The city of San Luis Obispo, California, plans next week to consider approval of a policy designed to encourage clean, efficient all-electric new buildings in a vote initially delayed by a pandemic-related threat from a gas utility front group. The proposed Clean Energy Choice for New Buildings program recognizes that pollution-free homes and businesses will be key in the drive to cut air pollution and greenhouse gases for their residents.
The City Council has scheduled a June 16 online hearing ahead of holding a required second vote in July to finalize the policy, which consists of incentives and amendments to the local building code to incentivize all-electric new construction. Buildings that use highly-efficient electric heating and water heating technologies emit zero pollution on-site. And when powered by renewable electricity, they provide a solution for 100-percent clean energy buildings.
The policy was first approved by the City Council last fall and next week’s vote was scheduled for early April, but it was postponed to protect public health after an opponent of the measure threatened to amass protesters without observing social distancing.
Aligning Building Policy with Local Benefits
San Luis Obispo aims to be carbon-neutral by 2035, and given that buildings are the second-largest source of planet-warming emissions for both the city and California at large, buildings powered by an increasingly clean electric grid are an important tool for meeting the City’s climate action goals. The proposed policy is similar to those already implemented in 30 cities and counties across California over the past year, from Carlsbad in San Diego Country, to Santa Monica, San Jose, San Francisco, and many Bay Area cities.
This isn't just about mitigating the climate crisis: all-electric buildings generally cost less and are faster to build because they don't involve the expenses and delays associated with connecting to a gas pipeline in the street, installing a meter and gas plumbing in the building, and including gas combustion safety measures. Transitioning to clean electricity for heat, hot water, and other everyday needs also helps consumers benefit from the low and declining costs of solar and wind energy, whereas gas rates are projected to increase sharply over the coming years to pay for the massive safety upgrades that are necessary to maintain an aging gas distribution network.
Clean Energy Choice
The San Luis Obispo program does not prevent construction with gas. Those who want to outfit buildings with “natural” (fossil) gas can still do so, provided they meet higher energy performance requirements and pre-wire so that the structure can more easily be retrofitted for electricity in the future. The policy applies only to new construction, not existing buildings—plumbing and appliances in commercial kitchens are also exempt, along with emergency generators. While new homes represent less than 1 percent of California’s total housing stock each year, every new gas-connected home locks in higher emissions and costs for decades, or will require a more expensive retrofit. Building clean from the start is better for the climate and for the future residents’ wallets.
In San Luis Obispo, more than 1,300 new homes are expected to be all-electric in the next several years, which is a great start. Using electricity instead of gas will translate into cleaner air for residents and their neighbors: A growing body of research has revealed the risks of using gas-fueled appliances such as cooktops and ovens that contribute to both indoor and outdoor air pollution.
A recent study from UCLA's Fielding School of Public Health, for example, found that indoor air quality in homes that use gas stoves often exceeds federal and state nitrogen dioxides and sometimes even carbon monoxide pollution standards for outdoor air quality. Replacing gas with electric appliances in California homes would prevent about 350 premature deaths each year and produce $3.5 billion in annual health benefits from cleaner air. Given the increasing awareness about the potential health and climate effects of continuing to burn gas, it's not surprising that Californians chose renewable energy over fossil fuels for buildings by a margin of 48 points in a recent survey.
Delay Due to Public Health Threat
San Luis Obispo Mayor Heidi Harmon has accused SoCalGas and other fossil fuel interests of using bullying tactics and misinformation to thwart the proposed city policy to encourage construction of all-electric buildings that would not use gas appliances. She said the chairman of Californians for Balanced Energy Solutions, a front group created and funded by SoCalGas, threatened to bus hundreds of angry people “with no social distancing” to the April meeting if the council proceeded with its scheduled second vote on the policy. The agenda item was removed in the interest of the health of residents and gas workers.
“Fossil fuel executives have cultivated a toxic culture in which they fight progress by any means necessary—at the cost of public health, public dollars, their own workers and the precious time we have left to transition to clean energy and cut climate pollution before it’s too late,” the mayor wrote in an op-ed.
Planning for a Just Transition
Workers in the gas industry have understandable concerns about the future of their livelihoods as California transitions to a clean energy economy. But this will be a gradual process that the State, utilities, and local governments can work on together to plan for a just transition.
San Luis Obispo's policy does not cover the vast remainder of existing homes that will continue to use gas for many years. Existing gas pipelines and other infrastructure will still need maintenance for decades. But we must begin planning for this transition now to ensure fossil fuel workers keep the system safe while we use it, and can either retire in their jobs or have pathways to other well-paying careers.
This transition has the potential to create thousands of new clean energy jobs to modernize the electric grid and build more renewable energy to accommodate efficient electric buildings and vehicles, and to retrofit existing buildings. We need a constructive dialogue between all stakeholders to implement effective policies for an equitable and just transition.
It's time to move forward with the local democratic process in San Luis Obispo and get to the hard work of planning for a future that works for everyone. We can’t sacrifice our future to avoid change today. Let’s work together to make that change work for all.