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Some Calif. Counties Will Emphasize Electric Use in New Year

Six local governments will limit the use of natural gas in buildings and encourage the use of electric appliances, in efforts to reduce greenhouse gas emissions. But many are concerned that it will just increase costs.

(TNS) — The California Energy Commission cleared the way Wednesday for six local governments to limit the use of natural gas in many new buildings. The policies, which encourage the installation of all-electric appliances, are scheduled to take effect in January.

Environmental advocates pushing to scale back fossil fuels hailed the commission’s move as a victory, but opponents argue that the gas bans will increase costs, harm businesses and limit consumer choice. Some noted that the all-electric push comes despite Pacific Gas & Electric Co.’s warning that wildfire-prevention power outages could persist for a decade.

Berkeley passed a trend-setting ban on gas appliances in new homes over the summer. Its example showed the way for more than 20 municipalities to pass similar ordinances, according to the Building Decarbonization Coalition.

As a result of the commission’s unanimous vote Wednesday, the cities of San Jose, Menlo Park, San Mateo, West Hollywood and Santa Monica, and Marin County will ban or limit gas appliances in many new buildings. Where gas is allowed, they will in some cases demand that new construction be more energy efficient than the state — a leader in energy savings — requires. Numerous other cities may come to the commission for approval of bans.

“We need to see innovation in new construction in order to meet decarbonization goals,” David Hochschild, chair of the commission, said at Wednesday’s meeting. The four commissioners present decided that the local regulations decreased energy usage, though they did not make any determination on the cost of the measures.

“We’re seeing enormous momentum across the state as cities adopt ‘reach’ codes,” Hochschild said, referring to laws that go beyond the state’s energy standards. More are expected to come to the commission for approval next year.

The gas bans have seen opposition from the gas industry, business groups and developers.

Ben Granholm, Regulatory Affairs Specialist at Western Propane Gas Association, told commissioners Wednesday that relying on a single energy source is “risky,” as power shut-offs left millions in the dark and cold this fire season.

Granholm argued for more diverse energy sources and support for propane, a relatively clean-burning byproduct of natural gas processing.

“Clean energy solutions should not have to compete against each other when they can so often complement each other, like propane and solar,” he said.

A representative of PG&E, which supplies gas as well as electricity across Northern California, said a multifaceted approach, including natural gas and hydrogen, is needed to reduce greenhouse gas emissions.

The Los Angeles County Business Federation, whose members in West Hollywood and Santa Monica will be affected by new gas policies, said in a statement that eliminating natural gas will do little to reduce climate emissions and instead will increase costs: “It’s not just about the environment but sustainability of jobs, sustainability of communities, and sustainability of the economy.”

Some organizations have taken their complaints to court. In November, the California Restaurant Association sued Berkeley, asking the U.S. District Court to stop the gas ban. The association argued the ban — which is to cover new commercial buildings and new homes — would cause “irreparable harm” to restaurants, many which use gas stoves. Also in November, two developers sued the Sonoma County town of Windsor over its gas ban, saying it would lead to increased use of generators, which carry risks during power shut-offs.

Rebecca Lucky, Menlo Park’s Sustainability Manager, said at Wednesday’s meeting that going electric saves on construction costs but it’s difficult to determine whether it will be cheaper to operate over time because electricity prices fluctuate.

Amid a housing boom and Facebook’s expansion plans, the city wanted to make sure that new development wasn’t contributing to climate change and sea level rise. Lucky said that the conversation with major developers “hasn’t been easy.”

The laws approved Wednesday are not all the same.

San Jose prohibits gas appliances in new single-family and low-rise residential buildings up to three stories. Other buildings, if they go with gas, must have efficiencies that exceed state standards.

Menlo Park requires electric power for space heating, water heating and dryers in new homes but allows gas stoves. High-rise and non-residential buildings also have to go electric, but exemptions apply to life science buildings and emergency operations centers. Restaurant and cafeteria kitchens can ask for an exemption. All buildings must meet a minimum solar requirement.

San Mateo doesn’t outright ban gas appliances, but it sets a higher energy efficiency standard for buildings that use them. Restaurants are exempted. The city is waiting on a state report on cost impacts for multi-family buildings before potentially introducing additional rules, according to Andrea Chow, the city’s sustainability analyst.

Marin County had a gas ban in effect since April 2018, but under Wednesday’s approval it will allow gas stoves and fireplaces in new construction if the buildings meet higher energy efficiency standards. Alice Zanmiller, planner on the county Community Development Agency’s sustainability team, said that some residents were reluctant to give up those particular appliances.

Berkeley’s gas ban also includes some exemptions. The city adopted its ban within the scope of its police powers, meaning it isn’t pre-empted by state law and doesn’t require Energy Commission approval. Spokesman Matthai Chakko said the city plans to submit its ordinance to a different body, the Building Standards Commission, before the end of the year.

©2019 the San Francisco Chronicle. Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.

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