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San Francisco advances new building gas ban

San Francisco is poised to advance its building electrification push with a proposed ordinance that would ban natural gas infrastructure in new buildings.

San Francisco Board of Supervisors member Rafael Mandelman and the city's Department of the Environment announced new legislation June 30 that would prohibit the city from issuing building permits for new construction that includes gas hookups. After Jan. 1, 2021, San Francisco would only issue permits for buildings with all-electric heating systems, stoves and appliances. The law would cover residential and commercial buildings, with narrow exemptions.

The legislation in California's fourth most populous city expanded the building electrification movement in the Golden State, where 30 local governments have passed restrictions on gas use in new construction since 2019.

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This is not San Francisco's first building electrification effort. In January, the Board of Supervisors passed a measure that requires all-electric systems in new construction and major renovations of city-owned buildings. Days later, the body adopted an ordinance that discourages developers from building structures with gas systems by requiring them to achieve higher energy standards than all-electric buildings.

"Today's ordinance to eliminate natural gas from all new construction projects will be a culmination of these efforts and one that puts our city firmly on the path toward a safer, cleaner zero-emissions future," Mandelman said during a June 30 press conference.

Mandelman's office has been working on a more comprehensive code for several months, ultimately deciding to follow an approach pioneered by Berkeley, Calif., in July 2019. This approach relies on the city's authority to modify buildings codes to protect public health and safety.

"We passed this ordinance because it's first a building safety and health code. It's not an energy code," said Cyndy Comerford, climate program manager at the Department of the Environment. "We're really looking at the holistic impacts of natural gas beyond just climate change — looking at health, safety, resilience and equity."

The draft ordinance stated that San Francisco's geography, topography and population density put the city at increased risk of gas infrastructure fires and explosions caused by earthquakes and landslides. Gas combustion in buildings also exacerbates the health impacts of smog and ozone on residents while contributing to climate change, according to the ordinance. Building operations accounted for 43.7% of the city's greenhouse gas emissions in 2017, while 80% of those emissions came from gas consumption or district steam produced by gas combustion, the ordinance said.

The ordinance would allow a building official to issue a permit for a building with gas plumbing in cases where constructing an all-electric structure is "physically, technically, or structurally infeasible." The carve-out would be subject to review and limited to the part of the building where electric systems are infeasible. The builder would also have to include hookups for future conversion to electric power where possible.

A second exemption would allow permits for gas hookups in building areas designated for commercial kitchens, but this exemption would only last one year, until Jan. 1, 2022.

The feasibility exemption is fairly common in such laws, and the cooking carve-out is increasingly popular as a means of avoiding battles with the restaurant industry. The California Restaurant Association sued Berkeley in November 2019 over its building gas ban.

San Francisco is one of six California cities to follow the Berkeley model, though three of those municipalities have layered reach codes on top of the gas ban. Reach codes, a term for local ordinances that go beyond California's minimum energy standards, can mandate such things as all-electric construction.

Cities do not have to submit Berkeley-style gas bans for review by the California Energy Commission, though the body has approved many of California's 30 building electrification ordinances, including San Francisco's electric-preferred reach code.