Most of the energy we need to run our homes, schools and other buildings comes from burning fossil fuels, either in power plants to generate electricity or in the furnaces, stoves and other equipment in the buildings themselves. The fuels used can have impacts on indoor and outdoor air quality in and around your home.
Sources of Energy for Powering Buildings
Residential, institutional and commercial buildings use energy for heating, cooling, lighting and powering equipment and appliances. There are many different sources of that energy, and the mix of what’s in most common use changes in different parts of the country.
- Electricity provides roughly half of the energy consumed by homes and businesses. It can be used for heating, cooling and lighting, and powers all the things we plug into our outlets, from refrigerators to cell phone chargers.
- Natural gas (methane) is the second-most common source of energy used in buildings in the U.S. It is transported through a large pipeline supply system that serves many parts of the country. Gas is burned to produce heat in commercial boilers, furnaces, water heaters and stoves.
- Heating oil and propane are primarily used in the Northeastern U.S. and in rural areas. Heating oil is sold mainly for use in boilers and furnaces (for space heating) and in water heaters. Propane, also known as liquefied petroleum gas or LPG, is a byproduct of natural gas and petroleum refining and is used primarily in rural areas.
- Biomass is the term used for non-fossil fuels made from natural products, including wood, corn, paper residue and agricultural waste. Wood is an important source of heat for homes in some of the most rural parts of the country, and it is also burned for pleasure in wood stoves and fireplaces. Other types of biomass are primarily used in industrial settings.
- Other renewables like solar and geothermal that provide power directly to homes and commercial buildings rather than to the electrical grid make up a very small proportion of the overall energy use in buildings.
Emissions from Buildings Affect the Air We Breathe
All fuels that are burned to create energy release pollutants that can directly impact lung health and contribute to ground-level ozone and fine particle air pollution. While indoor sources contribute far less pollution nationwide than electric utilities and transportation, they can still be significant sources of dangerous pollutants, especially in a neighborhood.
Direct impacts. Emissions directly released include sulfur dioxide, nitrogen dioxide, and carbon monoxide, as well as hazardous pollutants that can cause cancer and other health problems. Even wood burning, one of the oldest sources of heat, produces gases known to cause cancer.
Particle Pollution. Particle pollution forms directly, seen as ash, soot, and dust, or indirectly, as gases like sulfur dioxide and nitrogen dioxide convert into particles once they reach the outside air. These particles are so tiny they can blow hundreds of miles from the source.
Ozone Pollution. Emissions of nitrogen dioxide and volatile organic compounds react in the air with other gases to form ozone, the nation's most widespread air pollutant. Ozone can also travel across thousands of miles.
Carbon Pollution. Direct greenhouse gas emissions from homes and businesses account for 13% of the total carbon pollution generated in the U.S. each year. This includes carbon dioxide and methane produced by burning fossil fuels for heat, hot water and cooking. If emissions from generating the electricity used in buildings are included, the building sector accounts for a much larger share of U.S. greenhouse gas emissions.
Clean Energy Sources Reduce Air Pollution and Protect Health
Making a transition to cleaner sources of energy to power our homes and businesses will reduce air pollution, improve health and slow climate change. Generating electricity using non-combustion renewable energy from the sun, wind and water is a critical component of reducing air pollution associated with the building sector.
It is also important to transition away from using fuel-burning appliances in the buildings themselves. Replacing furnaces, hot water heaters and cooking appliances that run on gas, wood, oil and propane with new, more efficient electric appliances such as heat pumps and induction stoves will save energy and reduce indoor air pollution that can harm health.
Policy to Clean Up Energy Sources Used in Buildings
The Lung Association advocates for policies that drive a nationwide transition to zero-emission sources of energy production that will reduce emissions from buildings. Learn more about our advocacy and policy work on the power sector and take action with our Healthy Air Campaign.
Page last updated: October 26, 2023