Susie Cagle is a climate and environment reporter for Guardian US, based in Oakland.
On Tuesday, the California city passed the first all-electric building ordinance in the United States.
Berkeley this week became the first city in the United States to ban natural, fossil-gas hookups in new buildings.
The landmark ordinance was passed into law on Tuesday, after being approved unanimously by the city council the previous week amid resounding public support.
Although Berkeley may be pushing the vanguard, the city is hardly alone. Governments across the U.S. and Europe are looking at strategies to phase out gas. In California alone, dozens of cities and counties are considering eliminating fossil-fuel hookups to power stoves and heat homes in new buildings, while California state agencies pencil out new rules and regulations that would slash emissions.
Natural gas, it seems, has become the new climate-crisis frontline.
Berkeley’s ordinance, which goes into effect on January 1, will ban gas hookups in new multifamily construction, with some allowances for first-floor retail and certain types of large structures.
The reasons behind the decision are multifold. Energy use in buildings accounts for about 25 percent of greenhouse-gas emissions in California. If the state is to meet its goal of 100 percent zero-carbon energy by 2045, the gas will have to go.
For decades, gas was considered among the preferred energy sources for buildings and embraced as a bridge from dirtier fossil fuels to a green energy future.
“There’s been a lingering perception that burning gas was cleaner than electricity, which might have been true 20 years ago when electricity came from burning coal,” said Pierre Delforge, a senior scientist with the Natural Resources Defense Council. “When we look at electrification policies, we need to think about what the grid will look like in 10 or 20 years, not what it looked like yesterday.”
A state energy commission report released in early 2019 concluded that building electrification was “a key strategy” for reducing the state’s climate impacts, one that “offers the most promising path to achieving [greenhouse gas] reduction targets in the least costly manner.”
Roughly 3 percent of all natural gas extracted by industry is leaked into the atmosphere, where methane is a far more potent, if shorter lived, greenhouse gas than carbon dioxide.
Berkeley was also motivated to reduce health and safety risks endemic to gas appliances, which release significant emissions and pollutants indoors.
And then there’s the matter of running large amounts of flammable fuel around a state known for large earthquakes. A Pacific Gas and Electric pipeline explosion in 2010 turned a Northern California neighborhood into a smoking crater.
“We really believe we have the underpinnings of good legislation with economic, health and safety, and climate impacts,” said the Berkeley council member Kate Harrison. “We can do this and we’ll end up a lot healthier and cleaner for it.”
As goes Berkeley, so goes California
Further decarbonizing the grid and electrifying buildings will be key to helping California meet its ambitious climate goals. In 2018, the state passed a law requiring it to derive 100 percent of its power from zero-carbon energy sources by 2045, and to pursue a “bold path” to get there.
Cities’ individual choices will be crucial in reaching that target. Energy is regulated at the state level, but municipalities control much of their own building codes.
“Climate-minded cities are all pulling their hair out, like, ‘We have a climate emergency, and the national government doesn’t care.’ But this issue is squarely in their wheelhouse—they’ve just got to think about it in new and creative ways,” said Bruce Nilles, managing director of the Rocky Mountain Institute. “We’re dealing with an existential crisis. We’ve got to dust off all the different ways that different actors can do good, progressive, climate-minded things.”
More than 50 cities and counties in California are now considering similar policies to Berkeley’s, either banning or limiting gas and incentivizing full electrification in new buildings.
Panama Bartholomy, director of the Building Decarbonization Coalition, points to this summer as a transformative one: In order to have new ordinances in place by January 1, municipalities will have until September to pass electrification measures. “Not all 50 are going to make it. I’m thinking a couple dozen make it,” he said.
Even a fully electrified California will still burn some gas, some of it to power that electric grid. Los Angeles, for example, plans to phase out some gas infrastructure, but is also investing in a new gas-fired power plant, in service of fully phasing out coal.
There are also still hurdles in the developer community. When Dan Kalb, a city council member in Oakland, tried to convince a developer to build a new housing development to be fully electric, he said, they were unwilling, claiming that new apartments without gas wouldn’t command the same high market rate as units that were oven-ready.
And new construction accounts for just roughly 1 percent of buildings in California. In order to fully phase out gas, reach climate emissions goals, reduce indoor pollution, address safety hazards, and reach zero-carbon energy by 2045, state and local governments will have to create an incentivized, affordable pathway away from the pipelines, and toward induction stoves and heat pumps. Bartholomy’s coalition is working with manufacturers to prepare them for all that new electric appliance demand.
“We’ve got about 10 years to really transform this market and make the clean version the more attractive version,” said Bartholomy.
If more cities can pull off what Berkeley did, they could not just clean up California, but also create a model for local and state governments across the U.S., as coal is phased out and the electric grid becomes cleaner.
“There are gas utilities all over the industry, all over the country that are terrified that this fight is going to come to them,” said David Pomerantz, executive director of the Energy and Policy Institute. “There are rumblings in Oregon and Washington. The fight’s in California right now but it’s coming everywhere.”
A 10-year window
For utilities that sell both gas and electricity, a gas phase-out presents a tremendous market shift, but not necessarily an existential one—they’ll stay in business, their customer bases intact. But for utilities that sell and service only natural, fossil gas, the prospect of Berkeley leading California toward an electric green future is horrifying.
“If you’re a gas-only utility, then building electrification is a death sentence for you. In that sense they’re almost akin to the coal mining industry,” said Pomerantz.
SoCalGas, for example, serves nearly 22 million customers, or about half the state. A subsidiary of Sempra Energy, the utility arguably has the most to lose from electrification.
“The Southern California Gas Company is just not coming to the table on this,” said Bartholomy. “They aren’t providing any vision to meet our climate targets.”
SoCalGas did not respond to a request for comment.
Gas companies won’t be the only ones left bearing the cost of old energy infrastructure. Ratepayers have in turn invested in the current pipelines, which will become stranded assets if everything electrifies.
“If you’re going to have entire communities apart from the gas system under the name of decarbonization, who is left holding the bag of the things that are already in the ground?” said Michael Colvin, director of California Energy for the Environmental Defense Fund.
Of all the challenges facing full electrification, the affordability component is among the trickiest. A report released in June cautioned that as more people leave the gas grid, the same fixed infrastructure costs will be spread across a smaller number of customers, raising prices for everyone left.
“We don’t want to have low-income communities the only ones left paying for the natural gas—these are already folks who pay a disproportionate amount of their income for energy and we don’t want to make it worse,” said Bartholomy.
But we’ve invested a lot in that gas infrastructure, and it still has to be paid for somehow, by someone.
“It was put in place assuming we would be using gas infrastructure for so many years,” said Ranjit Deshmukh, environmental studies professor at the University of California, Santa Barbara. “Are we as a society and a consumer base obligated to pay for that even if we’re not using it in the future?”
If the public doesn’t pay for those pipelines, Colvin warns, it may be even more difficult to get the investment necessary to carry California into full electrification. “Who on earth is going to invest in us if we don’t honor our past commitments?”
The earlier California begins fully decarbonizing the state’s energy, the more time there may be to plan for what will be a painful, if necessary, phase-out. If the state is to go zero-carbon by 2045, new gas-powered appliances would need to be removed from the market by around 2030.
“We have a 10-year window to figure out a lot of these conversations. That sounds like a long time, but it’s not,” said Colvin. “There’s pipes in the ground that have been around since the ‘30s.”