CA Local Governments Take Lead on Zero-Emission Buildings

The City of Los Angeles just released its new Sustainability Plan that includes ambitious emissions standards for new buildings to be zero-emission by 2030 and all existing buildings by 2050. With its population of 4 million, L.A.’s leadership on cutting carbon pollution from its buildings is a big deal for California and for the country.

Los Angeles is not alone: the city of Carlsbad in San Diego County was the first to adopt a water heating emissions reduction ordinance that will promote the installation of solar thermal or heat pump water heaters in homes. The City of Berkeley is pursuing an ordinance to build new buildings all-electric starting in 2020. The County of L.A., Santa Monica, San Luis Obispo, San Jose, San Francisco, and dozens of local governments across the state are considering options to accelerate the decarbonization of their buildings, beginning with ordinances covering new construction.

These leadership initiatives are encouraged by business, labor, low-income, health, and environmental leaders in a letter released today that urges even more California communities to follow suit, in perhaps the biggest wave of local government action on climate in the nation’s history.

Why focus on building emissions?

Buildings are responsible for 25 percent of California’s greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions, and when including methane leaks from the gas infrastructure, gas is responsible for roughly 60 percent of these emissions that are causing climate disruption. And as California heads toward zero-carbon electricity by 2045, GHG emissions from gas use will increasingly become the main obstacle to decarbonizing the state’s building stock.

New construction is the right place to start

It is financially smart to build right from the start rather than to retrofit a building later. And electric buildings that employ modern technologies such as heat pump heaters and water heaters, clothes dryers, as well as induction stove tops, are cheaper to build and operate, while providing superior comfort, air quality, safety, and cooking experiences to their occupants.

According to the 2018 Integrated Energy Policy Report by the California Energy Commission, building electrification is the lowest-cost and lowest-risk pathway to achieving deep decarbonization of buildings in California.

Health and safety benefits

Electric buildings will bring major air pollution reductions, which is particularly important in the California’s regions such as the L.A. basin and the Central Valley that suffer from some of the worst air pollution in the country. For example, gas combustion from buildings is responsible for six times as much nitrogen oxide (NOx) pollution, a major factor in smog and cause for asthma and other respiratory problems, as all of the state’s power plants.

Electric homes also significantly improve indoor air quality by avoiding harmful combustion gases from gas stoves, and improperly vented furnaces and water heaters.

In cities prone to earthquakes, avoiding gas lines also reduces the risk of post-earthquake fires. A 2002 study by the California Seismic Safety Commission found that damaged gas infrastructure caused 20 to 50 percent of post-earthquake fire ignitions.

Lower utility bills

A common misconception is that heating with gas is cheaper than with electricity. This was historically the case for inefficient electric technology, such as electric baseboards and conventional electric water heaters. However, modern, high-efficiency equipment is three to five times as efficient as the best gas alternatives. Using highly efficient heat pumps instead of gas furnaces and water heaters would reduce annual utility bills in existing residential dwellings by $300 in multifamily, and up to $750 in single-family homes, and $100- $200 in new homes, per a recent study by Energy + Environmental Economics.

The economics of electric heat and hot water get even better with rooftop solar photovoltaic panels (PV), as this enables homeowners to power their electric heating equipment with solar electricity that is roughly half the price of investor-owned utility rates, when considering life-cycle costs. This can cut heating and hot water bills in half or more compared to gas. With the California building code requiring solar PV for residential homes up to three stories as of January 2020, sizing that solar system right for electric heating will allow residents to save big on utility bills, helping them better afford their mortgage, an important factor in California’s housing market.

The bill savings potential from electric equipment is particularly important for low-income customers who spend a disproportionate share of their income on energy bills, and who can be hit hard by $300 or higher monthly gas bills at the peak of the heating season.

Tapping into lower-cost and lower-carbon clean energy

Electric water heaters can also work as thermal batteries, storing clean energy from the sun when it is plentiful during the middle of the day, and delivering that hot water when it is needed without using electricity during high-price and high-carbon times. Customers on time-of-use rates will be able to take advantage of this built-in thermal energy storage to avoid peak price periods and automatically charge their water heaters on low-price electricity instead. Southern California Edison recently launched a time-of-use electric tariff designed specifically for electric vehicle and heat pump customers that provides lower off-peak prices, more inline with wholesale electricity prices than other tariffs.

Workforce transition

Like previous energy transitions, such as from whale oil to electricity for lighting, and coal to renewables for power, the decarbonization of buildings will eventually shift jobs from the gas industry to the electric power, appliance manufacturing, and building sectors. This won’t happen overnight, it will take decades to transition existing buildings off gas. During that time, it will be critical to provide just transition opportunities to affected fossil-fuel workers so that all workers and their families can participate in the clean energy transition.

As the rest of the country and the world watch the Golden State, its local governments have the opportunity to pave the way for healthy, safe, and affordable zero-emission buildings in California and beyond.

About the Authors

Pierre Delforge

Senior Scientist, Building Decarbonization, Climate & Clean Energy Program

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