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Should Cities Phase Out Gas Appliances and Require New Buildings to Be All Electric?

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Should Cities Phase Out Gas Appliances and Require New Buildings to Be All Electric?

The Wall Street Journal November 19, 2019
Energy & EnvironmentRegulations

Environmentalists say it will help accelerate the transition to a clean-energy future. Skeptics say it could hurt the environment more than it helps it.

Local governments seeking to combat climate change have set their sights on a new target: homes and businesses that burn natural gas for things like heating and cooking.

This year, Berkeley, Calif., became the first city in the U.S. to ban natural-gas hookups in most new construction, meaning anyone building a home there after Jan. 1 will have to forgo the gas stove. At least a dozen other cities in California quickly followed suit, and similar bans on new natural-gas hookups are being considered by local governments in other states, including Massachusetts, Vermont and Washington.

About one in four homes in the U.S. is all electric now, according to a U.S. Energy Information Administration survey. That number has been growing over the past decade, driven in part by changes to the types of equipment used in homes and faster population growth in warmer climates, the EIA says.

For some, however, that growth isn’t happening fast enough. They say the use of natural gas in buildings is contributing more to greenhouse-gas emissions than many people realize, and that requiring builders to commit to all-electric construction now will help accelerate the transition to a cleaner energy future tomorrow, when the U.S. will be generating most of its electricity from renewable sources.

Skeptics say that if stemming global climate change is the goal, bans on new natural-gas hookups aren’t the answer. Even looking decades ahead, they say, much of the additional electricity needed to power these new buildings will be coming from coal- and natural-gas-fired power plants, which will hurt the environment more than it will help it.

Bruce Nilles, a managing director at Rocky Mountain Institute, makes the case for requiring new buildings to be all-electric. Jonathan A. Lesser, president of Continental Economics and an adjunct fellow with the Manhattan Institute, argues against such policies.

YES: It’s an Effective Way to Cut Carbon Emissions
By Bruce Nilles

When you’re in a hole, stop digging, especially when it comes to the current climate crisis. To avoid the worst impacts of global warming, we must stop digging the hole deeper by adding new fracked gas plants, pipelines and buildings powered by fossil fuels.

Burning natural gas, along with smaller amounts of oil and propane, in homes and businesses accounts for about 10% of total U.S. carbon emissions. These emissions, stemming largely from space heating, water heating and cooking, have long been overlooked.

Despite efficiency improvements, direct building emissions aren’t declining because hundreds of thousands of new gas customers are added every year, particularly in states such as California, New Jersey and Washington. Not only does this undermine efforts to combat climate change, it worsens air quality and threatens residents’ health.

But change is coming. Local leaders across the country are recognizing the pressing need to phase out gas in buildings to meet their climate targets and safeguard residents.

The most straightforward and cost-effective way to stop digging the global-warming hole in this sector is to ensure all new buildings are built without gas, powered instead by cleaner electricity. More than a dozen California cities have taken this step, and may soon be followed by cities in Massachusetts, Vermont, Washington and other states.

Eliminating fossil fuels from our buildings is one important component of addressing global climate change today and is critical to a cleaner energy future tomorrow. The time to act is now: The U.S. electric grid may still rely on coal- and natural-gas-fired power plants, but it is already 25% cleaner than it was a decade ago and getting cleaner all the time. Coal plants retire once a month on average under the current administration, and investments in ever-cheaper wind and solar power are increasing.

But climate change isn’t the only reason the U.S. should move toward electrification. Our research also suggests that such policies would lower costs in many situations, notably for most new-home construction.

We found that in four U.S. cities—Oakland, Calif., Houston, Providence, R.I., and Chicago—all-electric new construction is cheaper than building with gas, even in cold climates. In Oakland, for example, the savings amounted to $2,000 over 15 years. The savings come from avoiding the cost of adding gas lines and installing modern, hyperefficient electric appliances such as heat pumps for space and water heating.

Eliminating gas in buildings also will help millions of Americans breathe easier. Gas stoves produce hazardous levels of pollutants, like nitrogen dioxide, posing serious health risks to residents, especially those living in smaller and older housing. Researchers at Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory calculated that cooking with a gas stove exposes 12 million Californians to pollutant levels that would be illegal outdoors. Other research found that children in homes with gas stoves were 42% more likely to have asthma, a condition with disparate impacts, such as mortality rates among African-Americans two to three times as high as the general population.

Outdoors, pollution from buildings burning gas and other fossil fuels results in an estimated $32 billion in health-related damages and thousands of premature deaths annually.

Gas use in our communities also is a safety risk. Since 2010, federal data show, gas pipeline incidents have killed 58 people, injured 422 people and caused 238 explosions. In earthquake-prone areas, like my home state of California, gas pipelines are a serious fire liability.

Local leaders are responding to these threats by requiring all-electric new construction and helping communities replace outdated gas appliances with modern electric alternatives. Chefs are embracing new induction-cooking technology.

The climate crisis demands bold action to rapidly shift from fossil fuels to clean energy. We can mitigate the climate, health and safety risks from burning fossil fuels in our buildings over the next decade, but only if we get started today. 

NO: A Ban Looks Good—Until You Do the Math
By Jonathan A. Lesser

Those seeking to ban natural-gas hookups in new buildings say it will reduce local pollution and greenhouse-gas emissions, while saving end users money. Some also point to safety benefits: Fewer natural-gas lines means less potential damage during earthquakes.

When you compare the benefits and costs of such policies, however, you will find that their claims have little or no merit.

For starters, if consumers had an economic incentive to use electricity instead of natural gas, there would be no need for bans in the first place. With these kinds of analyses the devil is in the details, and one small detail is that in areas where natural gas is available, it is generally less costly to burn natural gas directly in homes and buildings for things like heating and cooking than to rely on electricity to provide equivalent end-use service.

Consider California, the state at the forefront of natural-gas-hookup bans. Last year, the average price of natural gas in California was about $12.30 per million British thermal units (a measure of the heat content of the fuel), according to the U.S. Energy Information Administration. For a homeowner with a new, 95% efficiency natural-gas furnace or water heater, that translates into a cost of just under $13 per million BTUs.

Compare that with the cost of electricity, which averaged 18.84 cents a kilowatt-hour in California in 2018, about 50% higher than the national average. That works out to $55 per million BTUs, more than four times the cost of natural gas. Even heat pumps for space and water heating can’t bridge that gap.

Environmentalists also tend to ignore things like comfort, reliability and usability. A ban on new natural-gas hookups in Berkeley, Calif, for example, means restaurants won’t be able to install gas ranges, even though any chef will tell you that cooking with natural gas is far superior than with electricity.

And many gas appliances can be used when the electricity is out, an important consideration if your local electric utility pre-emptively shuts down your electricity for days at a time.

Strong earthquakes are (fortunately) rare, and in the event that one does occur, pipelines have automatic valves that close off the flow of natural gas if a rupture occurs. Moreover, seismic natural-gas valves, which shut off the flow of gas in an emergency, can be installed in homes and businesses to reduce the risk of explosions and fires.

That brings us to climate change.

While it is true that switching from natural gas to electricity can improve the air quality in a specific home or business, the trade-off is more pollution and greenhouse-gas emissions from the plants that supply our electricity, which affects everyone. Anyone who thinks we can meet increased demand for electricity with wind and solar is living in a fantasy world. Despite increased investments in renewable energy, the EIA projects that over half of our electricity will still be generated from coal and natural gas in 2050.

Last year, direct use of natural gas in homes and buildings accounted for about 8.5% of total U.S. carbon emissions, and U.S. carbon emissions accounted for about 15% of the world’s total.

So even if all of the U.S. buildings that rely on natural gas today converted to electricity, and all of that electricity was generated from clean sources, the reduction in world-wide carbon emissions would amount to just over 1%. That would have no measurable impact on the global climate.

Many environmentalists simply cannot fathom anyone making a decision of which they don’t approve. Ironically, back in the 1980s, the same groups pushing these bans were pushing for a switch to natural gas, because doing so would…save money and improve the environment. Sound familiar?

This piece originally appeared in the The Wall Street Journal (paywall).


Photo: Sjo/iStock