San Jose could become the latest city to ban natural gas in new homes. (Lindsey Moore/KQED)
To reach its ambitious climate change goals, California will have to entice homeowners to electrify everything. The state is trying to become carbon neutral by 2045 and around a quarter of the state’s emissions come from energy used by buildings.
That'll be a big step, because today, an all-electric home isn’t common in California, as Oakland resident Bruce Nilles found out.
Nilles spent his career working on reducing the country’s use of fossil fuels, first at the Sierra Club and then at the Rocky Mountain Institute.
“I was thinking a lot about coal and how do we transition the United States off of coal,” he said, "and had missed the fact that right in my own home was this big source of fossil fuels."
Nilles' two-story craftsman home had four appliances that ran on natural gas: hot water heater, furnace, dryer and gas stove.
“It never occurred to me that they were a big piece of my carbon footprint,” he said.
Electricity has a lower carbon footprint in California than natural gas, because the state is investing heavily in renewable energy. In 2018, half of the state’s electricity came from sources free of carbon emissions, such as solar and wind, as well as hydropower and nuclear.
“I called three different contractors and all three of them tried to persuade me not to get rid of my gas,” Nilles said. He wanted to trade out all four systems, and found some contractors didn’t even have experience switching gas appliances.
Eventually, he found one who was game to install a new electric induction range. Nilles says it’s a far cry from the old-school electric stoves with coils that heat up.
“Thing this is so fast,” he said, "you put the water on and literally, 120 seconds later, its boiling."
Nilles also got a new electric dryer, and in the basement, a water heater and heat pump that both heats and cools his home.
“The inspector didn’t actually didn’t sign off on our project, because on a check-box, it said there needed to be a gas shut-off valve on our hot water heater,” he said. Eventually, the city agreed to ignore the check-box.
In July, the Berkeley city council voted unanimously to ban natural gas in newly constructed buildings, becoming the first city in the country to do so.
City officials say new efficient electric appliances have lower carbon footprints than gas-powered furnaces and water heaters.
“We need to tackle climate change every way that we can and by doing this, we’re not asking people to change that much,” said Kate Harrison, the Berkeley city council member who led the initiative.
The ban starts next year with homes and small apartment buildings, and will rope in other kinds of buildings such as high-rises and commercial space as soon as state officials complete energy efficiency analyses of those building types. Building owners can also apply for an exemption to the ban.
“It’s going to give us a better life,” Harrison said. “We’re going to have a cleaner environment. We’re going to have less health problems. We’re going to have less danger in our homes.”
About 27% of Berkeley’s greenhouse gas emissions come from natural gas. That's on par with the nation; buildings, through heating and cooking, use almost a third of the natural gas consumed in the U.S.
Natural gas lines also leak one of the most potent climate pollutants, methane, directly into the atmosphere.
Climate change isn’t the only reason for the ban, according to the city. Berkeley sits on an earthquake fault, and a major event could cause natural gas lines to break and create explosions.
Cooking on gas stoves can also cause high levels of indoor air pollution, like nitrogen dioxide.
“We have health effects that have never been considered,” Harrison said, "that come from burning natural gas."
Still, stoves are the major sticking point, Harrison says. While homeowners may not have strong feelings about their water heaters, cooking is another matter.
Heavy-duty gas ranges pack appliance showrooms, looking like industrial models made for restaurant kitchens.
“People love their gas stoves,” said Bob Raymer, technical director with the California Building Industry Association. “We don’t want to force something onto the consumer that makes the consumer feel uncomfortable or that they just don’t like. After all, it’s their home.”
Plus, he says, not offering those stoves could put builders at a competitive disadvantage.
“We don’t support an outright ban on a particular product,” Raymer said. “What we do support are the use of regulatory and financial incentives to encourage a market to go a particular way.”
The vast majority of restaurants today also use gas cooking.
“It’s important that restaurants, along with all ratepayers, have a diverse set of energy sources they can turn to – and that includes natural gas,” said Sharokina Shams of the California Restaurant Association.
Still, Raymer says some builders are already switching to all-electric homes in California, because in new construction, they save $2,000-to-$5,000 by not running gas lines.
“We know that we have to get away from fossil natural gas combustion,” said Andrew McAllister of the California Energy Commission. “Electricity becomes cleaner and cleaner, and natural gas is methane and it's just got carbon in it. There's no way around that.”
California’s Energy Commission is currently writing a road map for how the state can cut emissions from buildings 40% by 2030.
Still, to meet its goal of becoming carbon-neutral, California will have to tackle natural gas use in existing buildings, not just new ones. That can be costlier. Many older homes don’t have large enough electrical panels or plugs that can handle 220 volts.
Electric heat pumps and other electric appliances can be more expensive than gas-powered equivalents, especially because it can be harder to find rebates. Sacramento and San Jose are offering residents up to several thousand dollars to switch from gas to electric.
“It's a cultural transition that we have to undergo,” said McAllister. “It’s a big lift, but we’re in a powerful state with a big economy and a lot of creativity. So I think if anybody can do it, California can.”
After all, McAllister says, a lot of the nation’s energy efficiency rules, including for appliances, were passed by California first.
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