Lose the Lawn, Add Some Solar Panels: Home Remodeling Key to Curbing Climate Change

Remodeling is slowing but Americans still are expected to spend billions on their homes

Americans have been spending record amounts of money on renovating their homes and redoing their gardens, whether replacing old gas fixtures in Massachusetts or ripping up green lawns in favor of native plants in drought-stricken California, and that work is even more critical with climate change.

Residential buildings account for about a fifth of all greenhouse gases that are emitted around the world, according to a United Nations report issued last year by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change. It found that the Earth was warming faster than thought, prompting officials to warn of unprecedented heat waves, water shortages and storms and the extinction of millions of plants and animals.

When homeowners remodel, there's a chance to improve the energy efficiency of houses and apartments, whether installing solar panels, adding insulation or replacing old appliances.

Though the pace of home remodeling is slowing, Americans still are expected to lay out $450 billion on improvements in the first half of next year, according to a report from the Remodeling Futures Program at the Joint Center for Housing Studies at Harvard University in Cambridge, Massachusetts.

“You want to incentivize the things that are more environmentally friendly,” said Carlos Martinez, the program’s director. “That’s where legislation, that’s where policy making actually does help.”

The Inflation Reduction Act, which President Joe Biden signed in August and which the White House says will help cut climate pollution in half by 2030, includes money to make home improvements more affordable. It will provide capital to state and local clean energy financing banks and provide tax credits for green home energy systems such as solar panels. 

In Boston, Edson Hilaire and his crew are focusing on replacing oil- and gas-fueled systems for ones that can draw on renewable energy. At one house in Weston, Massachusetts, which was built in the mid-1700s, they replaced old gas light fixtures and ran new wiring throughout, said Hilaire, the owner of EH Electric and HVAC.

Edson Hilaire and his crew are replacing systems fueled by oil and gas.
Edson Hilaire is busy with customers switching to electric energy and renewable fuels.

The state has some of the oldest homes in the country, with 70% built before 1960, and Hilaire worries the power grid will not be able to handle the conversions. The utility systems are archaic, and have to be upgraded.

"I don’t care if you are Democrat, if you are Republican,” Hilaire said. “You need this. We all need this.”

The Bipartisan Infrastructure Law enacted in 2021 includes $62 billion for improvements to the grid to be administered by the U.S. Department of Energy, including a $2.5 billion program created to build new transmission lines across the country. More than 70% of the country's grid transmission lines and power transformers are more than 25 years old, according to the Department of Energy. Electricity transmission systems will likely need to be expanded by 60% by 2030, and possibly tripled by 2050 to meet additional demand as the country moves toward greater use of electricity and away from fossil fuels.

The need for an updated electric grid has been acutely evident this summer in California, which is in the midst of a heat wave that is straining its ability to meet demand. The state declared a power grid emergency on Labor Day and continues to urge residents to limit their use of electricity.

Legislators in the state last month passed a record $54 billion in spending to cut greenhouse gas emissions and move away from fossil fuels. They approved new restrictions on drilling for oil and gas, mandated that the state stop adding carbon dioxide to the atmosphere by 2045 and extended operations at California's last nuclear plant, Diablo Canyon, for five years.

California, nearly all of which is in a severe to moderate drought, also has been at the forefront of water conservation, Martinez said. Those measures include water efficient toilets and faucets, restrictions on when to water gardens and of course, the increasingly popular native plantings.

Mike Garcia says that he is hearing from homeowners eager to save money on water during the extended drought in the West

Landscape designer Mike Garcia says more of his customers want to switch to native and drought resistant plants. Native plants not only need less water but also have deeper roots that stabilize the soil and attract pollinators. 

“Most people these days are calling because their water prices are going up so they want to know how to save water,” said Garcia, the owner of Enviroscape LA in Redondo Beach.

California residents and businesses are being paid to tear out the water guzzling lawns that for so long were the ideal. Two recent studies measured the success of the Turf Replacement Program from the Metropolitan Water District of Southern California, a consortium of 26 cities and water districts that provides drinking water to nearly 19 million people. One showed that for every 100 homes that used rebates to replace lawns another 132 nearby did the same without the money. The residents who lived close by were inspired to make the change after seeing what their neighbors had done. The second found that fewer than 4% of homeowners who received a rebate later replanted grass.

Applications for rebates have been rising month by month in 2022, from 223 applications in January to 1,172 in July.

The Turf Replacement Program pays $2 a square foot for front or back yards that are converted into more drought-friendly gardens based on native plants, while some local water agencies offer additional incentives. More than 200 million square feet of grass have been removed, saving enough water for 62,000 homes a year, according to the Metropolitan Water District.

Its replacement garden calls for three California friendly plants for each 100 square feet of what was lawn, a stormwater retention rock garden, rain barrel or similar feature, permeable hard surfaces that allow water to filter slowly into the ground and a water-efficient irrigation system that replaces or modifies overhead sprays.

One of Garcia's customers, Marie Hoffman, had become increasingly intrigued by native plants over the last decade and so when she renovating a house she was moving in to, she took on the garden too. She designed and Garcia planted it, she said.

"A garden has to feel like some place you want to go to and the benefit is saving water and creating a refuge for pollinators," said Hoffman, of the Hoffman Murphy real estate team in Hermosa Beach, California.

Hoffman's front and back gardens started out with grass, English ivy and roses in additional to her trees, among them a mission fig, an Indian ficus, a Brazilian pepper and a Canary Island palm. Today 75% of her gardens are comprised of native California plants and the remainder of drought resistant California friendly plants. She has yarrow, salvias, cuphea and butterfly bush, and garden boxes for vegetables.

During the COVID pandemic, she and her neighbors began socializing in the front of their houses, she said, and she has built a front patio.

"It makes happy to watch people's faces transform when they see what can be done with native plants and a little more hardscape, whether it be decomposed granite or flagstone or cement or whatever," she said.

For Garcia, the ideal garden includes native plants, fruits and vegetables and a few California friendly plants. Native plants for Los Angeles County, for example, include a desert willow or Engelmann oak and coffee berry shrubs and California buckwheat shrubs.

"Banana trees are great if you don't have a lot of room," Garcia said. "You can plant a lone banana tree."

Mike Garcia focuses on plants that will thrive naturally in California's climate.