in the DMV region. 

“Hundreds of letters and emails were submitted [to the Howard County Council],” Siglin said. “We all got green T-shirts that said ‘be a real climate leader’ on them… There was just a high degree of citizen participation that helped to make this happen over the objection of the industry and the trade associations.”

A Multifaceted Organizing Approach

Dozens of advocates showed up to council hearings for the bill in the neon green shirts. The effort, spearheaded by HoCo Climate Action, drew support from more than 15 coalition partners, including not just environmental nonprofits but also several faith groups and the immigrant support organization CASA. 

Some organizations that do not usually address climate issues have focused attention on building electrification because of the public health impacts associated with gas appliances. For example, a recent study published in the International Journal of Environmental Research and Public Health found that one in eight childhood asthma cases in the U.S. can be attributed to gas stove use. Burning gas for cooking can release unhealthy levels of nitrogen dioxide into the kitchen. 

“It’s just very close to all of us — I mean, certainly transportation and other sectors are also very important, but people make food in their kitchens, over an open flame,” said Joelle Novey, director of the DMV chapter of the faith-based climate advocacy group Interfaith Power and Light. “But it’s increasingly clear that this poses immediate dangers to people’s health, and that it is imposing real, tangible health risks onto the children we are cooking food for in those kitchens.”

The coalition supporting Howard County’s electrification law was also multigenerational, with supporters ranging from high schoolers to retirees. Siglin said he saw much more involvement from students in Howard County than in the building electrification campaigns in either D.C. or Montgomery County. 

A letter to the council in support of the bill received 180 signatures from Howard County high school students, and more than 20 students submitted individual letters. In one such letter, River Hill High School sophomore Sara Khan described visiting family in Pakistan over the summer when devastating floods hit. The rains set off a monthslong humanitarian crisis in the country, killing more than 1700 people and displacing almost 8 million. 

“Massive floods destroyed the city I was in and we could not leave our building,” Khan wrote. “If we do not work to curb our carbon emissions, the tragedy in Pakistan will become commonplace. I recognize that carbon emissions are a global problem with global impacts but the solution happens at the local level with bills like CB5.”

Howard County has seen its share of climate change impacts, too. In July 2016, torrential rains hit Ellicott City and caused flash flooding that killed two people and destroyed many buildings along the town’s main street. The water — gushing from overflowing river tributaries nearby — swept cars down streets and ripped up swaths of pavement. 

Scientists said the 2016 rainstorm was a once-in-a-thousand-years event. But two years later, the city saw more catastrophic flash flooding, which killed one person and once again created a river out of Main Street. Ellicott City, built around three Tiber River tributaries and at the bottom of a hill, has always struggled with flooding. But climate change has made heavy rainfall events both more common and more extreme.

“It’s increasingly, I think, self-evident to everyone on Earth: we’re in a climate crisis,” Novey said. “And we are inviting folks to think about what they’re called to do about that in their homes, in their communities.”

Bringing Momentum to the State-Level Climate Fight

The Maryland legislature passed one of the most ambitious climate laws in the nation last spring. Advocates celebrated the Climate Solutions Now Act of 2022 for centering environmental justice and setting a goal of net-zero carbon emissions by 2045. But one provision, which would have banned fossil fuel use in new buildings, disappeared from the legislation before its final passage. 

Liz Feighner, an activist with HoCo Climate Action, said that after the plan fell through at the state level, her organization had pivoted back to advocating for the policy at the Howard County level.

“The thought is, if we can get counties to electrify, then that might help make it easier to keep the momentum going to get it at the state level,” Feighner said. 

This year, many climate advocates have focused attention on another aspect of the building electrification fight — gas appliance replacements. The federal Inflation Reduction Act, passed in August 2022, provides significant cash rebates for low- and moderate-income families to buy electric stoves, water heaters and heat pumps. Activists have urged state and local governments to make sure that money can reach the people who need it.

“The real work is about helping Marylanders who are increasingly concerned about having gas appliances in their homes be able to make those switches,” Novey said. “And [making sure] that we don’t just help the most motivated, most privileged, most affluent Marylanders switch and leave everybody else behind.”

Still, Novey said that adopting policies to stop new fossil fuel-powered buildings from being constructed is an obvious first step. Completing retrofits and replacements will be a far more expensive task. Many feel that, now that the health and climate harms of gas-powered homes are known, it makes little sense to keep creating new buildings reliant on fossil fuels. 

“Let’s stop digging the hole,” Feighner said.

Kayla Benjamin

Kayla Benjamin covers climate change & environmental justice for the Informer as a full-time reporter through the Report for America program. Prior to her time here, she worked at Washingtonian Magazine...

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