To wean off natural gas, cities push for all-electric new buildings
Natural gas meters outside residential townhomes. Photo: Tim Boyle/Getty Images
A growing number of cities are eliminating natural gas hookups in new homes and buildings as they work to reduce emissions and help meet climate targets.
The big picture: Fossil fuels burned in buildings contribute a tenth of overall U.S. greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions. While coal use continues to decline, natural gas use has held steady, making it a prime target in efforts to decarbonize.
Where it stands: At least 8 California cities have passed new policies this year to support all-electric new construction, and the trend is spreading beyond the state.
- In July, Berkeley became the first U.S. city to ban gas in new construction, starting in 2020. San Luis Obispo, San Jose and other California cities have followed suit, and similar legislation has been proposed in San Francisco.
- Seattle passed new legislation designed to speed the transition to electric heating by taxing home heating oil. The city is also considering an ordinance that would prohibit gas in new homes and buildings.
- Brookline and Cambridge, in Massachusetts, are considering their own measures.
Context: Reducing GHG emissions from buildings to keep pace with climate goals will require increasing efficiency, transitioning from fossil fuel to electric appliances, and boosting supplies of renewable energy, according to a report published in August by scientists with the Department of Energy.
How it works: Accelerating the switch to all-electric buildings prevents locking in infrastructure that relies on dirtier fuel sources.
- The cost savings of not installing new gas lines or separate furnaces and air conditioners are an added benefit. Building all-electric new houses in Oakland, Houston, Chicago and Providence is cheaper than incorporating gas, according to Rocky Mountain Institute research.
Yes, but: There are still barriers to widespread building electrification, from regulatory hurdles to limited support from utility programs.
- As gas use declines, utilities will need new solutions to pay for gas grids that support a dwindling customer base. In many cases, outdated gas infrastructure will need to be decommissioned when it’s no longer needed.
The bottom line: Renewable electricity has become cheaper as it has expanded, helping the U.S. electricity system cut its emissions by 25% in the last 10 years. Transitioning from gas to fully electric power in buildings could further extend that progress.
Mike Henchen is a manager with Rocky Mountain Institute's building electrification team.