Pierre Delforge, an NRDC senior scientist, describes an historic decision by the city of Berkeley, California that requires electrification of all new buildings — and the trend it may foretell.
In a first for California and the nation, the Berkeley, CA, City Council passed a historic ordinance last night requiring that new buildings be built all-electric beginning Jan. 1, 2020. This new law means no gas hook-ups will be installed in new houses, apartments, and commercial buildings. Existing buildings are not affected.
The city across the bay from San Francisco is not alone in pushing to reduce the use of gas, which is currently used for heating in 90% of California homes, and is a major source of pollution that harms our health and the environment. More than 50 other California cities are exploring the use of local building codes and ordinances to encourage or require all-electric new construction, paving the way for all of California, and other states, to follow suit in eliminating fossil-fuel heating sources from buildings.
The efforts are driven primarily by the urgency of slashing carbon pollution, which was highlighted by the last year’s Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change report that said we have 12 years to contain the increase in global warming to 1.5 degrees, and made more real for California residents by the tragic wildfires that killed more than 100 people in the state during the past two years.
What happened in Berkeley
The proposal by Councilmember Kate Harrison passed unanimously, and was also supported by dozens of members of the public, including residents, business owners, building designers and architects, a representative from the University of California, the local community choice energy provider East Bay Community Energy, and even a representative of Pacific Gas & Electric, who said that PG&E has no interest in investing in new gas infrastructure that would get stranded before the end of its life.
To preempt concerns about electric cookstoves, Councilmember Harrison’s staff even demonstrated an induction cooktop, melting chocolate in seconds and offering the 100+ attendees chocolate-dipped strawberries. They showed how it was safe to touch, and explained that many top chefs and commercial kitchens are now switching to induction stoves for their superior speed, controllability, and safety.
The ordinance has a few temporary exemptions for building systems that cannot currently be modeled in the California building code compliance software, like central hot water systems in large apartment buildings and hotels. But the California Energy Commission is aiming to finalize these changes by the end of this year, and Berkeley city staff is working on a local “reach” building code to complement the ordinance for any exempted buildings and equipment to avoid the need to install gas infrastructure in new buildings. In addition, the new ordinance requires that any exempted buildings be “electric-ready,” helping reduce the cost of a later conversion to electricity for remaining gas end uses.
Transitioning buildings to clean energy
With California well on its way to cleaning up its electricity supply, and leading the rest of the country on electrification of vehicles, the deep decarbonization of the building sector is the Golden State’s next clean energy frontier.
Gas burned in buildings, primarily for heating and hot water, produces more greenhouse gases (GHGs), and eight times more nitrogen oxide pollution (NOx), than all the state’s power plants. Decarbonizing buildings requires shifting from using gas (and oil and propane in some regions), to using high-efficiency electric water and space heating equipment like heat pumps, powered by clean electricity from sources like wind and solar panels.
The ordinance author and many commenters last night highlighted how phasing out gas from new buildings will not only slash carbon emissions, it will also reduce local air pollution by avoiding combustion gases inside buildings and in the community, and improve safety by reducing the risk of gas fires, particularly in California’s many earthquake-prone areas.
Fiscally prudent policy
Even if it weren’t for the climate, health, and safety concerns, going all-electric makes sense for economic reasons alone: investments in connecting a new building to gas and in new gas piping inside the building would likely get stranded (need to be decommissioned before it is paid for), as the residential gas distribution infrastructure gets wound down. Those gas investments would also expose the owner to a much costlier retrofit to electric later instead of building it right the first time.
In addition, contrary to common perception driven by cheap gas rates and inefficient electric appliances of the past, a customer buying a new gas appliance today will pay much higher utility bills over the life of the equipment than with an efficient electric heat pump. This is because residential gas prices are increasing rapidly (SoCalGas recently requested a 42% increase over 4 years), driven in large part by massive pipeline safety upgrades that are critical to keep us safe, but are starting to be felt in customers’ wallets. This trend is expected to persist as fixed infrastructure costs continue to rise while gas sales decline due to a warming climate, energy efficiency policies, and all-electric building early adopters. This is leading to a rapid increase in the per unit cost of gas that we are beginning to see play out in California today.
Implications of Berkeley’s decision
New buildings are a critical first step because they’re the easiest and most cost-effective way to jumpstart the market for electric technology. But new construction represents less than one percent of all buildings each year — the elephant in the room is the existing building stock. Berkeley city staff indicated during the hearing that they’re also working on a plan to equitably decarbonize existing buildings, aiming to ensure that low-income residents who can least afford to move away from fossil fuel heating have access to clean energy and are not left behind in higher-bill and more-polluted buildings.
While California and the nation have a long way to go to fully transition homes and buildings away from fossil fuels, cities are leading the way to a clean energy future, providing hope and optimism in the face of increasingly dire climate disruption.