CA Legislature Passes Two Historic Clean Heating Bills

In a timely move in these times of historic wildfires and smoky days, California has taken a big step toward reducing carbon emissions and air pollution from heating and hot water in homes and buildings.

Photo Credit: City Ventures

State lawmakers, in keeping with California’s leadership on clean energy and clean air, have approved a pair of “building decarbonization” bills. One requires an assessment of how to reduce building emissions by 40 percent from 1990 levels by 2030. The other aims to jumpstart the market for clean heating technologies.

With today’s passage of the second bill, both measures—which are critical to the state meeting its climate and clean air goals—next move to Governor Jerry Brown’s desk for signature into law.

The legislation will help close a major gap in California’s climate action plans; buildings account for about a fourth of the state’s greenhouse gas emissions, such as from burning fossil fuels like natural gas and propane to keep buildings warm and to produce domestic hot water.

The measures will help make clean, climate-friendly technologies more affordable and accessible to all Californians, including low-income residents who pay a disproportionate share of their income for energy. Under the legislation, at least 30 percent of the funding for near-zero-emission buildings must go to new low-income residential housing. The bills also promise to save consumers money on their utility bills, and drive innovation in the building industry.

The Legislature’s action is also significant because California and other states have had to pick up the slack for combatting the climate crisis in the absence of Washington’s leadership on environmental issues.

The Legislation

The bills, Assembly Bill 3232 and Senate Bill 1477, enjoyed broad support.

AB 3232, introduced by Assemblywoman Laura Friedman, requires the California Energy Commission to assess the potential for the state to reduce carbon pollution from residential and commercial buildings by 40 percent from 1990 levels by 2030.

That’s a challenging target, particularly in existing homes built decades ago, many before building energy standards were put in place. However, this goal is aligned with California’s economywide goal of 40 percent reduction (SB 32 law passed in 2016), and we now have the technology that makes this possible and affordable, from renewable energy, to super-efficient clean heating technologies like heat pumps, high-performance windows, and smart energy solutions like home energy management and energy storage.

The assessment is critical to chart a path to decarbonize the building sector, in a manner that maximizes economic and equity benefits for Californians, while avoiding any potential impacts.

SB 1477, a complementary bill introduced by Senator Henry Stern, lays the groundwork for building decarbonization by spurring development of the market for clean heating technologies in the way that the state’s solar initiative helped to make California a national leader in solar installation. The bill also offers incentives for the construction of near-zero carbon buildings that are ultra-efficient and use advanced heating technologies powered by renewable energy.

Clean heating technologies can dramatically cut harmful pollution and lower utility bills. They include super-efficient electric heat pumps, solar thermal, and gas heat pumps powered by renewable gas. Modern electric heat pumps are 3 to 5 times as efficient as standard natural gas water heaters and furnaces. Gas-fired heat pumps are also under development and may hit the market soon.

But these technologies are not widely used because they often cost more upfront, many customers and contractors are unfamiliar with them, and they can be difficult to find in local stores.

Growing the market for clean heating technologies will give consumers new choices when they replace a furnace or water heater or buy a new home.

It also will lead to cost savings. As the market grows, costs for clean heating technologies will drop, just as they did for photovoltaic panels as the solar market grew.

SB 1477 requires the California Public Utilities Commission to allocate $50 million a year from cap-and-trade revenue to support two programs:

  • BUILD (Building Initiative for Low-Emissions Development): Provides incentives that tap into the ingenuity of California’s builders to find innovative and low-cost ways to “build clean from the start” and gain market experience to make these technologies common practice in new construction.
  • TECH (Technology and Equipment for Clean Heating): Spurs market development for low-emissions space and water heating equipment through upstream incentives, customer education, and contractor training.

A broad and diverse majority of Californians support state action to promote climate-friendly technologies in buildings, according to a recent poll. Some 61 percent of respondents backed the use of incentives to supplant fossil fuels with clean electricity for heating homes and offices. Support ran as high as 66 percent among Bay Area residents and no lower than 54 percent in the Central Valley.

One can see why the bill drew the support of a diverse group that includes the American Institute Of Architects, California Council; the American Lung Association in California; the California Housing Partnership Corporation; the nonpartisan business group Environmental Entrepreneurs (E2); and the sustainability nonprofit organization Ceres, among many others.

This state legislation comes on the heels of Los Angeles ordering its building and utility departments to recommend options to reduce gas usage in buildings and set aggressive building electrification targets.

Thank you, California, for once again leading the way and recognizing the critical role that building decarbonization—including clean heating technologies—can play in fighting climate change, reducing pollution, and lowering utility bills.

About the Authors

Pierre Delforge

Senior Scientist, Building Decarbonization, Climate & Clean Energy Program

Merrian Borgeson

Senior Scientist, Climate & Clean Energy Program

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