Oct 2, 2019

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.

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 In many cases, outdated gas infrastructure will need to be decommissioned when it’s no longer needed.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.

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