In an effort to decrease his house’s dependence on natural gas, Eric Arens installed a furnace (on his left) and water heater (on his right) that use heat pumps. The heat pumps for both operate outside his house (the one connected to the water heater is pictured above right). Photos by Alec MacDonald.

It may be startling to realize that 26 percent of greenhouse gas emissions in California come from buildings — two-thirds of that from homes. Some of these emissions are indirect, from electricity that utilities generate with natural gas at remote power plants. However, much of the problem lies inside the buildings themselves, where occupants use natural gas for heating both rooms and water, and often for cooking, drying clothes, and incidental uses such as gas fireplaces.

Unfortunately, natural gas is a fossil fuel primarily composed of methane, a heavyweight in the pantheon of greenhouse gases. Throughout natural gas production and transportation, there are leaks. And in the home, natural gas stoves produce nitrogen dioxide, carbon monoxide, and formaldehyde — air pollutants which then linger inside or escape into the atmosphere through vent pipes. Natural gas used to be a preferred alternative to coal-generated electricity; now clean electricity is more desirable, and the shift away from natural gas is just beginning to gain speed.

This shift has a name: building decarbonization. The term might sound vaguely industrial, but it actually refers to cleaning up a building’s carbon footprint by decreasing use of fossil fuels and making better use of cleaner power. The blueprint for this clean-up includes electrification — replacing gas-fueled appliances with electric ones — as well as adding energy-efficient improvements and providing hookups for charging electric vehicles. Battery storage for locally-generated solar power can also be part of the mix.

It’s a blueprint that is being implemented more and more throughout the region, by governments, regulators, developers, and individuals. In July, Berkeley became the first city in the country to ban natural gas in most new construction, effective January 2020.

Other California cities are quickly following suit. Panama Bartholomy, director of the Sacramento-based Building Decarbonization Coalition, remarked, “This is the fastest growing clean energy sector I’ve ever seen.” His multi-sector coalition includes energy providers, manufacturers, local governments, and nonprofits. By the end of October 2019, the coalition listed seven Bay Area cities and one county which had either made code changes similar to the Berkeley ordinance, or adopted measures which allow gas hookups only if developers add expensive features to achieve higher energy-efficiency standards. Seven more cities had scheduled discussions of such ordinances in November.

The shift is being accelerated by recent state legislation — such as last year’s Senate Bill 1477 (Stern), which funds electrification incentives — and continued revision of state building codes to implement previous climate change laws. It’s supported by research from Rocky Mountain Institute, Lawrence Berkeley National Labs, Energy + Environmental Economics, and others, showing that electrification of California homes and other buildings would create immediate greenhouse gas reductions which would increase as electricity sources continue to get cleaner. According to these studies, electrification is also cost-effective, particularly for new construction. New products such as “smart” appliances and battery storage systems can match energy use to avoid peak demand periods and decrease electricity rates for all consumers.

Berkeley has hired a staff person to head its decarbonization implementation, and has already convened a workshop for home builders and designers; meanwhile, other cities are still looking for guidance on how to move forward. The Building Decarbonization Coalition is working with two of its governmental members, the Bay Area Air Quality Management District and the Bay Area Regional Collaborative, to produce the Local Government Building Decarbonization Toolkit, available in early 2020. Axum Teferra, an Air District environmental planner, described the contents as a “comprehensive library” of guidance documents, model ordinances, policy examples, and other technical resources for cities ready to take action on building-sector decarbonization.

As decision makers weigh their options, they won’t just be looking at eliminating natural gas in new construction, which represents a very small annual increase in the building stock. The vast number of buildings currently in use represents ample opportunity to address the issue. For retrofits, costs can make electrification less attractive, and it will take a combination of policy and financial incentives, supplier and installer awareness, and consumer education to accelerate decarbonization of existing buildings.

For example, Berkeley resident Eric Arens recently replaced his gas furnace and on-demand gas-fired water heater with electric heat pump appliances. An organizer with the League of Women Voters of Berkeley, Emeryville, and Albany’s Climate Change Team, he already owned an electric stove and two electric vehicles. Aside from some discretionary uses of gas — a fireplace insert and a barbeque — his only remaining gas appliance is a clothes dryer. His calculations indicate that replacing the dryer is not cost-effective at current utility rates.

Arens had educated himself on heat pumps, which was helpful, because he discovered that several dealers and installers gave him incorrect information. “One installer told me it was illegal to switch from a gas appliance to electric!” he reported. While he was willing to pay additional money for his new appliances as a matter of principle, he noted, “In Sacramento and Sonoma, I could have gotten paid fifteen to sixteen thousand dollars to switch from gas to electricity — that would have covered a significant portion of my costs.”

Before July 2019, state policy would not allow utilities to use funds to enable residents to switch from gas to electricity, but access to cleaner electricity has changed priorities. Bartholomy expects that by early 2020, major utilities may start to offer consumers incentives to make the switch.

Residents in some Bay Area cities have already benefited from Air District grants to encourage purchase of water heaters that rely on electric heat pump technology (see coverage in the October/November 2018 Monitor). Peninsula Clean Energy and Silicon Valley Clean Energy offer incentives to cities in their service areas which consider electrification ordinances.

Incentives, and new policies, may be needed to assist low-income customers who might not be able to afford new appliances or new gas-free homes. In October, the California Energy Commission posted a draft report to its website in which research consultants raised equity concerns, warning that as electrification grows in California, the costs associated with delivering natural gas will fall on fewer customers. Fewer customers will not mean lower costs, because of the need to continue supporting permanent infrastructure, even if it is only lightly used for specialized needs such as renewable natural gas. (Renewable natural gas — biomethane, climate-neutral hydrogen, and synthetic methane — is preferable to fossil fuel gas, but it will continue to be relatively expensive and will probably be used primarily by some businesses and industries.)

Gas rates will have to rise, which will induce even more customers to switch to electric power. In addition to concerns about the impacts of such a cycle on low-income communities, the draft report on the CEC website suggested that the financial viability of gas providers could be threatened if regulators and other decision makers don’t provide careful management.

Potential impacts of electrification on gas providers have created opposition by some utilities, as well as gas industry workers and their unions, according to Bartholomy. Few others seem to be raising objections to decarbonizing homes and offices. The final public hearing on the Berkeley ordinance was noteworthy for the lack of dissent (although on November 21, right before this edition of the Monitor went to press, the California Restaurant Association filed a lawsuit against the city, claiming that the ordinance “violates both state and federal law, will impact both residential and commercial construction, and will have uniquely negative impacts on restaurants,” according to the nonprofit trade association’s website). At the hearing, PG&E spoke in favor of the ordinance and has expressed support for similar ones elsewhere in the region. While the reliability of the current electrical grid may raise some concerns about outages, Arens was pleased that borrowing a generator for a few hours had kept his household reasonably comfortable during a recent two-day PG&E shutdown.

Arens is currently leading neighborhood meetings on battery storage for rooftop solar energy, another aspect of building decarbonization. Recently he organized a tour of the PG&E demonstration kitchen in San Ramon for League of Women Voters members and friends, where they were introduced to induction cooktops which had made enthusiastic converts of professional chefs. Like his city, Arens may be a bit ahead of the curve — but in this case, not very far.

Leslie Stewart covers air quality and energy for the Monitor.