By Alejandro Borunda
In the summer of 2019, the city council in Berkeley, California, made a bold and unprecedented move: They banned natural gas hookups in most new building construction.
Councilwoman Kate Harrison, who sponsored the new ordinance, had been on a hunt for ways to reduce the city’s carbon emissions. “We looked at where our emissions were coming from and found that natural gas in buildings played a significant role,” she says—they accounted for a whopping 37 percent of the city’s total. Cars are another big source, but the city has no authority to regulate tailpipe emissions. But buildings? “This is an area we can tackle,” Harrison says.
Berkeley’s pioneering ordinance spurred a wave of similar efforts. Since 2019, more than 40 cities in California have passed similar measures. Proposals to ban gas hookups are now under consideration in Colorado, Washington State, and Massachusetts.
Climate experts have long said that buildings old and new will need to wean themselves off fossil fuels. Today, buildings account for more than a quarter of U.S. greenhouse gas emissions—a number that will have to drop rapidly if the country hopes to hit the emissions reductions goals outlined in the Paris Agreement.
But the growing movement to restrict natural gas hookups has also unleashed an aggressive campaign by the natural gas industry to preemptively ban the bans.
The American Gas Association, an industry trade group, vowed in an email statement to “absolutely oppose any effort to ban natural gas or sideline our infrastructure anywhere the effort materializes, state house or city [hall] steps.” So far, six states, including Arizona, Kansas, Louisiana, Oklahoma, Tennessee, and Utah, have passed legislation forbidding such bans. Similar legislation is being considered in 14 other states.
Buildings are carbon hogs
Because buildings use so much energy, they have the potential to be a big part of any solution to the climate crisis.
The 95 million residential and commercial buildings in the United States account for about 28 percent of the nation’s greenhouse gas emissions. Two-thirds of that total are “indirect emissions”—the carbon actually comes out of the stacks at power plants that generate the electricity used for the buildings’ lighting, air conditioning, and electric heating. The remaining 12 percent—about as much as the entire country of Brazil or slightly more than all of Germany—are “direct emissions,” primarily from natural gas and heating oil burned in the buildings themselves to heat them and their water.
The challenge is to clean up both kinds of emissions. The U.S. electricity sector is already getting greener: Its emissions have dropped by nearly 30 percent from a 2005 peak, largely as a result of renewable energy sources like wind and solar replacing coal and natural gas in power plants. That trend will only accelerate in coming years as more renewable energy sources come online.
To fully decarbonize the nation’s buildings, though, direct emissions will need to be addressed—and the best way, experts say, is to convert buildings to run only on electricity. If all new construction in the U.S. were built all-electric starting in 2022, the building sector’s overall emissions would drop by 11 percent by 2050, according to analyses from the Rocky Mountain Institute, a Colorado-based nonprofit that specializes in energy efficiency and sustainability issues.
RMI also found that retrofitting existing buildings with all electric components, starting in 2030, would push the sectors’ emissions down by 90 percent by 2050, says RMI’s Mike Henchen. In what may be the most ambitious effort to address building emissions, New York City passed a 2019 law requiring most of its bigger buildings, both commercial and residential, to reduce their emissions 40 percent by 2030. (The Empire State building has already hit that target.)
“We’re already very deep in the hole, and we can’t just keep digging it deeper,” says Sara Baldwin, a buildings expert at Energy Innovation, a climate and energy research center.
Natural gas losing ground
Natural gas was once marketed as a clean alternative to coal and oil, touted as a “bridge fuel” that could help reduce overall carbon emissions while still providing reliable, cheap energy. But its role in a lower-carbon future is now in question.
Natural gas is primarily made up of methane, or CH4, but when it is burned, it mostly converts to CO2, contributing—albeit less than coal- or oil-burning—to the long-term atmospheric buildup of that principal greenhouse gas. But on top of that, methane is itself an extraordinarily potent greenhouse gas, one that, in the decade or two it takes to convert naturally to CO2 in the atmosphere, is 84 times as good at trapping heat near Earth’s surface.
Thus when natural gas escapes from a leaky stove or from somewhere along the three million miles of pipeline that criss-cross the U.S., it can contribute powerfully to warming. Many of the lines along the vast distribution network are old and in need of maintenance or replacement. Some recent studies suggest that natural gas pipeline infrastructure is leaking up to five times more than previously estimated. Those leaks may have potentially dangerous health and safety as well as climate effects.
What’s more, since 2009, the costs of maintaining gas distribution systems has tripled, according to analysis from the Rocky Mountain Institute, and maintenance costs will likely to continue to rise. Those costs get passed along to consumers. In California, the state energy commission projects consumers could expect to pay more than double for their gas by 2050.
On average, one new natural gas customer gets hooked up every minute, the gas association said in a 2018 report. That means about 500,000 new hookups per year that could be avoided with electrification, says Baldwin.
“Once you build new homes, and put in natural gas pipes, people tend to stick with that,” says Ken Gillingham, an environmental and energy economist at Yale University.
“Taking [gas] away would have devastating impacts without the environmental benefits some claim,” the gas association warned in its emailed statement.
The revolution could be complicated
Today, one in four Americans lives in an all-electric home, mostly in the South, where air conditioning is more of a concern than heating. But all-electric construction is expanding in cooler climates, as installation and construction costs decline and technology improves. The performance of electric heat pumps has improved so much that Maine, which depends more on heating oil than any other state, passed a law in 2019 calling for heat pumps to be installed in 100,000 homes by 2025.
One of the most complicated challenges in converting from gas to all-electric is maintaining affordable utility costs. For example, 70 percent of residents of low-income communities are renters who could get slammed on several fronts. If their housing converts to all-electric, utility bills will go up if the renovation leaves out necessary changes like upgrading insulation or adding efficient appliances. Upgrading housing, in turn, can encourage gentrification, driving low-income people out of their neighborhoods. And in the long term, as more gas customers end their gas service, those who remain could find themselves saddled with larger bills, because the fixed costs of the distribution system are borne by a smaller pool of customers.
Personal preferences can also get in the way of the conversion to all-electric. “People get really emotional about their gas stoves,” says Fei Wang, a buildings expert at the energy analytics firm Wood Mackenzie. Some professional chefs in particular have expressed their love of gas flames— though others have embraced magnetic induction stoves, the vanguard of electric cooking technology. The California Restaurant Association sued the city of Berkeley six week before the new ordinance took effect last year, and some cities like Denver have specifically carved out exceptions so people can keep their stoves.
All of these issues contribute to slowing the transition off gas. Although local ordinances have the advantage of allowing cities to tailor their climate goals to their constituents’ willingness to accept change, the resulting patchwork move to all-electric isn’t happening fast enough, says Ted Lamm, an expert at U.C. Berkeley’s Center for Law, Energy, and the Environment.
The Washington State legislature is considering an ambitious bill to prevent fossil fuel use in new buildings after 2027, and California is in the process of updating building codes that will likely require all new construction to be “electric-ready” by 2023. But without more sweeping state or federal legislation, Lamm says, the pace will not pick up enough to achieve the benefits that all-electric promises.
“It’s great to iterate. It’s not so great when we have a very hard deadline on the other end that we need to meet,” he says, referring to the urgency of the climate problem. “It’s just not fast enough for what needs to happen.”
WHAT YOU CAN DO
When Berkeley began considering its ban, the city had already been looking hard for new ways to shrink its carbon footprint. It had already installed LED light bulbs in the city’s 76,000 street lights and added bike paths and charging stations for electric vehicles. But it was far from hitting the emissions-reductions goals it had set for itself in 2009.
Harrison, the city council member, knew that the urgency to address the problem was only growing, as residents found their homes blanketed in smoke from climate-intensified wildfires and sweltering in record-breaking heat waves. After reviewing the city’s building code, council members concluded they could legally adjust it.
Harrison, who had already converted her own home to all-electric after her gas boiler failed, gave a demonstration of an induction stove to bolster the case for giving up gas. By July, the measure passed unanimously and with popular support, including from Pacific Gas & Electric, the nation’s fifth largest distributor of natural gas and electricity.
The new ordinance leaves for another day the question of how to get all of Berkeley’s existing buildings off gas. But to Wang, the Wood Mackenzie analyst, it’s much better than nothing.
“It doesn’t have to be everything,” she says. “Just start somewhere.”