California's Bay Area saw an uptick in votes to require all-electric systems in new buildings in recent weeks, following a pause in adoption as the nation grappled with the COVID-19 pandemic, economic downturn and protests over racism. The debates on the measures telegraphed potential challenges ahead as the gas ban movement progresses beyond a period of early adoption and as local lawmakers seek to address gas use not just in new construction but existing buildings.
Meanwhile, building electrification advocates experienced their first major setback in Massachusetts, where Attorney General Maura Healey struck down the East Coast's first gas ban. Healey concluded that state law preempts the Brookline, Mass., bylaw modeled after a pioneering Berkeley, Calif., ordinance, casting doubt on the viability of several gas bans advancing in neighboring communities.
Elsewhere, Seattle's proposed gas ban remains in limbo, as the Seattle City Council committee handling Council Member Kshama Sawant's legislation suspended meetings through the summer. It has a narrow path forward in the coming months as lawmakers prepare to recess before delving into the fall budget session. Sawant's recently passed Tax Amazon bill did dedicate funding to Seattle's Green New Deal, including for programs to transition residential buildings in "communities disproportionately burdened by pollution" from natural gas and fuel oil heating to electric alternatives.
Compromise paves way to 31st Calif. electrification ordinance
The Burlingame, Calif., City Council passed building electrification requirements for new construction on Aug. 17, becoming the 31st Golden State jurisdiction to join the movement.
In a novel approach, city staff submitted three separate ordinances covering new and renovated single-family homes, multi-family residential construction and new nonresidential buildings. Council members, who have considered an electrification code at least since November 2019, asked staff in June to split up the measures to better facilitate discussion on issues where lawmakers remained divided.
The final version requires all-electric systems in single-family home construction and substantial renovations that include heating, cooling and ventilation system replacements. Council members debated allowing gas use for cooking, with some favoring a narrow exemption for outdoor appliances. They ultimately exempted both indoor and outdoor cooking appliances, an increasingly common provision as lawmakers aim to avoid pushback over consumer preferences.
Cooking also fueled debate in discussions about commercial spaces, where council members decided to allow an automatic exemption for restaurants and commercial kitchens, partly in recognition of the burden the industry has shouldered during the pandemic. All other new multi-family and nonresidential building developers would have to demonstrate to building officials that all-electric systems are infeasible.
The reach codes — which "reach" beyond California's minimum energy standards — passed in a 4-1 vote, with Vice Mayor Ann O'Brien Keighran lodging the "no" vote. O'Brien Keighran telegraphed her opposition in July, saying she was "ambivalent" about residential electrification, particularly for remodels, given that the California Energy Commission may take up a statewide electrification code in its 2022 energy code update. She said the council's energy would be better spent educating residents about the potential change over the next year.
While building electrification backers are lobbying the California Energy Commission and PG&E Corporation filed a letter in support of a statewide code, Burlingame Sustainability Coordinator Sigalle Michael noted that the commission had not decided to tackle the issue.
Bumpy road pairing new building electrification with retrofits
Piedmont, Calif., was also slated to vote on an electrification code on Aug. 17, but lawmakers in the affluent Oakland suburb retrenched over concerns about the cost of green building retrofits to residents.
Piedmont is seeking to tackle building electrification in new homes and greenhouse gas emissions from existing residences in a single ordinance. While gas ban backers say the latter is necessary, Piedmont's experience illustrated why it is trickier: It often impacts more residents than new-construction measures.
During a July 20 city council meeting, Piedmont's proposed all-electric construction requirement for low-rise homes — including multi-family residences with three floors or fewer — stirred less debate than green building mandates for certain renovations. Lawmakers voted 3-2 to advance the ordinance, but on Aug. 12 announced they had canceled the final vote, saying planning and building department staff would conduct more public outreach and clarify the measures.
The amendments would require residents to install solar panels when they add a level to a low-rise residence or increase its roof area by 30%. Vice Mayor Teddy Gray King said she worried that would upset constituents after the council had voted to opt all residents into a 100% renewable electricity plan from East Bay Community Energy, or EBCE.
"There's an element to this where you're asking Piedmonters to pay for solar energy twice," she said, adding that staff and EBCE were basically saying, "we would like Piedmonters to pay for solar panels in order to generate clean renewable solar for their own residence, but additionally we need you to cash flow renewable infrastructure for the rest of the state."
Beckie Menten, EBCE's program manager for building electrification and energy efficiency, noted that residents with rooftop solar often generate enough power to sell excess power into the grid.
Another measure would require residents investing $25,000 or more in home renovation to choose one option from a list of green building interventions, or two options if investing $100,000 or more. The options include energy efficiency upgrades, electric heating conversion and energy savings measures identified in a home energy score or audit.
Mayor Robert McBain argued that a bathroom renovation could easily trigger the $25,000 threshold in Piedmont, where the median household income and home value are $211,000 and $1.8 million, respectively. Analysis showed a lower threshold would spur little investment, said Justin Szasz, a CivicSpark climate fellow who helped develop the ordinance. Szasz noted the starter options include insulating pipes at a cost of 25 cents per foot, but council members claimed many Piedmonters have already invested in low-hanging fruit, potentially leaving them on the hook for more expensive options such as electric heat pumps.
Colo. group drops ballot measure to prohibit gas bans
Coloradans will not get the opportunity to weigh in on building gas bans in November after Gov. Jared Polis struck a bargain with industry and environmentalists to forego energy-related ballot measures in 2020 and 2022.
A pro-drilling group called Protect Colorado had planned to put a measure before Centennial State voters prohibiting local governments from banning gas infrastructure in new buildings. However, Protect Colorado dropped the measure as part of the ceasefire, which saw environmentalists abandon their pursuit of stricter setback requirements for oil and gas developments.
Polis said the agreement would give the state time to implement 2019's Senate Bill 181, which overhauled the influential Colorado Oil and Gas Conservation Commission and gave local governments a greater say over drilling in their communities. It also includes a framework to resolve disputes over oil and gas development through the commission.
"In recent years, those conflicts resulted in expensive, divisive fights at the ballot box and the courtroom, which did not satisfy homeowners, environmentalists, or the oil and gas industry. There are no real winners in these fights," Polis said in a July 24 op-ed.
Protect Colorado called the deal a win for all Coloradans. "Now is the time for Colorado to come together," the group said in a July 24 statement. "We will continue to do our part to help Colorado's communities thrive and grow, to provide good jobs for Coloradans, and to be a cornerstone in rebuilding the economy we share."