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'Banning' natural gas is out; electrifying buildings is in


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'Banning' natural gas is out; electrifying buildings is in

In the year since the building gas ban trend burst onto the energy scene in Berkeley, Calif., the movement has spread rapidly and evolved to the point that some electrification backers are already thinking about retiring the phrase "gas ban."

Few climate activists or utility companies would deny Berkeley's role in promoting building electrification as solution for cutting greenhouse gas emissions. When the liberal Bay Area city prohibited natural gas infrastructure in new construction in July 2019, building electrification was still an emerging area of climate policy, little known beyond sustainability circles. But similar to the Sierra Club's Beyond Coal campaign, the gas ban movement has invigorated environmentalists and put the industry on the defensive.

"The Berkeley adoption really shook the foundation of the energy world for a minute there. It really opened the floodgates for other local governments," said Panama Bartholomy, director of the Building Decarbonization Coalition. The coalition helps California policymakers develop and implement building electrification measures through research and stakeholder engagement.

"I think that the term gas ban might not work" beyond California, said Jenna Tatum, director of the Building Electrification Initiative, a group that helps its eight-member cities advance electrification efforts. "But I think that a policy that encourages or requires all electric new construction works everywhere." Despite its influence, relatively few cities have carbon copied the Berkeley gas ban. Instead, local lawmakers are developing multiple pathways to building electrification, tailored not only to their own legal framework, but also to regional political, industry pushback and cultural differences.

Berkeley was a beginning, not an end

Berkeley's gas ban updated the building code to say the city will not issue building permits for new construction that contains natural gas hookups. Only five other municipalities — Alameda, Morgan Hill, San Francisco, San Jose and Santa Cruzhave taken the same approach. Three of the six, including Berkeley, have also adopted an energy reach code, or a measure that "reaches" beyond California's minimum energy standards.

Most localities have worked to implement an energy reach code. Seventeen local governments have passed a reach code that mandates new construction in buildings contain all-electric heating and sometimes cooking appliances. Meanwhile, 12 towns and cities have opted for a reach code that requires mixed fuel buildings, those with electric and gas systems, to achieve higher energy standards than all-electric structures.

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"What we have is different flavors rolling out across California depending on the comfort level of the local government, and the city councils and the boards of supervisors," Bartholomy said. "Some are comfortable with full on gas bans. Some only want to ban gas for certain sectors."

When Menlo Park, Calif., pioneered the all-electric reach code, one critical decision was the choice to allow natural gas hookups for cooking, according to Rebecca Lucky, the city's sustainability manager. Since home space and water heating accounts for most household gas use, the exemption allowed Menlo Park to avoid opposition while still tackling the lion's share of building gas consumption.

"I think a lot of it just has to do with where people are culturally," Lucky said. "We're not ready to break up with our gas stoves. I think people don't necessarily have a preference as to how their house is heated, or how their water is heated, as long as it's heated and cooled. I think that's why [the all-electric reach code] still ends up being the preferred approachbecause I think it's just a little bit more palatable for people right now."

Massachusetts follows Berkeley, but only so far

The Berkeley gas ban has served as the model for bylaws and ordinances in several Boston-area towns and cities, but the East Coast movement is also evolving. That is in part because Massachusetts does not grant the same authority over utility service and building codes to towns and cities that California affords local lawmakers.

The town of Brookline, Mass., attempted to work within the confines of state utility law in crafting the East Coast's first gas ban, but the Massachusetts attorney general's office could yet determine state law preempts the bylaw.

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In neighboring Newton, Mass., lawmakers and city staff have pondered whether to push through a gas ban and deal with a likely legal challenge, or ask the state legislature for special authority under a so-called home rule petition, which less progressive politicians could scuttle. City Councilwoman Emily Norton has also considered pushing for building electrification through a process that gives lawmakers the opportunity to seek energy performance requirements for new construction above a certain threshold.

The conversation is also changing in Newton. Norton said lawmakers are now positioning the legislation as a building electrification ordinance.

"Early on, I was calling it a fossil fuel ban on new construction or major renovations. I'm a big fan of banning bad things," Norton said. "But I did hear from enough people, including allies that, 'Oh, you know, let's not use the word ban. That scares people.'"

Building electrification diversifies across the country

Gas ban backers in other parts of the country could soon find themselves constrained by state law, as well. Arizona, Tennessee, Oklahoma and Louisiana all passed laws prohibiting local governments from adopting California-style building electrification measures in 2020. At least four other states introduced similar legislation, and utilities and their allies have plans to push a bill in Texas next year.

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The growing opposition could challenge local lawmakers to devise new approaches. Within the eight-city Building Electrification Initiative, a range of options are emerging.

After conducting a study, Salt Lake City decided to focus on developing measures to electrify new multifamily construction, but it is uncertain whether the city will follow the example of fellow Building Electrification Initiative members Berkeley and San Jose, two early adopters of gas bans and electrification codes. Meanwhile, Burlington, Vt., has focused on driving electric heat pump adoption through rebates and exploring ways to make more of its building stock heat pump ready.

Like Berkeley, Boulder, Colo., is using its building code to encourage electrification, but there is not mention of a "ban." The code imposes a maximum energy use per square foot on new residential construction and major renovations, with a goal of ensuring all new homes are built to net-zero emissions standards by 2030.

To get there, the code steps down periodically. On July 1, it tightened so that any new residential construction of 3,000 square feet or larger must meet the net-zero threshold, down from 5,000 square feet in the 2017 code. Mandatory rooftop solar panels can help offset some of a household's emissions, but even with solar potential, the code leaves little room for gas, according to Boulder Energy Manager Carolyn Elam.

"What happens is you're only allowed to put so much solar on your home and interconnect it to the utility system," she said. "So as you step down, you really can't — without being very, very creative — put natural gas heating appliances in for space heating or water heating and hit the code requirement."

Tackling existing buildings

Boulder is also one of a growing number of cities adopting ordinances to improve energy performance in existing buildings. The ordinance is not currently driving building electrification in Boulder, but Elam and other sustainability professionals said the policy could provide a pathway for gas-to-electric conversion.

The Institute for Market Transformation helped Washington, D.C., design a pioneering version of this policy called the building performance standard. It establishes a minimum energy efficiency or greenhouse gas emissions standard for buildings. That standard tightens regularly, requiring better performance over time. Property owners must take steps to bring buildings up to standard, though the policy allows them to choose how to meet the target. That makes it uncertain how many will opt to electrify gas systems.

However, for cities that want to electrify buildings, the policy is a natural tool, according to Cliff Majersik, director of market transformation at Institute for Market Transformation. "A building performance standard could drive very significant building electrification over a relatively short period. Buildings are a long-lived assets. They're an aircraft carrier. You can't turn them on a dime, but in building terms, you can move farther faster with a building performance standard than just about any tool to change your existing buildings," Majersik said.

That strategy is under consideration in New York City, which adopted a building performance standard targeting greenhouse gas emissions in 2019. Mayor Bill de Blasio has sought to piggyback off that policy in his bid to phase out natural gas and fuel oil from city buildings by 2030. Washington state and St. Louis have also passed building performance standards.

Meanwhile, Berkeley is still innovating. Its next step is setting aside a portion of transfer taxes to fund a rebate program for new homeowners who want to make energy improvements to their houses. Councilwoman Kate Harrison, who spearheaded the gas ban, hopes it will empower residents to retrofit the city's existing housing stock.

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