While natural gas is setting consumption records nationwide, Berkeley, California, is banning its use in new residential buildings. Beginning January 1, 2020, the city will not allow developers to build homes, townhouses, or small apartment buildings with natural gas hook-ups for cooking, heating, or hot water. Berkeley intends to expand the ban to bigger apartment buildings and commercial structures as it implements its goal of “fossil-free new buildings.” For those wishing to have a gourmet gas stove in their kitchen, Berkeley will not allow it in a new house.
Berkeley’s ordinance applies to buildings that have been reviewed by the California Energy Commission and determined to meet state requirements and regulations if they are electric only. Electric-only buildings are equipped with heat pumps and induction cooking. The city’s regulations will automatically update as the state commission approves more building models without having to return to the City Council for a vote. The ordinance does not apply to existing buildings.
In 2009, Berkeley adopted a Climate Action Plan to reduce greenhouse gas emissions by 33 percent by 2020 and by 80 percent by 2050. As part of the plan, the city is to use 100 percent renewable electricity by 2035.
Berkley is Expanding
Berkeley’s population has increased by 18 percent since 2000. With increasing numbers of people, more housing was built. From 2014 to 2017, the Planning Department approved building permits for 525 residential units and occupancy permits for 925 units. More housing is expected—with the construction of 1,400 units due to the Adeline Corridor Plan alone.
The City Council found that the consumption of natural gas within city buildings accounted for 27 percent of Berkeley’s greenhouse gas emissions in 2016, which is equivalent to the consumption of 20 million gallons of gasoline a year.
The ordinance allocates $273,341 per year for a two-year staff position that will have the responsibility for implementing the ban, among other duties.
Berkeley claims that all-electric heating technologies are cost-competitive with their natural gas counterparts. Nationally, that is not the case. While electric heaters are generally less expensive than natural gas furnaces, natural gas is a less expensive fuel than electricity. In California, residential natural gas prices have increased 16 percent over the last five years while falling 8 percent on average nationwide. At the same time, California’s electricity prices have increased 20 percent due partly to increased reliance on solar and wind power and they are expected to increase more as the state reduces its consumption of fossil fuels.
Likewise, water heating is generally much cheaper with natural gas than with electricity, although gas units face initially higher costs.
Natural Gas Use in the U.S.
Natural gas is a versatile fuel used in all sectors of the economy. It is efficient because it does not suffer the line loss affiliated with electricity, acting more like a distributed energy source than electricity. With the use of hydraulic fracturing and horizontal drilling, natural gas prices have plummeted and its consumption has grown. It now supplies 31 percent of our energy and 35 percent of our electricity, surpassing coal as the leader in supplying the generation sector in 2016.
The U.S. power sector set a record for natural gas consumption in July, according to the Energy Information Administration (EIA). The electricity industry consumed 44.5 billion cubic feet of gas on July 19, slightly more than the old daily record of 43.1 billion cubic feet set on July 16, 2018. Higher electricity demand for air conditioning during a heat wave from July 15 through July 22 drove the increased power generation, especially from natural gas-fired generators. Low natural gas prices encouraged companies to buy and dispatch more gas-fired power at the expense of other forms of generation. Natural gas prices throughout June and July averaged $2.31 per thousand cubic feet at the Henry Hub, which is the U.S. benchmark. They dipped even lower at some delivery points in the Midwest and Northeast.
Electric companies are projected to increase their natural gas use by 5 percent this year compared with 2018, according to EIA’s Short-Term Energy Outlook.
Despite residential homeowners liking the use of natural gas in their homes for heating, cooking, and hot water, the Berkeley City Council has banned its use in new residential buildings, mandating electricity instead. Its approach is for fossil-free buildings as the city expects its electricity to be 100 percent renewable by 2035. While natural gas prices have declined nationwide, they have increased in California due to the state’s climate regulations, making electric heating competitive with natural gas heating, according to the Berkeley City Council. Gourmet cooks will find their lives changed under Berkeley’s new all-electric mandate. We await their verdict.