Six local governments in California are allowed by state regulators to limit the use of natural gas in many new buildings, encouraging the installation of all-electric appliances (including HVAC systems). These natural gas bans are scheduled to take effect in January. Berkeley was the first city to pass a ban on natural gas appliances in new homes. Now, 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 natural gas is still allowed, the local governments may require new construction to be more energy-efficient than the state requires.
These, and a growing number of examples in other parts of the United States, appear to be the result of a campaign by the Rocky Mountain Institute, which first published its “Carbon-Free City Handbook” in 2017 and has been used as a manual by many local governments. The Rocky Mountain Institute works with the World Resources Institute, Bloomberg Philanthropies, and other groups that oppose conventional energy to aid cities in the adoption of policies banning the use of certain forms of energy.
The natural gas bans, however, will increase costs, harm businesses and limit consumer choice. Switching from natural gas to other types of appliances would cost the average California homeowner over $7,200 in upfront expenses and would increase energy costs by $388 each year. Further, relying on a single energy source is also “risky,” as was demonstrated by PG&E’s power shut-offs that left millions without power during the recent fire season. This all-electric push comes despite Pacific Gas & Electric Company’s warning that wildfire-prevention power outages could persist for a decade.
Some opponents have sued over the ban. The California Restaurant Association sued Berkeley, arguing that the ban, which covers new commercial buildings as well as new homes, would cause “irreparable harm” to restaurants, many of which use gas stoves. Gas stoves are preferred by chefs because of their instantaneous response and ease of use. Two developers sued the town of Windsor, indicating it would lead to increased use of generators to back up spotty electric utility service, which may use more-intensive greenhouse gas-emitting fuels, negating the effects of banning natural gas in new buildings.
For this to take effect throughout the United States would be an enormous undertaking. An estimated 70 million U.S. homes and commercial buildings use natural gas, oil or propane for central heating and water heating. Generally, natural gas is much less expensive than other forms of heating. However, about one in four homes in the United States are all-electric, according to a U.S. Energy Information Administration survey. This tends to be a regional phenomenon, with milder parts of the country being able to rely more upon heat pumps and colder areas relying upon natural gas or oil.
Electric is More Expensive than Natural Gas in California
In 2018, the average price of natural gas in California was $12.30 per million British thermal units (a measure of the heat content of the fuel), according to the Energy Information Administration. For a homeowner with a new, 95-percent efficiency natural-gas furnace or water heater, that translates into a cost of about $13 per million BTUs. Compare that with the cost of electricity, which averaged 18.84 cents per kilowatt-hour in California in 2018—about 50 percent higher than the national average, which translates into $55 per million BTUs—over four times the cost of natural gas. Much of the heating and cooling cost burden in California is shouldered by lower-income people living inland, who pay more to heat and cool their homes than those living along the coast where temperatures are moderated by the Pacific Ocean and much of the wealth is concentrated.
Examples of Specific Local Government Bans in California
San Jose prohibits natural gas appliances in new single-family and low-rise residential buildings up to three stories. Other buildings, if they use natural 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 be all-electric, but exemptions apply to life science buildings and emergency operations centers. Restaurant and cafeteria kitchens in Menlo Park can request an exemption. All buildings must meet a minimum solar requirement.
San Mateo sets a higher energy efficiency standard for buildings that use natural gas appliances, without banning them directly. Restaurants are exempted. The city is waiting on a state report on cost impacts for multi-family buildings before introducing additional rules.
Marin County has had a natural gas ban in effect since April 2018, but now will allow gas stoves and fireplaces in new construction if the buildings meet higher energy efficiency standards.
Natural Gas Bans Proposed in Other States
Brookline, Massachusetts, approved a rule prohibiting installation of oil and natural gas lines into major new construction and in gut renovations. The warrant article prohibits the installation of new gas or oil piping in new developments and major building renovations or additions, which means developers cannot install boilers, furnaces or cooktops that rely on these fuels in gut renovations. Exemptions include natural gas piping for backup electric generators, propane for outdoor heating and cooking, and lines for gas meters and commercial cooking.
Recently, Takoma Park, Maryland proposed a total ban on fossil fuels (oil, natural gas, coal), including phasing out heating, water heating, lawn care equipment, and cooking equipment that are fossil-fuel based. The proposal would ban all-natural gas appliances, close fossil fuel pipelines, and move gasoline stations outside city limits by 2045. The increased cost to the average homeowner could reach $$25,000.
California is moving toward an all-electric building sector, as several cities and other areas have banned natural gas use in most new buildings. This move is risky for those who want to be sure to have energy available 24/7. Further, it will cost more and it takes away the ability for people to choose what is best for themselves. Unfortunately, other U.S. cities are considering similar proposals. This is part of a national and international campaign to ban the use of conventional energy sources in cities or other local jurisdictions.