Stakeholders began debating the update this month in a series of commission meetings, but a statewide natural gas ban sought by environmental groups appears increasingly unlikely after the commission circulated a proposal indicating a preference for incentivizing electric heat pumps rather than a gas ban.
The commission sent out a summary of its planned tweaks and is collecting feedback from environmentalists and industry groups as it prepares to release a draft of its 2022 building code later this month in advance of a month-and-a-half-long rulemaking process. The commission is expected to vote on the plan this summer.
While the summary indicates a willingness by the commission to require electrification for new construction, any new mandate will likely not be included in the building code until 2026 at the earliest.
Under the commission's proposed plan, new homes must be “electric ready,” which means stoves, furnaces, dryers and other appliances that run on gas must have an electric plug installed within 3 feet, with the home’s electrical panel required to include capacity for the future installation of electric appliances.
Title 24 updates, as the code revisions are known, occur every three years. The 2019 version, which included a requirement that all newly constructed buildings have solar panels, went into effect in 2020, and developers and builders say they are still scrambling to catch up to that particular rule.
Meanwhile, a statewide building labor group is opposing a bill from a Silicon Valley lawmaker that would ban natural gas in new state buildings. In an opposition letter, the group called it a “part of a concerted extremist political agenda.”
Additional critics of these anti-gas policies include other gas industry groups as well as Southern California Gas Co. and the California Restaurant Association.
Labor Takes Aim at Decarbonization Package
To hear first-term state Sen. David Cortese tell it, when he started on the Santa Clara County Board of Supervisors more than a decade ago, the county wasn’t far into its transition to clean energy.
In fact, every school district in the area had made more progress than at the county level, he says. Santa Clara had no environmental stewardship goals, no big solar farms.
“We didn’t even have one of those [solar pilot projects] in the parking lot,” said Cortese.
Things have changed, Santa Clara County declared a climate emergency in 2019 and has built four major solar farms, pushing aggressively toward 100% renewable energy.
Cortese says he was able to work quickly passing ambitious climate policies with a five-member Board of Supervisors.
“I was the president, but any member could just bring an initiative, any Tuesday,” he said. “We didn’t even have a bill deadline. If I had three votes, which I generally did, we could move something that's the first of its kind in the nation.”
He quickly learned the situation was different in Sacramento.
By California tradition, freshman legislators introduce their first bill on their first day, and Cortese figured he’d make a splash with a package of climate bills centered on decarbonization, channeling the progress of cities pushing similar plans.
One of the bills, SB 30, would ban natural gas in newly constructed state buildings beginning next year and require the state to have a plan for decarbonizing all of its existing buildings by 2035.
Another bill, SB 31, would create new building decarbonization programs with a focus on providing opportunities for low-income customers. SB 32 would require cities to update their general plans with defined targets for decarbonization.
Passage of the bills would send a market signal that decarbonization in new buildings is a priority, and would allow the state to prove that the economics of making them greener can work before imposing the policy on the private market.
Such a small-bore change is too little to meet the climate emergency, environmentalists say: California controls about 16 million square feet of state-owned and leased office space in Sacramento, according to a 2015 assessment, including 24 office buildings.
Yet despite its relatively small scope, Cortese’s plan was met with immediate derision from organized labor.
Jeremy Smith, deputy legislative director of the State Building & Construction Trades Council, penned a fiery letter to the Legislature, describing the bills “as part of a concerted extremist political agenda aimed at irresponsibly phasing out natural gas from the state’s already unstable and strained energy portfolio.”
Robbie Hunter, the group’s president, says the opposition stems from a “big problem of imbalance in the state,” pointing to August’s rolling blackouts, when about 800,000 Californians went without power for a few hours during a searing heat wave.
Hunter’s analysis is that state officials are squeezing Californians from two sides. On the one hand, California is pushing electric cars and “driving up the need for more electricity,” while at the same time “moving against the requirement of gas turbine plants.”
“Consumers drive up the need, while you're reducing the ability to create an electricity baseload,” he said. “The system is far out of whack.”
Another powerful player, the California Building Industry Association, expressed concern to Cortese about potential impacts on “ratepayers, construction costs and grid reliability,” according to Christopher Ochoa, a senior attorney with the group.
“We not only have a climate crisis, we have a housing crisis as well,” he said. “Whether it’s housing inventory, affordability or homelessness. How do you balance the costs?”
‘This is Either a Climate Emergency or It's Not’
While industry groups blame the state’s reliance on renewable energy for last summer’s power outage during a blistering heat wave, a postmortem conducted by three state agencies attributed the problem to the failure of energy planners to fully anticipate the impact climate change could have on the grid. The analysis found that the state had not lined up enough resources to meet demand during an event that crippled the entire region.
California faces increasing energy challenges and strains on its power grid from many directions — transportation electrification, wildfires, increasing temperatures, fossil fuel plant decommissioning, and the state’s goal for reaching carbon neutrality.
Felicia Federico, executive director of the California Center for Sustainable Communities at UCLA, says the state needs to address these challenges holistically rather than cling to fossil fuels, which contribute to the kind of extreme heat that creates disruptions like the one to the grid last summer.
She points out that electrification can’t happen overnight given how long it takes for building stock to turn over. “That is why we need aggressive programs starting now,” she wrote in an email.
“Building electrification is relatively low-tech compared to other technologies for achieving carbon neutrality — we know how to do it, it’s been done in many places, and it’s a critical element of achieving our carbon neutral goals,” she said.
Cortese was more blunt: “Look, this is either a climate emergency or it’s not. If this isn’t the equivalent of a pandemic happening on the greenhouse gas front, then stop now. But it is a problem. It’s a problem I’m committed to solving. If that’s the case, you can’t kick these things to the next two-year session. Buying time is not a good strategy right now. The good strategy is all hands on deck.”
The building trade’s opposition letter arrived within a week of Cortese taking office, and it contained a key mischaracterization of his bill.
Smith’s letter said, “This bill would prohibit construction of new state, residential, or commercial buildings that have natural gas connections.” The legislation, however, would only apply to state buildings.
Percolating behind Cortese’s bills and Hunter’s opposition letter is the effort to ban gas in the statewide building code.
But energy commission officials and draft documents seem to indicate, a few years after requiring solar panels on new homes, staff aren’t ready to make that move,
The solar mandate went into effect in 2020 for builders that filed for permits last year.
For years before, the state required incremental upgrades to walls, attics, windows and other measures to improve energy efficiency and bring down energy costs.
The commission’s latest plan appears to lay similar groundwork for a gas ban later this decade, and key environmental groups who have pushed for a state ban on gas in new buildings seem to accept this gradual timeline.
“This approach is not the all-electric code that the clean buildings coalition, including NRDC, and the hundreds of concerned California residents who have been speaking at public hearings over the last six months have been calling for,” Pierre Delforge, a scientist with the Natural Resources Defense Council, wrote in a blog post. “But with the right balance of carrots and sticks, it could effectively shift most of new construction toward highly efficient electric heat pumps.”
The group sent a letter asking the commission to commit to requiring all-electric construction by the year 2025.