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Clean energy journalism for a cooler tomorrow

California’s proposed building code boosts all-electric, but it doesn’t stop natural gas

Heat pumps will be the baseline tech, but natural gas can still be in new buildings through mid-decade at least. Will city and county bans push past state codes?
By Jeff St. John

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California’s new building code will promote more all-electric construction and set more stringent rules on how natural gas can be used for heating and cooking in new homes and apartments, according to draft rules released Thursday.

But it won’t go as far as climate activists had hoped in ending the use of natural gas in new buildings, leaving that step up to the next iteration of state codes, due in 2025 — and perhaps the increasing number of Golden State cities and counties setting their own gas bans.

The California Energy Commission’s Title 24 Building Energy Efficiency Standard will set important standards for how new buildings are designed, built and equipped with appliances starting in 2023. These rules have become a battleground between climate activists trying to impose stringent all-electric requirements on builders, and building industry trade groups and natural-gas utilities pushing for looser standards to permit some continued use of the fossil fuel.

It’s another question whether expanding natural-gas lines to new homes and buildings fits within California’s mandate of 100 percent carbon-free energy by 2045 or the Biden administration’s push to cut nationwide carbon emissions in half by 2030. Direct use of fossil fuels in buildings accounts for roughly 10 percent of total emissions, while their share of electricity-sector emissions can become less carbon-intensive as grids replace fossil fuels with clean generation.

Multiple studies, including a recent report from California-based Energy Innovation, indicate that meeting the Biden administration’s goal will require all-electric new construction starting by 2025. But California’s demand for new housing is driving a rapid expansion of natural-gas service that could undermine the state’s broader decarbonization goals if left unchecked, Earthjustice staff attorney Matt Vespa said in a Friday statement.

Research from RMI indicates this expansion could drive $1 billion in new natural-gas infrastructure investment over the next five years if left unchecked. That could be considered a wasted investment forced onto utility ratepayers, if reaching the state’s zero-carbon goals forces those pipelines to be abandoned in years to come.

Burning natural gas in heaters, boilers, stovetops and other household appliances has also been linked to significant health impacts. A Harvard University study released Wednesday found that natural gas, oil and propane use in buildings is the leading cause of premature death in 19 states, and that California alone in 2017 had about 1,500 premature deaths and absorbed $17.1 billion in health costs as a result.

The battle over all-electric vs. natural gas

Thursday’s long-awaited draft rule release does give electrification proponents some wins. Those include efficiency standards that will make it far more cost-effective to install more efficient electric heat pump space and water heating systems in new single-family homes and low-rise multi-family units, Jonny Kocher, an associate with RMI’s Carbon-Free Buildings team, said in a Friday interview.

There are also requirement for your homes to be all-electric ready for four different end uses: cooking, dryers, space heating and water heating,” he said. The costs of preparing for all-electric service and also extending natural-gas service are expected to be a strong incentive to choose the all-electric route, he said. This backs up RMI research indicating that all-electric buildings can be cheaper to build as well as reducing utility bills.

At the same time, Kocher said, we’re in a climate emergency. […] Burning fossil fuels is the cause, so we should stop putting them in buildings. This is especially true when it is cheaper and healthier to live in buildings without them.”

The primary pushback to this logic has come from building industry groups that have argued that all-electric building codes will add more costs than advocates recognize, and from the state’s largest natural gas utility, Southern California Gas, which argues that moving too quickly will burden customers with higher bills.

The California Public Utilities Commission has ordered the utility to refund customers for ratepayer funds the regulator found it had improperly used to bankroll an anti-electrification campaign across the state, but it declined to impose a $370 million fine proposed by the agency’s Public Advocates Office.

Much of the utility’s campaigning has been directed at defeating city- and county-level decisions to ban natural gas in buildings. More than 40 such actions have been passed or proposed in California since Berkeley became the first city in the nation to prohibit natural gas in new buildings in 2019, including large cities such as San Jose, San Francisco and Oakland. Similar bans have been taken up by local governments in other states, including Massachusetts, Colorado and Washington.

This has led to a backlash from natural-gas-providing utilities and other industry groups. State legislatures in Kansas, Arizona, Tennessee, Oklahoma, Louisiana, Utah, Arkansas and Mississippi have passed or are considering bills that would prohibit local governments from enacting natural-gas bans. E&E News this week revealed documents linking 14 U.S. utilities and natural-gas providers to a nationwide lobbying campaign to fight electrification efforts by suggesting that they put customers at greater risk of power outages and rising utility bills.

As a bellwether state for clean energy policy, California’s actions may well set standards not just for public policy but also for the market forces that will determine the cost and speed of building electrification, Kocher said. That’s why advocates are demanding that California regulators make all-electric construction mandatory in the next iteration of building codes to be taken up in 2025, so that contractors, appliance manufacturers and other market participants can prepare for the major shift in doing business.

It’s for market certainty, so there’s a clear direction,” he said.

(Lead photo: Abel Chuklanov) 

Jeff St. John is director of news and special projects at Canary Media. He covers innovative grid technologies, rooftop solar and batteries, clean hydrogen, EV charging and more.