California's No-Carbon Map Starts to Gel as Berkeley Bans Gas in New Homes

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The progressive enclave of Berkeley, California, last week became the first US city to ban the use of natural gas in all new homes, advancing the state's ambitious clean-energy agenda, whose blueprint is slowly beginning to crystallize. The unanimous vote by the Berkeley City Council is the latest hit to a gas industry already under siege in the country's most populous state, which has mandated a carbon-free energy portfolio by 2045. It's unclear just how California plans to achieve that target given that nearly half of its power generation and home heating demand comes from gas -- the state consumed 5.7 billion cubic feet per day last year. Yet concrete steps to move away from fossil fuels are now materializing. Plans for some gas-fired power plants have already been scrapped and existing ones retired earlier than expected as utilities turn to renewables and battery storage (NGW Jun.10'19). And according to one state official, 50 communities in California are considering following Berkeley's lead in forcing new residential buildings to be gas-free. "That is how change happens," California Energy Commission (CEC) Chairman David Hochschild told last week's council meeting. "Right now in California, we have a big focus on cleaning up the building sector because there are more emissions coming from combustion natural gas in our buildings than our entire state power plant fleet." Council Member Kate Harrison noted that state law requires that, by 2030, "50% of building stock should be all electric. So we'll have to adjust sooner or later. We are helping people get ready early. "We need to really tackle this," Harrison said. "When we think about pollution and climate-change issues, we tend to think about factories and cars, but all buildings are producing greenhouse gases." The American Gas Association (AGA), whose members are investor-owned utilities, expressed dismay at Berkeley's action. "To see a city eliminate not only the customer choice, but the broader economic benefits and undeniable environmental benefits of natural gas, is short-sighted to say the least," AGA President and CEO Karen Harbert said in a statement to Energy Intelligence. "There is no question natural gas will continue to be part of achieving our nation's energy and environmental goals." Other gas lobbying groups contacted for comment on the ban had not responded by press time. But Pacific Gas & Electric spokesman Darren Klein told the city council that the utility "welcomes the opportunity to avoid investments in new gas assets that might later prove underutilized as the local governments and the state work together to realize our long-term decarbonization objectives." The Sierra Club was quick to chime in. "This is one of those moments where we are going to show our leadership and inspire other cities in California and states across the country that we could phase out gas, and do so economically, with attention to environmental justice and in a way that's going to support our communities to be safer and healthier," senior campaign representative Rachel Golden said. The ordinance in Berkeley, a city of 125,000 people, bans the installation of gas lines in low-rise residential buildings, including single-family homes and townhomes and apartment buildings under three stories. It will go into effect Jan. 1, 2020, and will not affect existing structures. Instead of having gas pipes, electric-only buildings will rely on heat pumps and induction cooking. As written, the new law applies to building models reviewed by the CEC and determined to meet state requirements for electric-only structures. The regulations will be updated as the commission approves more models without the city council having to vote again. The city said it has allocated $273,341 per year for a two-year staff position to implement the rules. The seed for last week's vote was planted in 2009 when the city adopted a Climate Action Plan with a goal to reduce greenhouse gas emissions by 33% by 2020 and 80% by 2050. The plan also put Berkeley on a path to use 100% renewable electricity by 2035. In 2018, a city report showed that gas-related greenhouse gas emissions increased due to an 18% increase in Berkeley's population since 2000. It also showed that gas being used in city buildings accounted for 27% of its total greenhouse gas emissions in 2016. Harrison said there is a major safety issue as well -- earthquakes. She cited a 2017 study by the US Geological Survey that said a magnitude 7.0 earthquake on a fault line running through Oakland would result in 450 large fires, with many of them being fueled by broken gas lines. John Sullivan, Houston, and Mark Davidson, Washington

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