This week, Berkeley became the first city in the nation to say "no" to new gas, and "yes" to clean energy homes and communities. In a historic and groundbreaking step in the fight against climate change, the city council unanimously approved a gas prohibition ordinance that requires all new buildings -- including new houses, apartments, and commercial buildings -- to be all-electric.
In Berkeley, gas appliances like furnaces and water heaters produce nearly 30% of the city’s climate pollution, second only to vehicles. Building all-electric is critical to avoid locking in the carbon of long-lived gas infrastructure. Plus, electrification immediately reduces greenhouse gas emissions due to (1) the higher efficiency of advanced electric appliances like heat pumps and induction stoves, and (2) the abundant clean energy on the grid that will power these appliances. Berkeley residents have access to electricity today that is between 78% and 100% carbon-free.
The City of Berkeley was motivated to prohibit new gas hookups, not only to reduce greenhouse gas emissions but also to improve health and safety and to lower the cost of new housing and utility bills for Berkeley residents and businesses.
Strong Community Support
The gas ban has broad community backing. During a July 16 city council meeting that went late into the evening, a steady stream of Berkeley residents, doctors, architects, engineers, housing advocates, realtors, clean energy advocates, utilities (PG&E and EBCE), and academics spoke for almost an hour about the urgent need to transition off gas as well as the myriad benefits of going all-electrific.
PG&E supported the ordinance, stating “We welcome the opportunity to avoid investments in new gas assets that might later prove underutilized as the local governments and the state work together to realize our long-term decarbonization objectives.” The significance of PG&E, the fifth-largest gas utility in the US, supporting all-electric new construction cannot be overstated. The utility recognizes that we need to significantly reduce gas use to achieve our 2045 climate goals, and that the fiscally prudent decarbonization strategy is to stop expanding the gas system today. PG&E seems to be inching toward joining a growing community of utilities, including the Community Choice Aggregations (CCAs), Southern California Edison, and municipally owned utilities like SMUD, that are strategizing to help their customers be part of the clean energy solution. This move further isolates and weakens SoCalGas and its industry front-group Californians for Balanced Energy Solutions, which are lobbying cities and state agencies to oppose electrification and are fighting to continue building out and expanding the gas system.
A Closer Look at the Ordinance
Berkeley’s gas ordinance applies to all buildings except building types or building systems that cannot be currently modeled at the California Energy Commission (CEC) to comply with the statewide building code (Title 24). Those building types or systems will be phased in over time as the CEC updates its building performance modeling software.
Protect Public Health
The ordinance improves public health by reducing our exposure to hazardous emissions from gas combustion. The combustion of gas inside our homes produces harmful indoor air pollution, specifically nitrogen dioxide, carbon monoxide, nitric oxide, formaldehyde, acetaldehyde, and ultrafine particles. These odorless and undetectable gas combustion pollutants can cause respiratory diseases, as well as more serious conditions, including death. Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory recently found that air pollution levels in the 60% of homes with gas stoves exceed the EPA’s definition of clean air, i.e., air pollution levels indoors in these homes would be illegal if found outdoors. A recent study found that gas stoves may be responsible for up to 12 percent of childhood asthma cases. All-electric new construction will immediately improve indoor air quality for Berkeley residents.
Lower Construction Costs and Utility Bills
Ensuring that all new construction is built without gas hookups will help Berkeley developers build more quickly and affordably, as there will be no need for new costly gas infrastructure -- an advantage given Berkeley’s ongoing housing crisis. A recent analysis by the Statewide Utility Codes and Standards Team found that building all-electric reduced construction costs on average by $5,000 for single-family homes and by more than $2,000 per unit in multifamily buildings.
Building all-electric will also lower energy bills for Berkeley residents and businesses. Utility bill savings from electrification are estimated to be between $4,000 and $10,000 over 20 years, and that does not even include the growing cost of gas service. PG&E recently requested a 24% (nominal) gas rate increase by 2022 to cover safety upgrades to the gas system. And, E3’s preliminary Future of Gas analysis shows finds gas rates will spike without a managed transition off gas. Stopping investments in new gas infrastructure is a fiscally prudent strategy to avoid saddling ratepayers and taxpayers with the costs of maintaining and ultimately decommissioning stranded gas infrastructure.
Safety and Climate Resiliency
The ordinance will make Berkeley’s homes and businesses safer and more resilient in the face of climate change. California is experiencing an increasing occurrence of extreme heat waves, with practically each summer setting new high temperature records. Most Berkeley residents, particularly low-income families, do not have air-conditioning and are not prepared to adapt to these heat waves, which pose new health and safety risks. Air-conditioning is an important bonus from replacing gas furnaces with electric heat pump space heaters, as the heat pumps can operate in reverse and provide high-efficiency cooling when needed. Electrification offers greater comfort, safety, and climate resiliency when temperatures peak.
We expect this ordinance will be supplemented by an electrification “reach code” this fall that further encourages electrification for the buildings that are currently exempted from this ordinance.
Berkeley is also looking to electrify its current stock of buildings, with a priority on ensuring low-income residents have access to clean-energy homes. This is a critical piece of the puzzle as low-income homeowners and renters face significant barriers to clean energy and electrification and would be most disproportionately harmed by gas rate hikes and exposure to air pollution. Existing buildings also represent the lion’s share of the sector’s emissions and face unique electrification challenges, making them an important policy focus for the city.
This win doesn't stop with Berkeley. More than 50 cities and counties across California are pursuing similar measures to require or encourage electrification.
We have witnessed how city commitments to rooftop solar and 100% clean energy have raised the bar and led to new and more ambitious statewide policies. Preventing the worst impacts of climate change adds urgency for more cities and the state to step up and act, and we are encouraged to see the growing movement of Californians demanding leadership from their city officials. Reach out to Matt Gough at firstname.lastname@example.org to get involved.