A new California building code is a leap forward for reducing the use of natural gas, with rules that set a strong preference for electric heating in new construction.
That’s the glass-half-full view of the rules the state’s energy commission approved last week, according to environmental advocates.
But many of those same people wanted much more. They had hoped that California would become the first state in the country to ban natural gas in most new construction, at a time of growing awareness of the health and climate benefits of all-electric buildings.
Now, advocates are looking to other states that may be the first to pass some kind of gas ban, with candidates that include Massachusetts, New York and Washington.
“California’s new building energy code takes a major step forward toward a future where we have healthy, fossil-fuel-free homes and buildings for all,” said Denise Grab, a manager in the carbon-free buildings group at RMI, the clean energy advocacy and research nonprofit. “That said, it doesn’t go all the way to zero emissions for new construction, which is something that a number of groups, including us, had called for and is needed.”
The code was approved last week by the California Energy Commission, part of a building code update that happens every three years. Pending the expected approval by another state panel, the rules would take effect in 2023.
The new code says that heat pumps—electric appliances that provide heating and cooling—would become the preferred technology for new construction. New buildings could still install gas appliances, but the rules require builders to cancel out the effects of gas emissions by improving energy efficiency in other parts of the structure.
The new rules also say that new single-family homes must be “electric ready,” which means that they must have the electrical circuits installed for electric heat and cooking, even if the housing unit uses gas. The requirement makes it easier for future owners to convert to all-electric appliances.
“Did California miss an opportunity to really set the bar high for an all-electric future? Yes,” said Sara Baldwin, director of electrification policy for the think tank Energy Innovation. “But did they do the best that they could under the circumstances, given a lot of influence from oil and gas stakeholders and utilities and others who were adamantly opposed to that concept? I think they struck the right balance.”
I asked Grab, Baldwin and others what states they are watching for the next major steps in reducing emissions from buildings. All of them mentioned Massachusetts, Washington and New York.
Massachusetts: Massachusetts Gov. Charlie Baker signed Senate Bill 9 in March, a wide-ranging measure with a provision that gives the state the authority to implement an energy efficient building code that would be optional for local governments. The code, which is still being drafted, may give local governments the ability to restrict the use of fossil fuels in new construction.
Some backstory: Brookline, Massachusetts, adopted a ban on fossil fuels in new construction in 2019, but the action was negated when Massachusetts’ Attorney General issued an opinion that local law was preempted by state law. The legislation Baker signed is providing the framework that may allow Brookline and others the opportunity to do much of what they wanted to do.
State officials have 18 months from the passage of the bill to write and implement the new code. While the new code does not include a statewide ban on fossil fuels in new construction, it may turn out to be a step in that direction.
Washington: A proposal in the Washington State Legislature this spring included a phaseout of fossil fuels in most new construction by 2027, but lawmakers stripped the provision before passing other parts of the bill in a landmark package signed by Gov. Jay Inslee, a Democrat.
Clean energy advocates say they are optimistic the Legislature will consider new proposals to reduce emissions from buildings when it reconvenes next year.
New York: The state is going through a political earthquake right now with the resignation of Gov. Andrew Cuomo, who is being replaced by Lt. Gov. Kathy Hochul. Both are Democrats. But Cuomo will leave behind the framework for what could become a ban on natural gas in new buildings, thanks to a 2019 measure he signed that calls for an 85 percent reduction in greenhouse gas emissions from 1990 levels by 2050.
The 2019 law led to the convening of the New York State Climate Action Council to work on a plan for what’s needed to meet the law’s goals. Within the council is a panel focusing on energy efficiency and housing that issued recommendations in May.
The top recommendation is to adopt a new state energy code “as soon as possible” and then, over four years, use the code and other regulatory powers to require new construction to be “built to a highly efficient, zero-emission standard.” This would include a ban on the use of gas and oil in appliances by 2025 for single-family housing and 2030 for apartments and commercial buildings.
Keep Environmental Journalism Alive
ICN provides award-winning climate coverage free of charge and advertising. We rely on donations from readers like you to keep going.Donate Now
So far these are just recommendations. The next steps are for the council to issue its plan, followed by public hearings in 2022 and, potentially, additional legislation.
Meanwhile, New York City lawmakers introduced a measure in May that would ban fossil fuel connections in new buildings by 2030. The proposal is sponsored by City Council Member Alicka Ampry-Samuel. An aide to Ampry-Samuel said in an email that “we are hoping and pushing for a vote this fall.”
The Pushback: While advocates push for limits on gas, the American Gas Association, gas producers and gas utilities are pushing back.
The most visible result of their work is in the 19 states—Alabama, Arizona, Arkansas, Florida, Georgia, Indiana, Iowa, Kansas, Kentucky, Louisiana, Mississippi, Missouri, Ohio, Oklahoma, Tennessee, Texas, Utah, West Virginia and Wyoming—that have passed laws in the last two years that ban local governments from placing limits on natural gas. There was little evidence that cities in any of those states were seriously considering gas bans, but the existence of the state-level restrictions may help to advance the idea that gas has an open-ended future in those places.
Another State to Watch: There also are states that are taking a middle path. The best example may be Colorado. Gov. Jared Polis, a Democrat, signed Senate Bill 21-264, which says that natural gas utilities must reduce greenhouse gas emissions by 22 percent from 2015 levels by 2030. The emissions include those from the use of gas by customers and leakage that occurs during the transportation of gas.
The legislation is not a gas ban, which would be difficult to pass in a state where Democrats hold a narrow edge and fossil fuel industries have a significant presence.
Polis also signed Senate Bill 21-246, which provides incentives for consumers to buy efficient electric appliances. Alejandra Mejia Cunningham, a building decarbonization advocate for the Natural Resources Defense Council, said Colorado’s actions are good examples of how to ease into a transition to all-electric homes.
“In order to get Americans to the healthy all-electric building stock of the future, we need to invest in making healthy appliances more affordable and more easily accessible,” she said.
I asked Grab, of RMI, how she makes sense of the contrast between the places where gas limits are moving forward and those where lawmakers are working to preserve the market for gas. She said some state leaders understand the need to reduce gas use, and that others eventually will, because the reality of climate change is increasingly difficult to ignore.
“The more evidence that comes out about what’s needed to avoid the worst of the climate catastrophe, the more it shows you need to stop burning fossil fuels—like yesterday,” she said.
Other stories about the energy transition to take note of this week:
New Jersey Utility to Sell All Its Fossil Fuel Plants: Public Service Enterprise Group, or PSEG, said last week that it is selling all of its fossil fuel power plants to ArcLight Capital. The $1.92 billion sale will lead to the transfer of 6,750 megawatts of fossil fuel power plants, mainly in New Jersey. PSEG’s CEO said the sale “continues our evolution toward a clean energy infrastructure-focused company,” according to Scott Van Voorhis of Utility Dive. But because PSEG is selling, rather than closing, the plants, the emissions benefits are negligible.
Energy Efficiency Programs May Return to Ohio: A new legislative proposal, supported by several of Ohio’s largest utilities, would allow the companies to return to offering incentives to encourage customers to reduce their energy use. The state’s energy efficiency programs were discontinued as part of the now-notorious 2019 law that led to a bribery probe and also included bailouts of nuclear and coal power plants. The new proposal is co-authored by Rep. Bill Seitz, a Republican who was a major supporter of the 2019 law and a frequent critic of clean energy. He said he is supporting this new bill, co-sponsored by Rep. David Leland, a Democrat, because the programs would be optional as opposed to required, as Jessie Balmert reports for The Cincinnati Enquirer.
Biden Administration Says Solar Could Provide 40 percent of U.S. Electricity by 2035: Solar provides 3 percent of U.S. electricity today, but that number could rise to 40 percent by 2035 if Congress adopts solar-friendly policies, according to a Department of Energy memo published this week. The Biden Administration is highlighting the solar industry’s potential as a source of electricity and jobs amid an ongoing debate about what to include in the $3.5 trillion spending package being written in Congress, as Nichola Groom reports for Reuters.
Lordstown Motors to Begin Production, but Big Questions Remain: Ohio-based Lordstown Motors says it will begin limited production of its electric pickup truck next month, but the company still hasn’t resolved concerns about its ability to finance a full production ramp-up. Initial deliveries to customers would begin early next year, the company said. The company has said it is running out of money and needs additional financing to be able to follow through on its plan, according to Michelle Chapman of the Associated Press.