Building Construction

Berkeley is the first city in the US to ban natural gas in new building construction. Is it the move of a lone radical, or a necessary step to combat climate change that other cities will follow?

To someone like Daniel Turner, an alumnus of the Charles Koch Institute, Berkeley is simply up to its old tricks. The liberal loving city of firsts (first to voluntarily integrate schools in 1968; first to limit smoking in restaurants in 1977; first to ban styrofoam in 1989) has gone far left of left again by banning natural gas hook-ups in new rise buildings and homes.

“Berkeley’s new law hurts homeowners both by depriving them of freedom and by forcing them to use more expensive alternatives, notably electric stoves and heating,” Turner wrote in a Fox News Op-Ed titled “California’s Latest Descent Into Liberal Madness.”

For the Union of Concerned Scientists, though, the ban, which goes into effect in January of 2020, does nothing of the sort. 

“This isn’t just about preventing climate change. It’s also about saving people money and improving indoor air quality,” wrote Mark Specht, Energy Analyst for the Union. “A recent analysis demonstrated that new all-electric homes end up saving homeowners money in comparison to new homes built with natural gas.” Sprecht also noted that nearly 27% of Berkeley’s greenhouse gas emissions come from natural gas use in buildings.

What remains is this: will other US cities see this as a Bezerkeleyesque stunt? Or will they follow Berkeley’s lead one more time?

John Sarter, Founder of the Microgrid Development Group, hopes for the latter.

“The dominoes are going to start to fall,” Sarter said. “California is often the leader in these types of environmental initiatives. New York probably will follow, as they are also aggressively moving forward on GHG reduction initiatives.”

San Francisco, in fact, is considering a ban, although not initially as extensive as Berkeley’s. District 5 Supervisor Vallie Brown and District 8 Supervisor Rafael Mandelman plan to introduce legislation in September to eliminate natural gas in all new municipal construction and whole building major renovations, focusing on city and government buildings, more limited in scope than Berkeley’s law. 

“When we think of greenhouse gases, we usually think of cars, but buildings generate a whopping 44% of San Francisco’s greenhouse gas emissions,” said Supervisor Vallie Brown in a press release. “We’ll never achieve our net-zero carbon climate goals until all our buildings go all-electric. As we begin that transition, it’s important the City step up and lead by example by decarbonizing our own municipal buildings.”

As banning natural gas does catch on, Sarter acknowledges the transition will not happen overnight.  He believes the focus should be on efficiency and resilience as we move towards an all-electric future.

“We are eliminating natural gas and other fossil fuels from our system,” Sarter said. “As we eliminate them, we need to pay attention to resilience in our re-envisioned energy systems, since we won’t have the diversity and redundancy of multiple fossil fuel sources.” 

“Distributed energy and energy storage systems must be developed in tandem with eliminating fossil fuels to enhance resilience, as we decarbonize. Solar and batteries are not the only technologies available, we should also develop wind, hydro, and geothermal energy, and expand our base of storage with multiple technologies such as  pumped hydro, flywheel storage, and others."

Although recent studies suggest up to 12 million Californians are exposed to levels of nitrogen dioxide above health standards as a result of cooking with gas burners, and that the very infrastructure of natural gas can lead to dangerous explosions such as the 2010 San Bruno pipeline explosion that killed eight people, no one expects the natural gas lobby to surrender their market without a fight.

In fact, The Guardian reported that SoCalGas, the largest gas utility in California serving over half the state, has been ramping up efforts to defeat the move from gas to electric by hiring lobbyists to encourage “balanced energy solutions.”

“They’re (SoCalGas) using scare tactics and misleading communities about what policies are actually being considered,” said Panama Bartholomy, the director of the Building Decarbonization Coalition, told The Guardian.

“They call it "natural" gas, but it’s not natural when you frack it loose, and new studies show the emissions produced from extraction to burning are on par with coal,” Sarter said. “In addition, it’s 70 to 90% methane, which is much more potent than CO2 as a greenhouse gas.”

Sarter acknowledges that natural gas companies like SoCalGas offers many jobs to many people. But he sees many more jobs - and more local jobs - in the electrified future.

“There is more electrical work, and equal plumbing work needed to put in an electric heat pump water heater.  Heat pump technology for hot water and space heating has made it more energy efficient for heating than natural gas. Eliminating the entire natural gas system saves money and creates healthier and safer buildings and communities."

Other than the fight from some gas companies, there have been grumblings from chefs that cooking with induction isn’t the same as cooking over an open flame. Restaurateur Jonnatan Leiva told The San Francisco Chronicle that chefs need to adapt.

“As chefs in the industry, we try to reduce our carbon footprint and try to source as local as possible. I think this is just going to be the new normal.”

Sarter designed and developed Sol Lux Alpha, a “Passive House certified and nanogrid technology enabled” luxury condominium in the Mission District that is all-electric and zero-carbon for living and transportation, so he knows these new technologies firsthand.

“Sol Lux Alpha has energy storage to power each unit for two days, and it’s constantly being recharged by the solar array above the roof deck. It seamlessly and automatically disconnects from the grid when the grid goes down, and reconnects when the grid comes back online.” 

The switch from natural gas to all-electric will most likely be fought city by city, state by state. Critics like The Californians For Better Energy Solutions, who wrote an open letter to Governor Gavin Newsom denouncing the move towards electrification,  will argue this is too much, too soon. 

But those who took seriously the 2018 IPCC report that we have only twelve years to make massive changes to global energy infrastructure to avoid catastrophic climate change may argue these moves are too little, too late.

“Should we have the choice to damage air quality and the diversity of life as a whole, or should we decide as a society not to do it anymore?” Sater said.  

“We need to decarbonize, or we are going to diminish and degrade all life on earth, including our own, to the point where continued existence as a species may not even be possible.”

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