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To Cut Carbon Emissions, a Movement Grows to ‘Electrify Everything’

U.S. communities are instituting bans on natural gas in new construction to speed the transition to an all-electric future

Natural gas service for cooking, heating, and hot water is being phased out in some U.S. communities as part of an effort to limit carbon emissions. Not everyone likes the idea. Photo courtesy Reva G / CC BY-NC-ND / Flickr.

On March 24, just before the city council of Santa Cruz, California, passed an emergency measure to prevent evictions of renters suffering from lost income during the coronavirus pandemic, it adopted another new ordinance: effective July 1, all construction permit applications for new buildings in the city must submit a declaration that their designs are “Natural Gas-Free.”

With that vote, Santa Cruz became the 30th city or county in California to enact a measure limiting or prohibiting the use of natural gas in new construction. It was just the latest in a string of victories for the “electrify everything” movement, which is pushing for a rapid transition away from burning natural gas and other fossil fuels in buildings.

In the past year, gas bans have spread with a speed that has taken even some of its most ardent proponents by surprise. Last July, Berkeley became the first city to adopt an outright prohibition on gas connections in most new buildings. A raft of other California cities followed with their own versions, including Menlo Park, home to some of Silicon Valley’s biggest tech companies, and San Jose, the tenth largest city in the nation. In November, the movement leapt beyond California when Brookline, a large suburb of Boston, became the first municipality in Massachusetts to pass an all-electric requirement for new buildings.

Dozens more U.S. cities are contemplating their own gas bans or all-electric mandates, motivated primarily by climate concerns. In Seattle, a proposed ban on natural gas systems in new construction is being considered by the city council. Bellingham, Washington, is considering outlawing gas heating in new and existing buildings. In March, the city council of Takoma Park, Maryland, passed a resolution to achieve net-zero emissions by 2035; the next step will be developing specific ordinances, including one potentially phasing out gas appliances. Last week, Ann Arbor, Michigan, unveiled a similar plan.

“Twelve months ago, we were in early discussions with just a couple jurisdictions in California,” said Sage Welch, who leads outreach and communications for the Building Decarbonization Coalition, a network of city governments, utilities, and nonprofit organizations advocating for electrifying buildings. “Even the advocates working on this have been really floored by the way that cities have picked this up and run with it.”

City leaders, lawmakers, and climate activists pushing for all-electric policies argue that continuing to rely on fossil fuel-burning furnaces, water heaters, and cooking ranges is incompatible with plans to bring net carbon emissions to zero by mid-century or sooner. They are also making the case that electric appliances are safer and healthier—since they don’t produce combustion byproducts like particulate matter, carbon monoxide, or nitrogen dioxide—and cheaper over their lifespans than conventional gas systems.

Over 60% of homes nationwide rely on gas or other fossil fuels for heating. Burning gas or other fossil fuels for heating, cooking, and water heating contributes about 10% of total greenhouse gas emissions in the U.S.—generating 560 million tons of carbon dioxide each year. In California, energy use in buildings accounts for a quarter of the state’s greenhouse gas emissions.

Even as the electricity sector’s carbon intensity has declined in recent years—in large part due to a switch from coal to natural gas as the dominant fuel—emissions from the use of fossil fuels in buildings have held steady. One reason is that local leaders, climate activists, and regulators have overlooked the long-lived appliances used to cook and heat offices and homes as a source of climate-warming pollution. States and cities are now pursuing a variety of approaches to cut carbon emissions produced by their buildings: whole-building energy efficiency targets, system-specific electric mandates, and, increasingly, comprehensive gas bans.

Just as the electrify-everything movement has gained momentum, opposition has coalesced in some places. In February, with the support of gas utilities and the home building industry, Arizona’s legislature passed a measure preventing local governments from prohibiting natural gas infrastructure. Lawmakers in five other states—Missouri, Minnesota, Oklahoma, Tennessee, and Mississippi—have proposed similar bills preventing the bans.

“The gas industry is extremely powerful and well-resourced,” said Mark Kresowik, eastern region deputy director for the Sierra Club, which has been advocating for policies favoring electrification. “But there’s a growing recognition that electrification and getting beyond the gas system has tremendous benefits for consumers and communities. It’s cheaper, healthier, safer, and ultimately what we have to do for the climate. It is inevitable in the same way moving beyond coal power is inevitable.”

Going all-electric is getting more feasible

Two key factors have recently aligned to make going all-electric more feasible for policymakers, homeowners, and developers, as both a carbon- and cost-cutting measure. Electricity generation produces far fewer greenhouse emissions than it once did. And electric appliances have become more efficient, user-friendly, and reliable.

A few decades ago, gas furnaces were a cheaper and less-polluting choice than electric space heating systems plugged into a grid dominated by coal-fired power plants. But today’s electric grid is cleaner. In California, more than half of the electricity used by consumers is now zero-carbon; state law requires this share to reach 60% by 2030, and 100% by 2045. Nationally, about 38% of electricity was generated by zero-carbon (renewables or nuclear) sources in 2019, up from about 23% in 1980. Along with new mandates and market trends, recent improvements in energy devices, such as air-source heat pumps that can efficiently keep spaces warm or cool in a wide range of climates, have the potential to make conventional gas-burning heaters—and the vast infrastructure required to fuel them—obsolete.

“Natural gas has long been perceived as the lower cost option” compared to older electric resistance-based space or water heaters, said Pierre Delforge, a senior scientist at the Natural Resources Defense Council who specializes in energy-efficient appliances and technologies for buildings. “But that’s no longer true with heat pumps. They are four or five times more efficient than gas alternatives. That shifts the economics.

Those efficiencies, he said, unlock huge cost savings over the lifespan of appliances—savings that come on top of the avoided costs of connecting a home to gas lines. “These local codes and ordinances are focused on new construction, because there’s no question about the economics,” Delforge said. “It’s cheaper and faster to build all-electric than with gas because you don’t have to connect the building to the gas main in the street, and there’s no gas plumbing in the building.”

While outright gas bans have proved popular in California, lawmakers in Maine have taken a different tack: last year they passed a law setting a target of 100,000 heat pumps installed in the state’s homes by 2025. “Considering that there only about 500,000 homes in Maine, it’s the most ambitious building decarbonization policy in the U.S,” said Kresowik. To help meet the target, the state’s energy efficiency program recently doubled the rebates it offers for heat pumps.

Meanwhile, large cities like Philadelphia and Washington, D.C., are coming up with transition plans for decarbonizing their gas utilities. That entails exploring options for retiring gas pipelines and fully electrifying heating and water heating, and identifying the lowest-cost route to meeting carbon targets. “In D.C., where I live, the public service commission recognizes that you can’t do new gas hookups until we’ve planned for the gas system’s alignment with climate commitments,” said Kresowik. “That’s something every regulator should be doing now.”

Keeping low-income families in mind

In California and elsewhere, policymakers are trying to ensure that low-income households and consumers aren’t left behind in the transition from gas-fueled to fully electrified houses, apartments, and businesses.

They are drawing lessons from the past decade’s boom in residential solar systems. Affluent early adopters embraced solar, kick-starting the market, and incentive programs enabled more and more homeowners to purchase solar systems. The all-electric movement is following a similar path—in fact most of the municipalities that have passed gas bans so far are upper- and middle-class communities. But a more equitable policy approach, such as creating incentives for low-income residents to go all-electric, is needed, said Bruce Nilles, who leads the building electrification program at the Rocky Mountain Institute.

“Everyone has to replace their appliances at some point—water heaters break,” said Nilles. “Let’s make that a seamless process, through incentives and financing.”

In the last two years, California’s Public Utilities Commission (PUC) has been funding pilot programs to help disadvantaged communities transition to the all-electric future that’s being planned for the entire state. In 2019, it awarded $50 million to electrify appliances in 1,600 low-income households in the San Joaquin Valley that currently lack access to gas distribution lines. And in February, the PUC approved a pilot program, funded by revenue from the state’s cap-and-trade emissions auction, that sets aside at least $60 million in financial incentives for all-electric low-income housing.

These pilots, however, are still limited in scope. For some advocates, securing support for all-electric ordinances from affordable housing organizations has proved challenging.

“There’s a lot of fear about increased costs and barriers,” said Diane Bailey, the executive director of Menlo Spark, a climate-focused nonprofit working on clean energy issues in the Silicon Valley region. “And some of those fears are real because affordable housing developers already have so many different hoops they have to jump through, especially to get the tax credits they need to make projects happen.

“The solutions should be statewide,” Bailey added, “because affordable housing developers are complaining loudly that they’re facing a patchwork of rules and regulations from different cities.”

Gas industry labels bans ‘extreme’

Gas industry trade groups have launched advertising campaigns opposing city-level gas bans across the country. The American Public Gas Association, which represents local gas distribution utilities, has characterized city bans as “extreme” and “a heavy-handed approach [that] eliminates consumer choice, stifles innovation, and diminishes the flexibility to respond to GHG [greenhouse gas] emissions goals, with the least-cost solutions for consumers.”

Gas utilities, developers, and home builders associations have lobbied and testified against some cities’ all-electric mandates, citing the importance of preserving “energy choice” for consumers, and contending that they will drive up electric bills for ratepayers and overall costs for developers, restaurants, and other businesses. Last week, the American Petroleum Institute announced it will restructure its field offices around the country, in part to better push back against the national spread of the gas ban movement.

Advocates say they expected this pushback. But no one, of course, saw COVID-19 coming. Now, like everyone else, policymakers and electrification advocates are trying to figure out how to proceed. The lack of affordable housing was already a chronic crisis in California and many Eastern cities. With the mounting economic fallout of the pandemic, affordability concerns are only likely to loom larger.

Logistics and legal issues pose a more immediate problem. In December, Emily Norton, a city councilor in the affluent Boston suburb of Newton initiated committee hearings on a potential gas ban ordinance covering new buildings and major renovations. Newton is one of several municipalities in Massachusetts waiting to see how the state attorney general rules on the legality of Brookline’s newly adopted bylaw banning new gas connections.

Despite the challenges of conducting hearings and city business in a time of social distancing, Norton and her colleagues in Newton are pushing their ordinance planning forward and intend to move ahead regardless of the attorney general’s ruling. They hope to get a gas ban passed in the fall.

“Our constituents understand why we’re doing this,” Norton said. “They know we have very aggressive climate goals. At the same time, they want to know, ‘What will it cost? How will it affect me if I sell my house?’”


Jonathan Mingle is a freelance journalist who focuses on the environment, climate, and development issues. He lives in Vermont. This post originally appeared at Yale Environment 360.

18 Comments

  1. Tom May | | #1

    Can anyone say "monopoly:" So much for freedom of choice.

    1. User avater
      Dana Dorsett | | #2

      Both natural gas and electric utilities are REGULATED monopolies. So... ?

      Most places don't require you to hook up to either the electric or gas grids, and at the rate the equipment costs are falling as performance is improving taking it off grid could be an option for an all-electric house if the monopoly becomes abusive or less-well regulated.

      A "...freedom of choice..." for options that leave uncompensated consequences for the externalities of a particular choice isn't particularly fair either. Urban areas that have wood burning bans to control local air pollution and it's effects on immediate neighbors limit choice too, but a the considered protection of neighbors from the emissions. Limitations on gas/oil burning are taking it a step further, but not necessarily unreasonable, since the externalities are not priced (or easy to price) into the fuel pricing. The "...freedom of choice..." to have an outhouse or cess pool isn't unlimited either , often banned (with good reason) in denser development areas- even low density rural areas have limitations on proximity to potable water wells, etc.

      All social living comes with limitations on choices- civilization is never unfettered. Reasonable people can have differ on where to draw the lines. If the good people in Santa Cruz, or Menlo Park or San Jose or Newton or Brookline and other municipalities.counties where expansion of the natural gas is being curtailed disagree with where lines are drawn, its up to them to change it. This is after all a free country, where the citizens have the power to change regulations.

      1. Tom May | | #8

        Limitations of choice as you say is the problem, coke or pepsi. Who gets to make these limits and who does it benefit? Why all the fear mongering about all that is bad for us and the environment when all the ingredients come from the planet in the first place. Sure there are issues, but where do those issues really come from.....???? (Hint: it's when we alter natural products and.......)

        1. User avater
          Stephen Sheehy | | #11

          Not every natural ingredient is good for us. I'm happy to let the government limit naturally occurring arsenic in drinking water.

          1. Tom May | | #12

            To much water can kill you too....

  2. Fred Frasch | | #3

    Over 90% of electrical power generation in West Virginia comes from the burning of coal. This might change after "they" pry the guns from our cold dead hands. Would the well-intentioned folks at the Building Decarbonization Coalition advocate a ban on natural gas hookups here? Let's be rational with this.

    1. User avater
      Stephen Sheehy | | #10

      WV won't always get power from coal. It still makes sense to encourage all electric homes, because a decade from now, even WV will have cleaner electricity.

      1. Fred Frasch | | #18

        I hope you are right but I strongly suspect the timeframe will be much longer than a decade. There is a profound historical, cultural, and political affinity for coal in WV. With this in mind, I weighed the relative environmental costs of heat pumps vs an efficient Dettson NG furnace. I am very much leaning toward NG. Am curious what others think. On-site solar is not a viable option on my wooded site.

  3. Itai K | | #4

    We're planning an all electric heat pump hydronic heating cooling and DHW system in NYC. Its a gut renovation updating barely working original 1900's mechanicals, so we decided to go all electric but keep the gas connection for a direct vent fireplace for backup heat in case of power outage. Installed a small (4kw) pv array and doing plenty of air sealing and insulation. There are plenty of raised eyebrows from contractors and various tradespeople but ultimately its the right decision for the environment.

    1. Doug McEvers | | #5

      If you have raised a lot of eyebrows you must be doing something right. Time to leave the business as usual tradespeople behind and move forward. Go hard on the insulation and air sealing, this will insure satisfaction on a comfort level.

    2. alexqc | | #13

      You are doing the right thing. Lot of people in the construction industry like to stick to what they know. Solar power is only going to get cheaper.

      Here in Quebec, electricity is really cheap so the norm is to go all electric and it's really nice to not have to worry about back drafting, CO poisoning or gas leaks. I didn't even know gas water heater or clothes dryers were a thing. And like you said, you can still have a direct vent wood or gas fireplace if you need a backup or a generator ready to go.

  4. User avater
    Armando Cobo | | #6

    I believe, it is our job in the home building industry to educate our clients on the advantages for going all electric and renewables. There are many reasons to choose from, but the health of the occupants, should be top priority. Its an easy job when clients have young children or grandchildren. We haven't design a single house in the last two years with gas, in TX. Educate yourself and give it a chance. You clients will thank you for it.

    1. Tom May | | #7

      No gas? What about all that methane, et al, gas coming out yours and every other house?

    2. Eric Habegger | | #9

      Armando, you're doing the right thing. Keep doing it.

    3. User avater
      Michael Maines | | #14

      Armando, that's great--way to be a leader!

    4. Malcolm Taylor | | #15

      Two thumbs up!

  5. Chuck Wagon | | #16

    Every single new household should have both energy supplies enabled. When the trenchers are out building infrastructure let them do their jobs when the leverage is optimal for adding value to all eventual users of that community. At a minimum let them run the infrastructure for natural gas to each household, even if not enabled. One day the community may wake up and determine that they wish they would have done so.

    1. Eric Habegger | | #17

      If propane deliveries are available in one's area then it will always make much more sense to skip the NG installation. Use a Propane heater or fireplace as backup heat and use a propane BBQ to cook when electricity goes down. For everyday use have a vacuum pump heater and an electric oven and induction cook top.

      I pay $60 a year to rent a 500 gallon propane tank in expensive California. Compare that to just the monthly service charge from your utility of having an NG hookup. No comparison. Sure NG is cheaper than propane but you only need to use it in emergencies. You're still paying for NG even if you don't use it.

      Someday when electric vehicle to grid/home is available then even the propane (or wood) emergency heat goes away. It will happen, just not yet. One electric vehicle battery is the equivalent of 5-7 Tesla home batteries. You will get the vehicle, and for the price of the entire vehicle home backup electricity will be thrown in for free. Prepare for that future today by skipping the NG installation.

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