Why Berkeley Banned Natural Gas in New Buildings

July 31, 2019 | 9:26 am
Photo: Christian Naenny/Flickr
Mark Specht
Western States Energy Manager/Senior Analyst

Two weeks ago, Berkeley, California became the first city in the nation to ban natural gas hook-ups in new construction. The ordinance passed unanimously with overwhelming public support, but the gas industry has been quietly fighting back by stealthily funding “consumer” groups that criticize gas bans like Berkeley’s. So let me explain what the rule actually does and why it’s a great idea.

The fine print

The Berkeley rule goes into effect January 1, 2020. The rule will initially only apply to low-rise residential buildings, but as the California Energy Commission develops all-electric building standards for mid-rise, high-rise, and commercial buildings, the natural gas ban will automatically apply to newly constructed buildings of those types as well. To be clear, this rule applies only to new buildings – so for those of you who love your gas stove so much that Berkeley would have to pry it out of your cold dead hands, you won’t have to let go of your gas-burning appliances quite yet. (But why hang on when electric induction ranges routinely top Consumer Reports’ performance tests?) Existing buildings in Berkeley can continue to use natural gas… at least for the time being.

Small city, big impact

Berkeley is a small, liberal city, so some folks may just dismiss this new rule as a far-out Berkeley thing that won’t ever get any traction.

But not so fast.

Berkeley has long been a city of “firsts.” There are numerous examples where cities and states have followed Berkeley’s lead and passed ground-breaking policies that originated in Berkeley. For example, Berkeley was the first city to:

  • Integrate public schools voluntarily (1968)
  • Limit smoking in restaurants (1977)
  • Ban Styrofoam (1989)

…And the list goes on. In short, Berkeley’s novel policies have a history of getting replicated at a much larger scale, leading to a big impact.

Berkeley and the big picture

Given the urgency of reducing emissions to avoid the worst impacts of global warming, Berkeley’s ordinance is significant because it sets in motion what could be a huge breakthrough in building decarbonization.

Let’s take a minute to think about the bigger picture.

Last year saw the release of the Special Report on Global Warming of 1.5°C. Amongst its many findings, the report highlighted the urgency of reaching net zero greenhouse gas emissions by mid-century in order to avoid the worst impacts of global warming. Again, that’s net zero by mid-century, which means we have just over 30 years to eliminate as many emissions as possible and to offset all the rest. The state of California has already signaled its intention to achieve that goal – last year, Governor Jerry Brown signed an executive order committing the state to reach carbon neutrality by 2045.

Eliminating emissions one step at a time

So how do you eliminate emissions from buildings when buildings tend to stick around for many decades and retrofits are notoriously expensive? Berkeley’s answer is to nip the problem in the bud by preventing natural gas use in all new buildings, which immediately eliminates one of the largest sources of emissions from buildings.

Roughly 27% of Berkeley’s greenhouse gas emissions come from natural gas use in buildings. (For comparison, buildings both in California and nationwide account for only 12% of emissions since California and the United States both have much more agricultural and industrial emissions – see comparison charts below.) Twenty seven percent is a big chunk, but Berkeley’s total emissions are miniscule in comparison to California’s or the United States’ emissions.

For example, California’s commercial and residential buildings produce roughly as much greenhouse gas emissions as the entire country of Switzerland. Buildings in all of the United States produce roughly as much emissions as the entire country of Canada. In short, buildings, and the natural gas burned inside, are a big contributor to global warming.

Enter Berkeley, which is leading the way with its new ordinance. Many other cities, such as San Francisco, are considering similar action. Looking ahead, if California or the United States were to adopt a similar policy, it would be a big step towards reducing the large amount of emissions from buildings.

Over a quarter of Berkeley’s emissions come from buildings. In California and nationwide, buildings account for 12% of emissions. Sources: Berkeley data, California data, United States data.

Saving money and sparing the air

But this isn’t just about preventing climate change. It’s also about saving people money and improving indoor air quality. A recent analysis demonstrated that new all-electric homes end up saving homeowners money in comparison to new homes built with natural gas; these findings apply not only to Oakland (Berkeley’s neighbor to the south), but also to cities in significantly different climate zones, such as Chicago, Houston, and Providence, Rhode Island. From a financial standpoint, building new homes that are all-electric is a good choice.

My mother-in-law’s electric induction stovetop, which is pretty fun to cook on. The burners on the right are induction, and the burners on the left are the old-school electric kind that actually heat up (which allows you to use any pan on those burners).

Furthermore, burning natural gas in your home can be bad news for indoor air quality. Cooking with a gas stove without proper ventilation can make indoor air unhealthy to breathe. One study found that, during a typical winter week, millions of Californians could be exposed to unhealthy levels of indoor air pollutants when cooking with a gas stove without proper ventilation. Cooking with an electric stove doesn’t eliminate all indoor air pollution from cooking (e.g. think about the last time you accidentally burned something), but taking the gas stove out of the equation keeps the air in homes healthier to breathe.

All-electric homes are already becoming the default for new construction in some areas of California. Modern electric appliances are totally unlike their inefficient and ineffective predecessors – many of today’s all-electric technologies (e.g. heat pumps and induction cooktops) perform even better than their natural-gas-fueled counterparts. All-electric homes aren’t some remnant of the past – on the contrary, the technology exists to build comfortable, functional, and affordable all-electric homes for the future.

Let the fondue flow begin

In an effort to ensure Berkeley’s new ordinance would pass, one of Berkeley’s city council members had a staffer make chocolate fondue on an electric induction cooktop to demonstrate the safety and efficacy of all-electric cooking appliances.

Such a demonstration seems a little over the top to me, but if that’s what it takes to get cities, states, and countries to pass similar policies, then I am hereby requesting that all fondue enthusiasts pack your bags (don’t forget your portable induction cooktop!) and prepare for a world-wide tour – we need your help!

About the author

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Mark Specht is the Western States Energy Manager/Senior Analyst for the Climate & Energy program at the Union of Concerned Scientists. In his role, he leads research and advocacy efforts in California and other Western states to advance the transition to a less polluting and less carbon-intensive energy system.