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Charted: Home Heating Systems in the U.S.



Charted: Home Heating Systems in the U.S.

This was originally published on April 25, 2022, on Elements.

Fossil fuel combustion for the heating of commercial and residential buildings accounts for roughly 13% of annual greenhouse gas emissions in the United States.

Decarbonizing the U.S. economy requires a switch from fossil fuel-combusting heating solutions to renewable energy sources that generate electricity.

Currently, the majority of new homes in the U.S. still combust natural gas for heating through forced-air furnaces or boilers. Just like cars need to be electric, homes will need to switch to electricity-powered heating systems that use renewable energy sources.

The graphic above uses census data to break down the different heating systems and fuels that are warming the 911,000 single-family homes built in the U.S. in 2020.

Types of Home Heating Systems

Most American homes use one of the following three heating systems:

  • Forced-air Furnaces: These typically have a burner in a furnace that is fueled by natural gas. A blower forces cold air through a heat exchanger which warms it up before it flows through ducts that heat the home with air as the medium.
  • Heat Pumps: The most common type of heat pumps are air-source heat pumps, which collect hot air from outside the home and concentrate it before pumping it through ducts that heat the air inside. They are usually powered by electricity. During warmer months, heat pumps can reverse themselves to cool the home, transferring hot air from the inside to the outdoors.
  • Hot Water/Steam: These systems typically work by boiling water (or generating steam) to the appropriate temperature using gas and sending it through a home’s pipes to radiators that heat the air.

How Home Heating Fuels Have Changed

U.S. home heating has been going through a transition over the last two decades. Electricity has steadily been replacing gas and biofuel/wood-powered home heating systems for new homes, and powers almost half of the heating systems in single-family homes built in 2020.

Here’s how the share of heat sources for new houses changed between 2000 and 2020:

Fuel2000 % of Heating for New Homes2020 % of Heating for New Homes

Percentages may not add to 100 due to rounding.

While electricity’s share has grown since 2000, most American homes are still heated with gas largely because of the fossil fuel’s affordability.

According to the U.S. Energy Information Administration (EIA), households relying on gas for space heating are expected to spend an average of $746 over the winter months, compared to $1,268 for electricity, and $1,734 for heating oil.

Heating in Newly-Built Houses Today

Of the 911,000 new single-family homes, 538,000 houses installed forced-air furnaces. Of these, 83% or nearly 450,000 homes used gas as the primary heating source, with 16% opting for electrified furnaces. By contrast, 88% of the 353,000 homes that installed heat pumps relied on electricity.

Here’s how the heating systems and fuels break down for single-family homes built in 2020:

System UsedHouses Built in 2020% Powered by Gas% Powered by Electricity% Powered by Other
Forced-Air Furnace538,00083%16%<0.5%
Heat Pump353,00012%88%0%
Hot Water/Steam8,00089%5%7%

Percentages may not add to 100 due to rounding.

Fewer than 1% of new single-family homes used hot water or steam systems, and the majority of those that did relied on gas as the primary fuel. Around 1.3% of new homes used other systems like electric baseboard heaters, smaller space heaters, panel heaters, or radiators.

While gas remains the dominant heating source today, efforts to decarbonize the U.S. economy could further prompt a shift towards electricity-based heating systems, with electric heat pumps likely taking up a larger piece of the pie.

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Visualized: How the Power Grid Works

How does electricity get from the power plant to our homes? This infographic illustrates how the power grid works.



how does the power grid work?

How Does the Power Grid Work?

Electricity is critical to our daily lives, but how does it get from the power plant to our homes?

The power grid is a complex interconnected system that powers the entire economy by carrying electricity from the source of generation and delivering it to our homes, offices, and factories. Sometimes referred to as “the world’s largest machine”, the grid is an important engineering marvel for the modern economy.

The above infographic from the National Public Utilities Council explains how the power grid works and highlights the three key components that make up the grid.

#1: Electricity Generation

The grid begins with power plants that generate electricity, typically owned and operated by public, private, or investor-owned utilities.

More than 11,000 power plants comprise the U.S. grid, generating over 4 trillion kilowatt-hours (kWh) of electricity annually. These are fueled by various energy sources:

Energy Source2021 Electricity Generation (billion kWh)% of Total
Natural Gas1,57538%

Source: Energy Information Administration (EIA)

Natural gas and coal together accounted for 60% of annual electricity generation in 2021, followed by nuclear power. Wind was the largest renewable energy source, making up 10% of renewable electricity generation.

Each power generation technology has a different role to play in the larger power grid. For example, coal and nuclear power plants that cannot easily adjust their output are known as baseload power plants. Their output remains roughly the same throughout the day, and they are typically used to deliver the minimum amount of power needed to keep the grid running.

On the other hand, power generation from natural gas and intermittent renewable sources like wind and solar fluctuates throughout the day, typically peaking in the evenings when demand is at its highest. Natural gas plants are especially useful in meeting peaks in demand because their output can be adjusted relatively quickly.

#2: Transmission

After generation, electricity travels from power plants to centers of demand through a process known as transmission.

First, the electricity is sent from power plants to substations where step-up transformers convert it to extremely high voltages for transmission. High-voltage conversions help minimize how much electricity is lost as heat during transmission, which is roughly 5% in the United States. The higher the voltage, the less electricity is lost.

Transmission lines then carry this high-voltage electricity across long distances and are often interconnected across states. Line voltages can vary from 69,000 volts (69 kV) to 765kV, and transmission lines can be both overhead and underground.

Here’s a map of all high-voltage (345kV or greater) U.S. transmission lines:

map of U.S. transmission lines

Source: U.S. Energy Atlas

Upgrading and expanding transmission infrastructure is key to achieving a decarbonized power grid, especially as utilities build solar and wind capacity in the sunniest and windiest parts of the country.

#3: Distribution and Consumption

Distribution is the final stage of delivering electricity, making up the last major component of the grid.

Simply put, distribution begins when transmission ends. It is the process of transporting power from the transmission system to individual customers. First, step-down transformers convert the high-voltage power from transmission lines into lower voltages that are suitable for use.

These transformers are connected to distribution poles, which are typically made of wood and used to carry electricity within centers of demand. There are about 180 million distribution poles in the U.S., and it’s likely that you encounter one every day, especially if you live in a city.

Distribution lines and poles deliver electricity to end consumers including households, office buildings, factories, and electric vehicles. Here’s a look at U.S. electricity sales to each end-use sector in 2021:

Sector2021 retail electricity sales (billion kWh)% of Total
Residential 🏠1,48039%
Commercial 🏢1,32035%
Industrial 🏭98726%
Transportation 🚙60.2%

Source: EIA

Heating and cooling are the largest residential electricity uses. In the commercial sector, refrigeration and computers and office equipment account for over a quarter of electricity use. The transportation sector is by far the smallest electricity consumer, but these figures may change as electric vehicle sales rise.

At all times, the amount of electricity sent through the grid must match demand from end-use sectors. This is because all grids operate at a particular frequency (60 hertz in the United States). Excess power supply or demand can destabilize this frequency, potentially damaging grid infrastructure and triggering blackouts.

Modernizing the Power Grid

Just like machines that get old and need greasing, the U.S. power grid is aging and it needs an upgrade, especially as the power sector works to achieve 100% clean electricity by 2035.

The demand for electricity could accelerate in a scenario with high electrification, which involves switching from fossil fuel-powered technologies to electrical ones. For instance, one form of electrification is switching from gas-powered cars to electric cars.

To meet the growing demand for electricity, especially from clean energy sources, the U.S. will need to expand its transmission capacity and invest in modernizing the grid. In fact, reaching 100% clean electricity by 2035 could require anywhere from $330 billion to $740 billion in additional power system expenditures, according to a study by NREL.

Ultimately, upgrading and decarbonizing the grid are both pivotal to the U.S.’ climate goals, and this requires action from all stakeholders, from electric utilities to the government and end consumers.

The National Public Utilities Council is a collaborative body of industry experts coming together to solve decarbonization challenges in the power sector and the proud sponsor of the Decarbonization Channel.

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Ranked: Emissions per Capita of the Top 30 U.S. Investor-Owned Utilities



Emissions per Capita of the Top 30 U.S. Investor-Owned Utilities

Approximately 25% of all U.S. greenhouse gas emissions (GHG) come from electricity generation.

Subsequently, this means investor-owned utilities (IOUs) will have a crucial role to play around carbon reduction initiatives. This is particularly true for the top 30 IOUs, where almost 75% of utility customers get their electricity from.

This infographic from the National Public Utilities Council ranks the largest IOUs by emissions per capita. By accounting for the varying customer bases they serve, we get a more accurate look at their green energy practices. Here’s how they line up.

Per Capita Rankings

The emissions per capita rankings for the top 30 investor-owned utilities have large disparities from one another.

Totals range from a high of 25.8 tons of CO2 per customer annually to a low of 0.5 tons.

UtilityEmissions Per Capita (CO2 tons per year)Total Emissions (M)
OGE Energy21.518.2
AES Corporation19.849.9
Southern Company18.077.8
Alliant Energy14.414.1
DTE Energy14.229.0
Berkshire Hathaway Energy14.057.2
WEC Energy13.522.2
Xcel Energy11.943.3
Duke Energy11.188.9
Dominion Energy11.037.8
PPL Corporation10.729.6
PNM Resources10.05.3
American Electric Power9.250.9
Consumers Energy8.716.1
NRG Energy8.229.8
Florida Power and Light8.041.0
Portland General Electric7.66.9
Fortis Inc.6.112.6
Consolidated Edison1.66.3
Pacific Gas and Electric0.52.6
Next Era Energy Resources01.1

PNM Resources data is from 2019, all other data is as of 2020

Let’s start by looking at the higher scoring IOUs.


TransAlta emits 25.8 tons of CO2 emissions per customer, the largest of any utility on a per capita basis. Altogether, the company’s 630,000 customers emit 16.3 million metric tons. On a recent earnings call, its management discussed clear intent to phase out coal and grow their renewables mix by doubling their renewables fleet. And so far it appears they’ve been making good on their promise, having shut down the Canadian Highvale coal mine recently.


Vistra had the highest total emissions at 97 million tons of CO2 per year and is almost exclusively a coal and gas generator. However, the company announced plans for 60% reductions in CO2 emissions by 2030 and is striving to be carbon neutral by 2050. As the highest total emitter, this transition would make a noticeable impact on total utility emissions if successful.

Currently, based on their 4.3 million customers, Vistra sees per capita emissions of 22.4 tons a year. The utility is a key electricity provider for Texas, ad here’s how their electricity mix compares to that of the state as a whole:

Energy SourceVistraState of Texas

Despite their ambitious green energy pledges, for now only 1% of Vistra’s electricity comes from renewables compared to 24% for Texas, where wind energy is prospering.

Based on those scores, the average customer from some of the highest emitting utility groups emit about the same as a customer from each of the bottom seven, who clearly have greener energy practices. Let’s take a closer look at emissions for some of the bottom scoring entities.

Utilities With The Greenest Energy Practices

Groups with the lowest carbon emission scores are in many ways leaders on the path towards a greener future.


Exelon emits only 3.8 tons of CO2 emissions per capita annually and is one of the top clean power generators across the Americas. In the last decade they’ve reduced their GHG emissions by 18 million metric tons, and have recently teamed up with the state of Illinois through the Clean Energy Jobs Act. Through this, Exelon will receive $700 million in subsidies as it phases out coal and gas plants to meet 2030 and 2045 targets.

Consolidated Edison

Consolidated Edison serves nearly 4 million customers with a large chunk coming from New York state. Altogether, they emit 1.6 tons of CO2 emissions per capita from their electricity generation.

The utility group is making notable strides towards a sustainable future by expanding its renewable projects and testing higher capacity limits. In addition, they are often praised for their financial management and carry the title of dividend aristocrat, having increased their dividend for 47 years and counting. In fact, this is the longest out of any utility company in the S&P 500.

A Sustainable Tomorrow

Altogether, utilities will have a pivotal role to play in decarbonization efforts. This is particularly true for the top 30 U.S. IOUs, who serve millions of Americans.

Ultimately, this means a unique moment for utilities is emerging. As the transition toward cleaner energy continues and various groups push to achieve their goals, all eyes will be on utilities to deliver.

The National Public Utilities Council is a collaborative body of industry experts coming together to solve decarbonization challenges in the power sector and the proud sponsor of the Decarbonization Channel.

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National Public Utilities Council