California cities are rushing to ban gas in new homes. But the state is slowing down

Stakeholders began debating the update this month in a series of commission meetings, but a statewide ban on natural gas demanded by environmental groups seems increasingly likely. more unlikely after the commission circulated a proposal indicating a preference for electric heat pumps rather than a ban on gas.

The commission sent a abstract of its planned adjustments and is gathering feedback from environmentalists and industry groups as it prepares to release a draft of its 2022 building code later this month ahead of a month-and-a-half rule-making process . The commission is expected to vote on the plan this summer.

While the summary indicates a willingness by the commission to require electrification for new construction, any new mandates likely won’t be included in the building code until 2026 at the earliest.

According to the commission’s proposed plan, new homes must be “electricity-ready,” meaning that gas-powered stoves, furnaces, clothes dryers and other appliances must have an electrical outlet installed within 3 feet, the electrical panel of the house to include capacity for the future installation of electrical appliances.

Title 24 updates, as code reviews are known, occur every three years. The 2019 version, which included the requirement that all newly constructed buildings have solar panels, came into effect in 2020, and developers and builders say they are still scrambling to catch up with this particular rule.

Meanwhile, a group of construction workers statewide is opposing a bill from a Silicon Valley lawmaker that would ban natural gas in new buildings across the state. In a letter from the opposition, the group called it “part of a concerted extremist political program”.

Other critics of these anti-gas policies include other gas industry groups as well as the Southern California Gas Co. and the California Restaurant Association.

Labor targets decarbonisation package

To hear Senator David Cortese’s first term, when he began serving on the Santa Clara County Board of Supervisors more than a decade ago, the county was not far off in its transition to clean energy.

In fact, every school district in the region has made more progress than at the county level, he says. Santa Clara had no environmental stewardship goals, no large solar farms.

“We didn’t even have one [solar pilot projects] in the parking lot,” Cortese said.

Things have changed, Santa Clara County declared a climate emergency in 2019 and built four large solar farms, pushing aggressively towards 100% renewable energy.

Cortese says he was able to work quickly by passing ambitious climate policies with a five-member oversight board.

“I was the chair, but any member could just bring an initiative, any Tuesday,” he said. “We didn’t even have a billing deadline. If I had three votes, which I usually did, we could come up with something that’s the first of its kind in the country.

He quickly learned that the situation was different in Sacramento.

In California tradition, first-year lawmakers introduce their first bill on day one, and Cortese thought he’d make a splash with a set of decarbonization-centric climate bills, channeling progress from cities pushing similar plans.

One of the bills SB 30would ban natural gas in newly constructed public buildings starting next year and require the state to have a plan to decarbonize all of its existing buildings by 2035.

Another bill, SB 31, would create new building decarbonization programs with a focus on providing opportunities for low-income customers. SB 32 would require cities to update their corporate plans with defined decarbonization targets.

Passage of the bills would send a signal to the market that decarbonization in new buildings is a priority and allow the state to prove that the economics of making them greener can work before forcing the policy on the market. private.

Such small-caliber change is too little to address the climate emergency, environmentalists say: California controls about 16 million square feet of state-owned and leased office space in Sacramento, according to a review of 2015including 24 office buildings.

Yet despite its relatively narrow scope, Cortese’s plan was met with immediate derision by the unions.

Jeremy Smith, Deputy Legislative Director of the State Building & Construction Trades Council, wrote a fiery letter to the Legislature, describing the bills ‘as part of a concerted extremist political agenda to irresponsibly phase out natural gas of the already unstable and strained energy of the state”. wallet.”

Robbie Hunter, the group’s chairman, said the opposition stemmed from a “big imbalance problem in the state”, pointing to power outages in August, when around 800,000 Californians were left without electricity for a few hours during a scorching heat wave.

Hunter’s analysis is that state officials are pressing Californians on both sides. On the one hand, California is pushing electric cars and “increasing the need for more electricity,” while “opposing requirements for gas turbine power plants.”

“Consumers increase the need, while you reduce the ability to create a base load of electricity,” he said. “The system is far from broken.”

Another powerful player, the California Building Industry Association, expressed concern to Cortese about potential impacts on “ratepayers, construction costs and system reliability,” according to Christopher Ochoa, senior counsel for the group.

“We don’t just have a climate crisis, we also have a housing crisis,” he said. “Whether it’s housing inventory, affordability or homelessness. How do you balance the costs?

“It’s either a climate emergency or it’s not”

While industry groups blame the state’s reliance on renewable energy for last summer’s blackout during a scorching heat wave, a autopsy conducted by three state agencies assigned the problem is the inability of energy planners to fully anticipate the impact that climate change could have on the grid. The analysis revealed that the state failed to line up enough resources to meet demand during an event that paralyzed the entire region.

California is facing growing energy challenges and strains on its electric grid from many directions — electrification of transportation, wildfires, rising temperatures, decommissioning fossil fuel power plants, and the state’s goal to reach the carbon neutrality.

Felicia Federico, executive director of the California Center for Sustainable Communities at UCLA, says the state needs to address these challenges holistically rather than clinging to fossil fuels, which contribute to the kind of extreme heat that creates disruptions like the network last summer. .

She stresses that electrification cannot happen overnight given the time it takes for the housing stock to renew itself. “That’s why we need aggressive programs now,” she wrote in an email.

“Building electrification is relatively low-tech compared to other technologies for achieving carbon neutrality – we know how to do it, it’s been done in many places and it’s a critical part of achieving our neutrality goals. carbon,” she said.

Cortese was more blunt: “Listen, it’s either a climate emergency or it’s not. If this isn’t the equivalent of a pandemic on the greenhouse gas front, then stop now. But that’s a problem. This is a problem that I am committed to solving. If so, you can’t put these things off until the next two-year session. Saving time is not a good strategy right now. The right strategy is for everyone to be on deck.

Letter of objection

The building trade’s letter of objection came less than a week after Cortese took office, and it contained a misinterpretation of his bill.

Smith’s letter said, “This bill would prohibit the construction of new public, residential or commercial buildings with natural gas connections.” The legislation, however, would only apply to public buildings.

Behind Cortese’s bills and Hunter’s letter of objection is the effort to ban gas from the state building code.

But energy commission officials and draft documents seem to indicate that, a few years after requiring solar panels on new homes, staff aren’t ready to make the move,

The solar mandate went into effect in 2020 for builders who filed permits last year.

For years before, the state had required phased upgrades to walls, attics, windows, and other measures to improve energy efficiency and reduce energy costs.

The commission’s latest plan appears to lay the groundwork for a gas ban later this decade, and major environmental groups that have lobbied for a state ban on gas in new buildings appear to accept that phased timeline.

“This approach is not the all-electric code that the Clean Buildings Coalition, including the NRDC, and the hundreds of concerned California residents who have spoken at public hearings over the past six months have been calling for,” said Pierre Delforge, a scientist with the Natural Resources Defense Council, wrote in a blog post. “But with the right balance of carrots and sticks, it could effectively shift most new build to highly efficient electric heat pumps.”

The group sent a letter asking the commission to commit to requiring all-electric construction by 2025.

Bernard P. Love