In parts of the world with colder climates, buildings contribute almost 40 percent of a region’s total greenhouse gas emissions.
Gas combustion not only generates tons of carbon dioxide, it can also pollute indoor air with nitrogen dioxide, formaldehyde and carbon monoxide. And methane, which leaks when gas is fracked and distributed through pipes running from gas fields to furnaces is an 84 times more potent greenhouse gas than CO2.
But in some parts of the U.S. — and the world — governments are beginning to phase-out fossil fuels by limiting gas-fired equipment and associated piping for buildings as one aspect of a massive effort to meet greenhouse gas reduction goals.
At town meeting on Nov. 20, 2019, Brookline, Mass. passed a measure banning gas heating for new homes and major renovations, joining over a dozen cities and counties in California that have passed similar measures this year. And in the UK, three political parties are debating in the current election not if, but when, gas boilers should be banned across Great Britain. Already, the Dutch government has funded an ambitious program to disconnect 30,000 to 50,000 homes in the Netherlands from gas infrastructure each year beginning in 2021.
Citing risks to public health and methane’s “catastrophic” contribution to climate change, Berkeley, Calif. banned new gas connections, effective Jan. 1, 2020, for single-family and low-rise residential projects. It plans to extend the ban to larger structures when the California Energy Commission develops fossil-free standards for other building types.
And as agencies race to develop electrification standards, proactive governments, like in Berkeley and Brookline, are moving to ban gas in new construction or mandate provisions for future electrification to avoid perpetuating reliance on fracked gas.
How does it work?
In electrification, or fuel-switching, traditional gas-fired equipment and appliances are substituted with their electrically powered heating counterparts. Electric equipment can be powered with renewable energy sources, such as rooftop solar. Heat pump technology can both heat and cool space, heat water and dry clothes efficiently using electricity, and induction cooktops, which use an electromagnetic field, directly heat compatible cookware faster than gas. These products, along with advanced air sealing, insulation, and heat recovery ventilation, represent the current standard for a fossil-free, future-ready home.
While such efficient equipment initially costs more than traditional gas boilers and stoves, the difference is typically made up over time and through substantial savings for new construction, which eliminates gas piping and infrastructure altogether.
Electrification in new construction, compared to using fossil fuels, reduces costs over the lifetime of the equipment in question (even more so when bundled with rooftop solar), Rocky Mountain Institute notes in its 2018 report The Economics of Electrifying Buildings.
And rebates can further incentivize builders to go fossil-free. The Sacramento Municipal Utility District (SMUD) offers incentives to builders up to $5,000 per home to offset the cost of efficient equipment provided there’s “no gas line in the home.” That requirement prompted the construction of dozens of all-electric smart homes in six different Sacramento communities.
In Sunnyvale, Calif., City Council recently enacted zoning incentives to encourage developers to provide additional green features in buildings and homes. If a developer meets a more stringent energy certification, plus a green roof or water conservation feature and does not include a gas connection, they can choose to increase a building’s height by 5 feet, or its lot coverage or density by 5 percent – more space is like money in the bank for developers.
While approaches vary from outright bans to creative incentive programs, cities share a common goal: to halt the expansion of leaky gas infrastructure and end reliance on fossil fuels. Applied broadly to new construction, these programs are a big step toward meeting climate goals as outlined in the Paris Agreement. In support of the state’s 2017 commitment to the agreement, Colorado cities can use these examples to help draft a regulatory framework to transition from fracked gas heating.
What is going on in Colorado?
Boulder’s successful Comfort365 campaign has seen a remarkable increase in residential heat pump installations in the city as the county’s Partners for a Clean Environment (PACE) program offers advice and rebates to commercial builders with added rebates for electrification. Unlike those voluntary programs, the City of Boulder’s Energy Conservation Code (COBECC) effectively mandates electrification with solar for all homes over 5,000 square feet. A proposed 2020 update to the COBECC currently before city council would lower this threshold to 3,000 square feet. If approved, the new COBECC will also transition commercial buildings to an energy use metric that’ll move closer to net-zero energy use through future code updates. Carolyn Elam, Energy Manager for the City of Boulder writes, “our current target is to achieve net-zero building codes by 2031.”
Denver’s Net Zero Energy Implementation Plan is aiming for net-zero energy (NZE) in new construction by 2035. Along with the latest International Energy Conservation Code – which is far from net zero – Denver intends to adopt a voluntary “stretch code” that includes electrification as a compliance path, but a lack of financial incentives will likely limit builder participation. After a series of stakeholder meetings in the next several months, a comprehensive NZE Implementation Plan will be published next Fall. Citing an Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) report that urges cities to achieve NZE in new construction by 2020, officials acknowledge that they need to move as quickly as they can.
While ambitious, local energy code updates that delay broad electrification and solar mandates may be too little too late. The Denver/Boulder region has already witnessed tremendous growth over the last decade, with a corresponding expansion of fracked gas infrastructure. Following Berkeley and Brookline’s example could broaden electrification efforts and accelerate solar deployment while limiting investment in risky infrastructure.
Projects like Boulder Commons have demonstrated that NZE commercial development is feasible. The technology to power low and mid-rise residential projects exclusively with renewables already exists. And today, it’s cheaper than ever.
As the region moves forward with policies to address future growth and the critical need for more affordable housing, an electrification mandate must be considered. Restrictions on gas connections to new buildings are urgently needed to halt our destructive legacy of fossil fuel consumption.