A climate task force in Bellingham, Washington, is advancing a long-range plan that would compel city homeowners to stop using natural gas for heating as part of an effort to erase the city’s carbon footprint.
A number of communities around the country have approved bans on gas service in new residential construction. But Bellingham, a city of about 90,000 people 85 miles north of Seattle, would apparently become the first in the country to force a wholesale conversion of homes, new and old, from natural gas to electric heat pump technology.
The plan was described in an article published by The New York Times earlier this month. The Bellingham City Council has yet to consider the proposal formally, much less adopt it, and the new rules wouldn’t take effect until 2035 at the earliest.
The task force looked at a number of potential moves, including a ban on natural gas in new construction, a required conversion to electric heat when a house changes hands, and a transition away from natural gas on all buildings by 2030. The current proposal would allow gas cooking appliances but would require both residential and commercial structures to be heated with heat pumps or their equivalent by 2040. That timetable could be pushed ahead by 5 years.
Michael Lilliquist, a member of the city council, told The Times that he would organize a series of public meetings to get feedback on the plan before it went to the council for review. Although the city has already adopted several measures to lower its carbon emissions, Lilliquist said it’s not clear whether this plan could win city council approval.
Not surprisingly, the proposal is not winning many friends in the fossil fuel industry. A petroleum group called Energy in Depth criticized the proposal for overlooking the role that natural gas has played in lowering carbon emissions over the last 15 years, and said there are cheaper and more effective ways of reducing carbon.
“Unfortunately for consumers, such a policy would have real consequences,” the group said in a prepared statement. “A natural gas ban in residences disregards key facts about natural gas usage in homes and would cause more harm than good for both the environment and the people of Bellingham.”
Fossil fuel bans picking up steam
Moves to prevent natural gas connections in new residential construction started in Berkeley, California, last summer and have since spread to two dozen cities, towns, and counties by the end of 2019, according to an S&P Global market report.
That’s being met with campaigns to promote the benefits of natural gas from such groups as the Partners for Energy Progress, which says it will spend $1 million to promote the use of gas.
In an effort to better understand the impact of using fossil fuels for heating and cooking in U.S. homes, the Rocky Mountain Institute (RMI) earlier this month announced a database that provides a state-by-state look at emissions, fuel use, and other factors related to carbon intensity in buildings.
RMI, a Colorado-based environmental research and advocacy center, said most people don’t recognize the threat posed by heating and cooling appliances that use fossil fuels.
“This fact base offers a crash course in direct building emissions,” RMI said, “showing where they come from and how they fit into the overall emissions picture in the U.S…By characterizing the scope of the problem, we hope to spur the swift, ambitious action needed to combat it.”
In all, 10% of all carbon emissions in the U.S. are from burning fossil fuels, primarily natural gas, in homes and businesses. Ten states account for 56% of the direct building emissions, the RMI report says, with New York, California, and Illinois responsible for one-quarter of them.
Leaks in an aging distribution system also represent a serious carbon problem. In 2018, the report estimates that methane leaks amounted to 223 billion cubic feet, about 3% of the total amount of gas that was delivered. The average gas distribution main is more than 30 years old, with 25% of active mains more than 50 years old, the RMI report says. Capital spending on the gas distribution system reached $15 billion in 2017, with most of that going toward expanding the network rather than replacing aging gas lines. At the current rate of repair, it will take more than 230 years to replace every gas pipe in the system.
Cooks love their gas ranges
One howl of protest about potential gas bans has come from restaurateurs. An outright ban on the use of fossil fuel connections could force chefs to say farewell to their beloved commercial ranges, a prospect that didn’t sit well with the California Restaurant Association after Berkeley passed its landmark legislation in July.
In a lawsuit filed last November, the association said the ordinance overlooked state and federal regulations, and would unfavorably effect restaurants that serve flamed-seared meats, charred vegetables, or relied on an intense flame under their woks, according to a report from ABC News.
Although Berkeley’s ban, which went into effect on January 1, allows building owners to seek an exemption for the gas ban, the restaurant group worries that the campaign in Berkeley and elsewhere represents a real threat to a basic kitchen appliance.
Robert W. Phillips said in a statement released by the association that a ban on gas-fired appliances would adversely affect the preparation of high-quality food.
“It’s like taking paint away from a painter and asking them to create a masterpiece,” he said.
However, the Building Carbonization Coalition argues that clean energy objectives will be impossible to meet without getting fossil fuels out of the mix. “There’s no way to meet carbon or clear energy goals without electrifying the building sector,” coalition director Panama Bartholomy told The San Francisco Chronicle. “If you get to carbon neutrality, you can’t still be burning fossil fuels inside homes.”
—Scott Gibson is a contributing writer at Green Building Advisor and Fine Homebuilding magazine.