LA Becomes Largest CA City to Electrify New Buildings
Los Angeles passed a policy directing new buildings to be constructed to use all-electric energy, a critical action to achieving LA’s community-driven building decarbonization goals.
Los Angeles City Council put an end to the expansion of local natural gas infrastructure on December 7th when they unanimously approved an ordinance requiring that all new buildings within city limits be constructed all-electric. With this vote, Los Angeles became the largest city in the state and the second largest city in the country to mandate a definitive shift away from fossil fuels in new construction - and did so with significant community engagement and local advocacy shaping the pathway.
As dozens of smaller cities in California stood up similar policies sooner, Los Angeles was laying careful groundwork in ensuring its own path to decarbonized buildings was responsive to needs from impacted residents. Community-driven research on how the energy transition would affect workers, renters, and low-income residents made it possible for local advocates to define a set of energy justice priorities, which framed the official launch of a building decarbonization policy process.
An inclusive engagement series led by the LA Climate Emergency Mobilization Office, and co-designed by community experts including the RePower LA and Leap LA coalitions, was a forum for peer education and connection between community members and city policymakers. Additional outreach by the Department of Housing and the Department of Building and Safety engaged a cross-section of stakeholders from the buildings community, including affordable housing developers.
New buildings of all types are covered by this mandate, and although limited exemptions are provided for specific end uses like cooking in commercial facilities and process gas for certain industrial uses, any construction that uses an exemption must ensure that it is electric-ready for future energy transitions.
Making new buildings better for the climate and the community
Getting gas out of buildings is critical for protecting the health of people and the planet. Natural gas, or fossil gas, is largely fracked gas, which wreaks havoc on local ecosystems and water sources as it is blasted out of the earth. Natural gas consists mainly of methane, a powerful climate pollutant that traps more than 80 times as much heat as carbon dioxide, and 90% of natural gas burned in California is imported from out of state, making it more susceptible to methane leaks during transport.
The climate benefits of transitioning from mixed-fuel buildings - which use both electric and gas energy - to all-electric buildings are reason enough to electrify, but the benefits go beyond climate.
Building all-electric from the ground up leads to significant savings for developers when compared to mixed-fuel developments, and avoids the need for electrification retrofits down the road. Construction costs of all-electric buildings tend to be lower across all building types, and the all-electric single-family home is roughly $8,000 cheaper to construct than a mixed-fuel home built to the same base code. This creates opportunities to reinvest those savings toward other beneficial construction measures, such as on-site solar or more efficient appliances - both of which would lead to lower operating costs and additional savings over time.
Eliminating emissions from burning fossil fuels inside homes also provides major public health benefits. Gas and propane stoves release carbon monoxide, nitrogen compounds, formaldehyde, and other air pollutants that can exacerbate existing respiratory and health conditions, including asthma. If stoves are not properly vented, studies have found that cooking with gas can lead to kitchen concentrations of nitrogen oxides considered unhealthy under outside air pollution standards and can increase the risk of asthma symptoms for children living in the home by as much as 42 percent. These pollutants disproportionately affect communities of color and low-income residents in aging buildings and disinvested neighborhoods. Properly vented gas appliances can help protect individual households, but even then still increase outdoor air pollution. Both occupants and neighbors of all-electric buildings breathe healthier air indoors and out by avoiding toxic gases from gas stoves, furnaces, and water heaters.
A wave of cities pushing the State forward
With Los Angeles joining the nearly 70 California cities representing over 30 percent of the state’s population implementing building codes that require some or all new construction to be all-electric, the State of California should be feeling the pressure to move its next building energy code to all-electric new construction. California went as far as adopting an electric-friendly statewide building code that strongly encourages builders to opt for all-electric designs, but the 2022 code update fell short of prohibiting fossil fuels entirely. In order to meet State Senate Bill 32’s goal to reduce GHG emissions by 40 percent below 1990 levels by 2030, California will need to require all-electric new construction across all building types for the 2025 code update while it continues to invest funds in programs to decarbonize existing buildings, most importantly within low-income communities.
As Los Angeles puts the city’s all-electric code into action in 2023, it must build on this momentum as it continues discussions about how to decarbonize existing buildings already linked to fossil gas infrastructure. The relationships forged across community groups and city officials during this policy’s development will be invaluable as that process unfolds, and including community members and impacted residents in the policy development fosters a pathway for policy implementation that truly benefits those who have been most burdened by gas pollution and the fossil fuel industry. Continuing to involve the most impacted communities will be necessary in order for the city to deliver on the energy justice principles that underpinned this initiative from the start.