This post was originally published on The Washington Informer

By Kayla Benjamin

This summer, the D.C. Council passed two major bills aimed at reducing the city’s emissions and leading the nation on tackling climate change. Two more environmental bills, introduced last month by Ward 6 Council member Charles Allen (D) and several colleagues, seem aimed at continuing the momentum. 

One proposal envisions providing 30,000 low-income households with electric home appliances to replace gas-burning stoves and heaters, installed at no cost to the resident, by 2040. The other seeks to get 7,500 public electric vehicle charging stations up and running in the District by 2027. Currently, D.C. has around 250 public chargers.

“We’re not going to get anywhere close to where we’ve got to go if we just kind of soft-pedal our goals,” Allen said. “Usually legislation gets watered down as it moves its way through the process—so you start bold.”

Only a few short weeks remain in the current Council term. Allen plans to reintroduce the bills in January, but explained he wanted to “start the conversation” as early as possible to seek feedback from citizens and interest groups. 

Even if passed, the legislation will likely change significantly. Allen said he expects opposition from fossil fuel companies like Washington Gas, though a company spokesperson said in an email they were still reviewing the legislation. 

Funding for both bills comes from Congress, which made billions of federal dollars available for climate projects in the last two years.

“There’s a lot of federal money coming, and if somebody’s asleep at the switch, we’re going to miss it,” Allen said. 

Switching away from gas: why it matters for health and justice

Buildings are the District’s biggest emissions source, partly because of continued use of gas, so switching homes to electric appliances will help reduce the city’s climate impact. But removing gas-burning appliances also matters for residents’ health and finances. 

Burning gas for cooking and heating releases nitrogen dioxide and other pollutants. One study found that children in households that use gas stoves for cooking are 42% more likely to have asthma.

Most people don’t know that cooking with gas is unhealthy. When you’re working to keep a roof over your head, that’s the last thing you even think about.

Rosa Lee, a River Terrace resident and WIN advocate

The Washington Interfaith Network (WIN) and the D.C. Sierra Club worked with Allen’s office on the home electrification bill. Volunteers from both groups are working with Maryland and D.C. residents to test home kitchens for nitrogen dioxide while the stove is in use. In the first 41 homes tested, more than 40% showed levels higher than the Environmental Protection Agency’s acceptable level.

“Most people don’t know that cooking with gas is unhealthy,” Rosa Lee, a River Terrace resident and WIN advocate, said. “When you’re working to keep a roof over your head, that’s the last thing you even think about.”

In the District, Black residents experience significantly higher rates of respiratory issues than White residents. Asthma-related emergency room trips are 30 times more frequent in Southeast neighborhoods than in Northwest. Gas appliances are just one of many factors, including housing quality and outdoor air pollution, that contribute to higher asthma risks. 

Switching to more efficient electric stoves, water heaters, and heating systems can also save households money on utility bills. Allen said he sees the home electrification proposal as an economic justice measure in addition to its health and environmental benefits. The draft legislation would require the Department of Energy and Environment to provide 30,000 households making less than $80,000 a year with free electric appliances by 2040; the first 5,000 would need to be completed by 2025. 

“We’re talking about being able to afford our city and making sure your kids and grandkids grow up healthy,” Allen said. “And frankly, we’re talking about neighborhoods that have gotten the short end of the stick almost every time.”

Electric vehicle chargers: keeping equity on the radar

Equity is also emphasized in the other bill Allen introduced last month, which aims to expand a current pilot program to add thousands of public electric vehicle charging stations into D.C. over the next five years. The bill specifies that the District Department of Transportation should prioritize sites likely to serve low- and moderate-income residents, among other considerations. Of the first 50 charging stations set up under the program, each Ward would get at least four. 

Of the chargers currently in the District, very few are in Wards 7 or 8. Antoine Thompson, executive director of the Greater Washington Region Clean Cities Coalition, points out that this creates a chicken-and-egg situation. Even as electric vehicles get cheaper, people won’t buy them if there are no chargers close by—but chargers are less likely to be installed in places where few drivers use them. 

“Let’s not make the people that live in Wards 7, 8 and 5 be the last communities to get electric vehicles or readily available access to EV chargers,” Thompson said. “Let’s not let that become the reality.”

But historically, funding for bikes and pedestrians, compared to what we invest in infrastructure for car drivers? It’s pennies.

Jeremiah Lowery, the advocacy director for the Washington Area Bicyclist Association

Thompson said Allen’s proposal has some gaps that will make it harder to address those equity concerns. He emphasized a need for government funding to help homeowners re-do their house’s electric systems to accommodate the charging stations that wealthier households can install. Mostly, he wants the District to keep pushing for more public, curbside charging options. 

Not everyone is on board with devoting more spending to highways and cars—electric or not. Advocates for sustainable development have long argued that better transit infrastructure, not cleaner cars, is the way forward on climate change. Allen, who also introduced a major transit bill earlier this year, said he believes the city needs to devote resources to EVs and transit at the same time.

“I hear what he’s saying; yes, we can do both,” said Jeremiah Lowery, the advocacy director for the Washington Area Bicyclist Association. “But historically, funding for bikes and pedestrians, compared to what we invest in infrastructure for car drivers? It’s pennies.”

Still, Lowery said he’d like to see the bill eventually pass—preferably with bike chargers included.

Two Climate Change Proposals to Watch

Neither proposals, introduced just weeks ago, will pass before the Council term ends. Council member Charles Allen plans to bring them back up in January to truly start the legislative process. 

Healthy Housing and Residential Electrification Amendment Act of 2022

What does the proposal envision?

  1. Providing no-cost retrofits for 30,000 low-income homes with electric appliances to replace gas-burning stoves, water heaters, and heating units by 2040
  2. Implementing fees for fossil fuel-burning appliances installed during major renovations
  3. Preventing D.C. Housing Authority from installing new fossil fuel-burning appliances in public housing
  4. Establishing a Methane Free Homes Advisory Council with both government and community representatives

What city agency would be most involved?

  • Department of Energy and Environment

Who co-introduced it?

  • Council members Charles Allen, Brianne Nadeau, Janeese Lewis George, Trayon White, Sr., Robert White, Jr., Mary Cheh, and Brooke Pinto

Comprehensive Electric Vehicle Infrastructure Access, Readiness, and Sustainability Amendment Act of 2022

What does the proposal envision?

  1. Adding more than 7,000 public electric vehicle chargers to the District by 2027
  2. Creating a grant program for District residents, nonprofits, and small businesses to get funding for charger installations
  3. Requiring all newly built apartment buildings with parking lots and homes with driveways or garages to include infrastructure that can accommodate EV chargers
  4. Allowing renters and condo owners to install EV chargers if they can meet safety requirements

What city agency would be most involved?

  • District Department of Transportation

Who co-introduced it?

  • Council members Charles Allen, Christina Henderson, Mary Cheh, Janeese Lewis George, Brooke Pinto, Vincent Gray, Robert White, Jr., Brianne Nadeau, and Chairman Phil Mendelson

The post D.C. Council’s Next Climate Moves — And Why They Might Matter for Equity in the District appeared first on The Washington Informer.