San Jose Primed to Ban Natural Gas in Most New Buildings

San Jose could become the latest city to ban natural gas in new homes. (Lindsey Moore/KQED)

Update Dec. 2 2020: Both San Jose and Oakland have passed bans on natural gas in new buildings and homes. Read the story here.

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The San Jose City Council will vote Tuesday on a measure to ban natural gas in nearly all newly constructed buildings beginning in  August. If the ban passes, the city will become the largest in California to adopt rules requiring all-electric appliances in new homes and towering office buildings alike in an effort to fight climate change.

The resolution is supported by Mayor Sam Liccardo, city staff and many other city leaders who argue prohibiting natural gas in new buildings will accelerate a transition to a renewable energy future for San Jose while making homes more efficient and affordable for residents.

"It is incumbent on every city and every resident to take aggressive action amid this climate emergency,” the mayor said in a statement earlier this month.

When San Jose declared a climate emergency last year, the city committed to prohibiting natural gas in new buildings citywide by 2023.

The city’s proposal follows Berkeley's fist-in-the-nation ban. San Francisco and many other California cities have passed similar rules.

But San Jose's plan could have the largest impact. The city — home to more than 1 million residents — revealed in its latest inventory that building emissions account for a third of the city's emissions of planet-warming gases.

The city estimates the ban will prevent 608,000 tons of carbon emissions from wafting into the atmosphere over the next half century.

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A Few Exemptions

Hospitals and small in-law units will be exempt from the new ban, while some restaurants, industrial facilities and other businesses will have a limited extension from the mandate through the year 2022.

“These facility types, which can have specialized operations and may lack emerging market examples, can be allowed longer time to transition to all-electric options,” wrote Kerrie Romanow, director of San Jose’s environmental services department, in a memo to city staff; adding that “these exemptions are not expected to severely impact [greenhouse gas] emissions reductions given their limited availability and limited applicability.”

The city received pushback from local environmentalists for one of its exemptions: a late proposal that would allow buildings with computer servers and other critical equipment to use natural gas fuel cells as a source of backup electricity.

In recent years, utilities in California have cut power to prevent power lines from touching off wildfires during critically dangerous fire weather. In August, a scorching heat wave forced the state’s regional grid operator to institute rolling blackouts to conserve power.

Backup diesel generators have long provided electricity during blackouts — but they operate at the cost of generating substantial amounts of smog.

Companies like Silicon Valley’s Bloom Energy have sold an alternative: fuel cells that provide power derived from natural gas but without combustion. The technology generates less smog, but it still emits planet-warming gases. And unlike diesel generators — which are turned on during an outage — the fuel cells are a primary source of electricity year round.

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The Silicon Valley chapter of Mothers Out Front, a climate advocacy group, argues that the city is undercutting the intention of its ban by allowing the technology. Linda Hutchins-Knowles, the chapter co-founder, said the exemption is “both unnecessary and very detrimental to our climate goals.”

“These fuel cells run 24/7, 365,” she said. “Companies will always have power and never have to worry about a power shut off. It's like killing a flea with a tank. Their customers had very few power outages last year.”

The city originally said the fuel cell exemption would expire only when “low or zero-carbon fuels are commercially available,” but has since said it would end sooner, at the end of 2024.

In a memo to the City Council on the issue, Romanow noted that diesel generators produce “more pounds of CO2 per megawatt-hour than their natural gas fuel cell counterparts.”

Bloom executives defended their technology in a letter to the city, saying it improves air quality.

“The health and environmental impacts of combustion-related pollutants are both very significant and readily quantifiable — and have become even more apparent in the age of COVID," they wrote.

Push to Ban Gas in New Construction Statewide

Natural gas appliances have become a big target in the fight against global warming. 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.

Olivia Walker, a research associate at the Natural Resources Defense Council, which helped the city with the ban, said the measure will help fight climate change. From dangerous, dirty air to the annual threat of wildfire, the climate crisis is an “ever-present reality in San Jose,” she said.

Environmental groups are pushing the California Energy Commission to do more than entice homeowners to electrify everything and ban natural gas in new buildings statewide through an update to its building energy code.

“The number of California cities and counties opting out of polluting, costly gas infrastructure in new buildings continues to grow, but more communities need to follow suit in order to meet our state’s climate goals,” she said. “It’s time for the state to follow suit.

“The California Energy Commission has an opportunity to bring the benefits of healthier, more affordable, and climate-safe new construction to people across California by establishing a statewide standard to move new buildings off of gas,” Walker said.

Liccardo touted the city’s policies as a global model for climate sustainability and thanked NRDC, other local environmental advocates, companies, and Bloomberg Philanthropies for a “collective effort” to push the city forward on the natural gas ban and other climate policies.