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More California Cities Ban Natural Gas in New Construction


San Jose, Oakland join growing list of California cities to ban natural gas construction

Kristin Musulin

Dive Brief:

  • Both the San Jose City Council and Oakland City Council on Tuesday approved measures to prohibit natural gas infrastructure in newly constructed buildings, adding to the growing list of more than 40 California cities to pass such ordinances.

  • The San Jose measure, passed in an 8-3 vote, makes it the largest U.S. city to require all-electric new construction. That measure allows a "controversial exemption" however, enabling facilities that generate and store energy on-site to continue using natural gas, according to the San Jose Mercury News. Meanwhile, the unanimously-passed Oakland measure will apply to all residential and commercial construction, though developers can apply for "technology feasibility" waivers, the San Francisco Chronicle reports.

  • These measures come on the heels of San Francisco's all-electric construction ordinance passed last month. Nearly every major Bay Area city — including Berkeley and Menlo Park — have now approved such mandates.

Dive Insight:

When San Francisco took action on natural gas construction in November, experts suggested it could hold enough weight to pressure similar legislation in neighboring cities — which it did. They also suggested such local efforts could push Gov. Gavin Newsom toward statewide action, particularly as the California Energy Commission considers updates to its building energy efficiency standards.

Newsom supports widespread climate action in the State of California but has not yet folded building electrification requirements into his statewide climate agenda. Residential and commercial buildings are responsible for about 25% of California's greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions, according to the California Air Resources Board.

And while California cities have led such measures — Berkeley made historyas the first city to ban natural gas infrastructure in new buildings in July 2019 — the trend is beginning to spread across state lines.

On Wednesday, Seattle Mayor Jenny Durkan announced an energy code update proposal to ban fossil fuels in new commercial and large multi-family construction. The proposal is a a direct response to the city's building sector emissions, which increased 8.3% in Seattle from 2016 to 2018. "As Seattle's population continues to grow, the scale of our policy response to rising carbon emissions must grow even faster," Durkan said in a statement.

These West Coast cities have also suffered from out-of-control wildfires that have impacted air quality regionally. "If we want clean air, lower construction costs, savings on our energy bills, and a stable climate for decades to come, we've got to start building for that future," said Olivia Walker, research associate at the Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC) in a statement.

Not all stakeholders agree that blanket bans on natural gas in new construction is the best solution to these challenges, however. San Jose's exemption for gas fuel cells, a last-minute addition to the proposal, is a point of contention in that city. That exemption was prompted by Bloom Energy, a publicly-traded fuel cell company based in San Jose, which argues its continuously-running fuel cells are critical for power shutoffs.

Climate advocates argue Bloom uses its cells much more frequently, pointing to a Forbes investigation that found its boxes have "been operating nonstop at Caltech for over a decade, providing nearly 30% of the power to its Pasadena campus."

"If new industrial and commercial buildings in San Jose rely on these fuel cells, it could erode some of the most significant emissions reductions from the all-electric code," an NRDC spokesperson told Smart Cities Dive. "Per Bloom's own data, the fuel cells emit between 679 and 833 pounds of CO2 per megawatt hour. That's much dirtier than San Jose's other power sources: San Jose’s electricity supplier emits 189 pounds of CO2 per mwh while local utility [Pacific Gas & Electric] emits 206 pounds of CO2 per mwh."

Bloom did not respond to requests for comment from Smart Cities Dive.

While Bloom's opposition to San Jose's energy code could prompt other companies to push back on their local building electrification ordinances, climate advocates are celebrating the Bay Area's progress.

"The electrification of new buildings in California is a key first step in reducing dangerous carbon dioxide emissions in our communities and avoiding the worst impacts of the climate emergency," William Leddy, vice president of Climate Action for the American Institute of Architects, California, said in an emailed statement.

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