Changing the Course of Energy Efficiency: Behind a Groundbreaking Natural Gas Ban
From methane leaks to asthma risks, the use of natural gas in residential buildings poses a range of problems. In July 2019, Berkeley took a powerful step to solve them, passing a natural gas ban. HappyCo covers its significance for multifamily operators.
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For Berkeley City Council member Kate Harrison, there was only one path forward to end the era of natural gas in residential spaces: “take drastic action.” According to the East Bay Express, Harrison stressed to fellow council members (and the public) that “inevitable leaks of methane along the supply chain — in addition to carbon dioxide produced by burning natural gas make it necessary … to replace gas with renewable electricity for heating, cooling, and cooking.”
In her view, the stats were too starting to ignore; as the San Francisco Chronicle reports, “the city [of Berkeley] determined in a report last year … that the burning of natural gas within city buildings accounted for 27% of Berkeley’s total greenhouse gas emissions in 2016.” Between these figures and Harrison’s findings, council members decided they had no choice but to act boldly.
As The Guardian reported earlier this month, Berkeley “became the first city in the United States to ban natural, fossil gas hook-ups in new buildings.” Earning “unanimous” approval by the council, the ordinance requires new single-family homes, town homes, and small buildings to feature electric infrastructure. Importantly, The Guardian warns, “the city is hardly alone,” as “governments across the US and Europe are looking at strategies to phase out gas.” Indeed, Forbes reveals: “New Jersey’s draft Energy Master Plan would end natural gas use in buildings by 2030, and new Maine laws will reduce use in buildings.”
Thus, multifamily operators have a prime opportunity to get an in-depth look at just what’s driving this shift to electrification — before new policies impact their properties. To properly understand the push for electricity over natural gas, HappyCo explores everything from climate effects and health hazards to residents upsides and operator savings. First, it’s best to clarify the science basics of electrification.
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Forbes illustrates “building electrification” quite simply: “swapping out fossil-fueled-powered appliances for electric appliances (or ‘fuel switching’) in a significant fraction of buildings.” However, the San Francisco Chronicle breaks down the fine print, noting: “instead of having natural gas pipes, electric-only buildings install heat pumps and induction cooking.”
The San Francisco Chronicle quotes Ben Gould, Chairman of Berkeley’s Community Environmental Advisory Commission, who paints a full picture of electrification: “think about a refrigerator and how it makes inside your refrigerator cold and blows hot air out of somewhere else. A heat pump works like that, but in reverse. It takes outside air and emits cold air outside and provides hot air inside.” As for cooking, the San Francisco Chronicle makes clear: “induction cooking transfers heat directly to any magnetic cookware, including cast iron and steel, without using radiation.”
With the electrification basics covered, it’s valuable to understand why electricity took second place to natural gas for decades. The Guardian quotes Pierre Delforge, a senior scientist with the Natural Resources Defense Council, “‘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.’” Meanwhile, Forbes notes, “for years, natural gas has been considered a ‘bridge fuel’ or ‘middle ground’ between coal and carbon-free energy, but rapidly decarbonizing our building stock to meet climate goals requires phasing out natural gas.”
To that end, it’s important to gauge why natural gas poses so many profound consequences for our climate.
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In a recent piece, The Guardian presents the profound consequences of natural gas use for our climate, noting: “roughly 3% 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.”
Noting that natural gas is the “dominant fossil fuel used to heat buildings,” Forbes makes clear that the “associated methane leakage in gas production and distribution increases its GHG impact — more natural gas demand in new and existing buildings means more methane leakage.” Thus, in Berkeley Mayor Jesse Arreguin’s view, a mix of profound environmental hazards make the natural gas problem well worth solving — and soon. According to Arreguin, “warmer temperatures and the year-round fire season… the melting of the polar ice caps, growing sea level rise, all these conditions prove that we are in real trouble and that we have to take bold action now.”
Stepping back from this macro-level view, resident safety remains a key concern in the natural gas equation. In a July 2019 piece, the East Bay Express reveals: “a 2017 study by the US Geological Services identified broken gas lines as a key risk factor during an earthquake” as “much of the damage and loss of life after an earthquake is caused by fires from broken gas lines.” The publication also links explosion risks to natural gas use, highlighting examples from Alison Canyon and San Bruno.
Additionally, the East Bay Express quotes Dr. Robert Gould of the University of San Francisco, who stresses that the burning of natural gas “endangers health” due to its “‘serious air-pollution impacts.’” As the East Bay Express notes, those include asthma, threats to healthy lung development in children, and “acute and chronic respiratory diseases.”
The same piece also points out serious risks associated with kitchens that feature a natural gas stove. It cites a study by the Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory, which emphasizes: “during a typical winter week, 1.7 million Californians could be exposed to [carbon monoxide] levels that exceed standards for ambient air, and 12 million could be exposed to excessive [nitrogen dioxide] levels, if they do not use venting range hoods during cooking.”
Moreover, the East Bay Express stresses: “cooking with gas is linked to asthma attacks and hospitalizations, hitting hardest in children and communities of color.” Indeed, this stat from a 2013 Lawrence Berkeley Lab study is more than a little unsettling: “in 60 percent of the homes with gas stoves, the air pollution level violates federal standards for outdoor air.”
Ultimately, Berkeley city council member Kate Harrison paints the strongest picture of natural gas hazards to our climate and residential communities alike. She stressed to the East Bay Express that in using natural gas, “we’re piping a toxic, flammable, greenhouse-gas producing explosive liquid across earthquake faults and into our homes.”
Given all the dangers linked to natural gas, it’s time to explore why electrification represents a hopeful twist in the energy narrative.
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As more and more properties embrace electrification, multifamily residents should feel heartened by the prospect of speedy comebacks following power outages. As Berkeley city council member Kate Harrison told the press, “most gas appliances already rely on electricity to operate” and that “electricity is more ‘resilient,’ quicker to get back online after a disaster.”
Meanwhile, some multifamily residents remain unconvinced of the upsides to electric stoves. Harrison was well aware of this uphill battle facing her council ahead of the natural gas ban vote. The East Bay Express describes her efforts at persuasion: “to convince skeptics, Harrison brought an induction cooking unit to the city council meeting, where aromas of chocolate being melted on the induction stove wafted through the air.” Besides this sweet surprise, Harrison “reported that Wolfgang Puck and other chefs have gone all electric because it’s safer for workers and works better.”
In the end, Berkeley’s natural gas ban earned “resounding public support,” so Harrison’s playful instructive approach no doubt struck a chord. Now that it’s clear why residents are warming up to this natural gas alternative, it’s valuable to gauge why the cost-savings potential should steer operators toward electrification.
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As the Berkeley City Council worked to inform the public about its proposed natural gas ban, a range of consultants and developers “addressed concerns that constructing all-electric buildings might be more expensive.” According to the East Bay Express, architect Brad Jacobson related how, after designing and building more than 100 all-electric buildings, he found the sites “cost the same to build and less to operate” as structures using natural gas.
Importantly, the California Energy Commission noted that, after an all-electric building passed the construction stage, “operating with the efficient new technology is cheaper than using gas.” Relatedly, the commission stressed: “gas prices are expected to rise as the use of gas declines.” Far from an abstract idea, all-electric buildings are cropping up in a range of categories; as the East Bay Express describes, they’ve taken shape in the following forms: “a new San Francisco Airport administration building, several new affordable housing developments in San Francisco, and new laboratory buildings at UC Berkeley.”
A recent Forbes piece covers just how this trend relates to the rise of smart appliances. The author argues: “as more buildings (and vehicles) are electrified, electricity demand will grow — meaning our electricity usage must be smarter to optimize electric infrastructure investment and keep consumer electricity costs low.” According to Stet Sanborn of the Smith Group, Berkeley’s natural gas ban will make these options more feasible for operators, as the new law “tells the market ‘this is where we’re going,’ and they will produce more products, driving down the cost curve of these new technologies.”
Should these revenue-boosting possibilities pique the interest of operators, it’s helpful for multifamily executives to understand how they can help lawmakers spark change.
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A recent Forbes article notes a variety of ways policymakers can advocate for building electrification. Contributor Amanda Myers recommends a mix of “legislative and regulatory policy levers,” ones that set targets for new construction and retrofits, paving the way to building electrification. Myers argues that “three-to-five-year interim targets” are beneficial to keep stakeholders motivated with clear-cut goals, but she also recommends that states “set targets for annual building retrofits (which should include major equipment upgrades and fuel switching).”
Meanwhile, an Argus-Courier piece provides a useful insight from Diana Gomez, a member of the Petaluma planning commission, who stresses: “What we’ve found is generally the developers build to the code and no more. So if we can get some robust mandates in a code to make projects more green, that’s wonderful.” Thus, operators drawn to the cost-savings opportunities of electrification would benefit from supporting their local planning commission in the fight for green energy codes.
Additionally, operators interested in building electrification would be wise to keep tabs on just how they’re electric utilities are addressing the issue. In Forbes, Myers makes clear: “electric utilities can help customers electrify by offering incentives, connecting customers to trusted and qualified contractors, validating the quality of devices, and influencing how customers consume electricity once they electrify.” In Myers’ view, the ideal building electrification program would urge customers to change their usage windows to time frames when “energy is cheaper and cleaner.”
From state lawmakers to local planning commissions to large-scale utilities, operators have plenty of potential allies in the push for building electrification.
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In supporting the switch from natural gas to electrification, operators have a chance to protect our climate, keep residents safe, and benefit from powerful cost-savings possibilities. As Berkeley council member Kate Harrison stresses: “We really believe we have the underpinnings of good legislation with economic, health and safety and climate impacts. We can do this and we’ll end up a lot healthier and cleaner for it.”
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