Another first: City of Berkeley bans natural gas in new buildings

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Berkeley City Council bans gas in new residential buildings. Transport, the biggest source of GHG emissions in California, is next in line for restrictions and/or conversion to electric.

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California is known as the state of “fruits & nuts,” referring to its bountiful agricultural sector producing fruits, vegetables and nuts.

The nuts also refer to some of the crazy ideas that starts in California – and occasionally spreads elsewhere. California, for example, was the first state in the US to have an Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), long before the federal government had one.

Ditto for building codes and appliance energy efficiency standards, which were later copied by the federal govt.

So it should come as no surprise that the affluent, ultra-liberal city of Berkeley – home to theUniversity of California at Berkeley and the Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory (LBL) – recently passed a resolution to ban the use of natural gas in virtually all residential buildings within the city limits starting in 2020. That’s correct, no more natural gas.

The ban on natural gas line hookups will first apply to low-rise residential buildings starting January 2020.

For bigger buildings, the city will offer incentives, as opposed to an outright ban, to encourage gradual reliance solely on electricity to meet all buildings’ energy needs.

Why pick on natural gas, a fuel that is relatively clean, cheap and plentiful with an existing distribution network that reaches most customers within California?

Natural gas use in buildings, according to the Berkeley City Council, is responsible for 27% of the greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions within the city, behind transportation, which produces even more GHGs.

The City Council believes that transitioning to clean electricity-powered appliances in new construction will allow homeowners to save on energy bills while reducing emissions.

It notes that homes and buildings are responsible for 25% of California’s GHG emissions while natural gas appliances have been linked to respiratory problems, including asthma in children.

What about the cost? The City Council says it should not be a problem. According to C.R. Herro, vice president of innovation for Meritage Homes, a big home builder in California, “The price point of these zero-emission homes is actually less than a conventional home.

So, it’s really about making a smarter decision.” Not all homebuilders would agree.

The California Energy Commission (CEC) passed a new building code in Sept 2018, which requires virtually all new residential buildings to meet a zero-net-energy requirement – which essentially means that all new residential buildings have to generate as much energy as they consume over a year starting in 2020.

As homes get more efficient, they require less energy to heat, cool, light or ventilate – hence switching to all electric super-efficient appliances makes sense.

Moreover, to meet the state’s ambitious carbon law – which requires reducing GHG emissions to 1990 levels by 2020 and far more by 2045 when the state’s economy has to be carbon neutral – means that virtually all energy use must be converted to electricity, and all of that must be generated from renewable and/or carbon-free resources.

The Berkeley City Council is merely the first city doing what probably needs to be done across the state.

The transport sector, the biggest source of GHG emissions, is probably next in line for restrictions and/or conversion to electric.

It must be noted that a number of cities in California have also adopted citywide building ordinanceswith strict environmental requirements, notably the city of Lancaster near Los Angeles (Box).

Fereidoon Sioshansi is president of Menlo Energy Economics, a consultancy based in San Francisco, CA and editor/publisher of EEnergy Informer, a monthly newsletter with international circulation. He can be reached at [email protected]

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