Lawsuit Wants to Lock Us Into Polluting Fuels

With a growing number of communities in California and nationwide passing local ordinances to transition new buildings to clean energy, the oil and gas industry is desperately seeking ways to thwart the movement and keep the market locked into using its products. The California Restaurant Association’s lawsuit against the City of Berkeley’s first-in-the-nation clean energy buildings ordinance bears a striking resemblance to previous fossil fuel efforts to keep us hooked to their products.

The restaurant association filed suit last week to block Berkeley’s ordinance which requires new buildings to use electricity instead of fossil (so-called “natural”) gas for heating, hot water, and cooking as of Jan. 1, 2020.

The lawsuit copy-and-pastes talking points from the oil and gas industry’s astroturf group and uses scare tactics to justify its claims.

This is nothing new: In 2017 the Western States Petroleum Association (WSPA) already partnered with the Los Angeles restaurant association to defeat a proposed California Public Utilities Commission temporary moratorium on new gas hookups for commercial and industrial users in L.A. More recently WSPA was quoted saying that it was exploring challenging Berkeley over its recently enacted ordinance.

If that is what is happening here, then the lawsuit has little to do with protecting the interests of restaurant owners, who have razor-thin profit margins and whose high energy use exposes them to rising energy costs. They will suffer the most when California’s gas prices increase much more rapidly than electricity prices as expected over the coming years. Rather, it would have everything to do with the fossil fuel industry trying to slow the wave of communities around the country that are choosing to say enough is enough: it is time to stop digging the fossil fuel hole and start building the clean energy homes and businesses of the future.

Astroturf Tactics

The lawsuit incorrectly claims the ordinance will increase the costs of cooking and using other appliances. In reality, induction cooktops, grills, and woks—which heat the pan directly instead of heating the cooktop’s surface—have comparable operating costs to gas. This is because while gas costs less than electricity per unit of energy today, gas stoves are only 30 percent efficient (meaning they waste 70 percent of their heat) compared to 80 percent or higher efficiency for induction stoves. That also means induction equipment doesn’t heat up the kitchen like gas stoves, reducing air conditioning costs. In addition, induction stoves are faster, safer, cleaner, and more controllable than gas cooktops.

Modern electric heat pump technology used for space heating and water heating is 3 to 5 times more efficient than gas furnaces and water heaters. Choosing electric heat pumps over gas can reduce our utility bills today. But the savings from efficient electric equipment are set to increase dramatically as gas prices escalate: a recent study estimated California’s residential gas rates could increase from roughly $1.50 a therm today to up to $19 a therm (in today’s dollars) by 2050. This will result from large ongoing investments in gas pipelines while there are fewer and fewer gas customers to pay those costs as people switch to electricity, and each remaining customer uses less and less gas due to energy efficiency and a warming climate.

New building standards like Berkeley’s and those of the other 20 California cities that have passed similar ordinances, also are the best way to ensure that low-income communities and renters are not left behind in the transition to clean energy homes: Wealthy customers will be able to afford  to switch to electricity when gas becomes unaffordable, but low-income communities and renters may not. Electrification-friendly ordinances ensure that new buildings are built with clean energy from the start and don’t lock their residents into rising gas bills or commit them to costly retrofits. They will help make new homes more affordable because avoiding the gas connection and plumbing in new buildings saves thousands of dollars, making all-electric new homes cheaper to build than gas-heated homes.

Resiliency

The lawsuit also uses the hot button issue of power shutoffs to scare people about relying on electricity. But pro-gas interests fail to mention that most modern gas appliances also need electricity to operate, especially in new gas-heated buildings which are required to use tankless water heaters by the California building code. In contrast, electric heat pump water heaters, which have a tank, can deliver stored hot water for hours into an outage. In the case of earthquakes, the gas service can take months to restore vs. days for the electric grid. Gas service must also often be restored house by house, which is a lengthy process, compared to electric service that can be resumed in sections.

We do need a more resilient power grid—and it is rightly a top priority for the state given how critical a reliable electricity supply is to both economic prosperity and mitigation of the climate crisis. The question is whether we can afford to invest in redundant infrastructures, gas and electric, and stretch limited dollars too thin. Or if we should focus our efforts on building a robust and resilient clean electricity grid of the future. Leveraging clean electricity for all our buildings needs will also spread these grid investments over more units of energy use, keeping electric rates affordable for everyone.

Healthier and More Affordable Homes

In addition to the economic advantages of electrification, there are significant public health and safety benefits of moving away from gas combustion, particularly cooking, inside our homes and businesses. Burning gas indoors releases invisible but toxic gases like nitrogen oxides, formaldehyde, and carbon monoxide. Children living in a home with a gas cookstove have a 42 percent increased risk of asthma.

For too long we have burnt gas in our homes and businesses for lack of a better alternative and because we did not fully understand the health impacts of gas combustion. We now know better and have cleaner solutions: Modern electric technology is not only much better for the environment as the electric grid is rapidly becoming cleaner, all-electric buildings also cost less to build and operate, and they eliminate toxic indoor air pollutants from the combustion of gas. Communities want a cleaner future, we cannot let the fossil fuel industry lock us up in the past.

About the Authors

Pierre Delforge

Senior Scientist, Building Decarbonization, Climate & Clean Energy Program

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