Bay Area cities suspend natural gas bans on new buildings

bay area cities suspend natural gas bans on new buildings

Erika Minkowsky, co-owner of personal chef service Heirloom Chef, cooks at her Richmond, California, home on a gas range, May 9, 2024.

SAN JOSE, Calif. — Bay Area cities and counties are holding off on enforcing natural gas bans in new buildings following a recent federal ruling, a controversial move environmental groups worry will delay achieving key climate goals.

The Sunnyvale City Council recently temporarily suspended its ban on natural gas in new buildings, which was first adopted in 2022 to help cut Sunnyvale’s greenhouse emissions in half by the end of the decade.

Recently, Cupertino announced the city will suspend its gas ban until this fall. In the East Bay, the Contra Costa County Board of Supervisors earlier this month agreed to pause their all-electric building requirement and gas ban in unincorporated areas of the county. San Mateo County and San Luis Obispo also recently suspended their bans.

The pauses come in the wake of the Ninth Court declining in January to rehear Berkeley’s ban on natural gas in new buildings, which was first struck down by the court in April 2023. A panel of judges ruled that Berkeley cannot prohibit natural gas due to a pre-existing federal energy law.

Berkeley has since agreed to repeal the ban. The Ninth Court’s ruling doesn’t affect cities that have taken a building code-based approach to adopting natural gas bans — like Sunnyvale, Palo Alto and Mountain View — but those cities are also choosing to suspend bans to avoid possible litigation or other legal issues in the future.

In 2019, the California Restaurant Association (CRA) sued Berkeley for implementing the gas ban claiming it was “passed with a disregard for available cooking technologies and ultimately for small businesses in the community that rely on gas-burning equipment for their cuisines.”

But environmentalists say all-electric buildings — which have no natural gas or propane plumbing installed and use electricity as the sole source of energy for heating, cooking and other home appliances — are more affordable, energy-efficient and crucial for accomplishing California’s goal of achieving 100% zero-carbon energy by 2045.

“Building electrification is a huge opportunity,” said Pamela Leonard, deputy director of marketing and communications for Silicon Valley Clean Energy. “There’s a climate benefit, of no longer polluting as you’re putting in new buildings that are going to last 50 to 100 years, but there is also a cost aspect — it costs more to build with gas.”

Dashiell Leeds, conservation coordinator at the Sierra Club Loma Prieta Chapter, said using gas appliances contributes to poor air quality and exposes people to pollutants like nitrogen oxide.

“Every new gas pipeline installed is a public health liability and step backward on climate change,” he said. “The more we can avoid the hazards of gas pipelines and gas appliances in new buildings, the better off we all are.”

In the wake of the court decision, organizations like Silicon Valley Clean Energy, a Sunnyvale-based not-for-profit agency that provides clean electricity for 96% of residents and businesses across Santa Clara County, are looking for ways to encourage people to be eco-friendly.

Zoe Elizabeth, deputy director of Decarbonization Programs and Policy at Silicon Valley Clean Energy, said more homeowners and housing markets are becoming aware of the benefits of electric buildings, and are choosing to use them without direction from local governments.

Sunnyvale city spokesperson Jennifer Garnett said the city has other measures besides its suspended gas ban to encourage electric infrastructure, including allowing residential and commercial projects with all-electric designs to increase their floor area ratio. City staff will present the council with other ways to deter local builders from installing gas piping after six months.

“We do not anticipate that this short pause will negatively affect our ability to meet our climate action targets,” Garnett said in a statement. “We’ll also continue to encourage all-electric adoption.”

While cities and advocacy groups try to promote electric usage, some local business owners say they like gas better but are prepared to be flexible.

“I enjoy cooking with gas more,” said Heirloom Chef co-owner and personal chef Erika Minkowsky. “I think there is more control with the temperature.”

Heirloom is a personal chef service that caters mainly to the East Bay and San Fransisco region. The local chef team often uses their client’s gas and electric appliances to create meals. Still, Minkowsky said electrical appliances are better for the environment and supports using them, even if they take a while to get used to.

“You can get used to anything if you practice enough,” she said.

Claudio Bono, managing director for the Cupertino Hotel, also supports the idea of no-gas buildings but is concerned about the practicality of going all-electric. The building uses electricity to run appliances like laundry machines and gas for cooking in the kitchen.

“If the switch was easy, we would love to have that,” Bono said. “But in a hybrid way, so if one thing falls we have another (power source) to sustain us operationally.”

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