Even in the greenest places, phasing out natural gas isn’t easy
Buildings are a formidable source of pollution that warms the planet: their use of fossil fuels represents nearly a tenth of American emissions – a contribution that triples if we take into account the gas and coal burnt off site to produce electricity. In Bellingham, the the building sector represents 43% of the city’s emissions, according to a 2018 update of the Climate Protection Action Plan.
In Washington, Oregon and British Columbia, where carbon-free hydropower is abundant and the use of clean sources like wind and solar is growing, experts see the change known as electrification a crucial piece of the decarbonization puzzle.
Cities take action
Real estate developers already have the technology to replace gas furnaces, water heaters and hobs. And because cities control building and energy codes, those codes are one of the few areas where municipalities have the power to impose significant emission reductions.
During his tenure on the Climate Protection Action Plan Working Group, McDade conducted an unofficial study on what could be achieved if Bellingham required all new commercial and multi-family buildings greater than three floors are fully electric. (Washington state does not allow cities to change the energy codes of single-family homes or two- and three-story multi-family buildings.) It estimated that by 2035, new buildings would be responsible for 17% of emissions. of the city’s construction sector.
When McDade first brought up the idea in 2018, no city in the country had banned natural gas in new construction. This is no longer the case.
Berkeley, Calif., Led the charge in July 2019, when he became the first American city to adopt such a law. Others followed, including 48 other municipalities in the Golden State. In 2020, Vancouver, BC city council mandated zero emission spaces and water heating in all low-rise residential buildings constructed after this year. And earlier this year, Seattle passed legislation to start phase-out of natural gas in new commercial and apartment buildings more than three floors.
There are more laws to come, said Alex Ramel, a representative for the state of Bellingham and an activist for Stand.earth, an environmental group with offices in Bellingham, San Francisco and Vancouver, B.C. But experience shows that it’s going to be a struggle.
Earlier this year, Ramel introduced a bill in the Washington House of Representatives that would prevent new construction statewide from using gas for space and water heating by 2030. Even with his stamp of nearly ten years, his bill died in committee.
“There are still a lot of people I would talk to about this, and they’d be like, ‘Well, can we even do that? Is it effective? Is it affordable? Is there enough electricity in the grid? »», Said Ramel. “There are good answers to all of these questions, and if you can say, ‘Yes, I can explain to you why there are good answers,’ that’s one thing.
“If you can say, ‘We’re doing this at Bellingham, it’s okay,’ that’s a quicker and sometimes more convincing response.”
It’s a big if.
Bellingham city staff are currently drafting an ordinance based on the Seattle one, and city council is not expected to consider the proposal until this winter – more than three years after Erin McDade first championed the idea. The delay is not only the result of the slowness of the local government. Bellingham has had to contend with the natural gas industry’s well-funded national campaign against electrification.
“Knowing what to do is the easiest part,” McDade said. “The way we implement it is, of course, the complicated part. “
Campaign for natural gas
Home to Western Washington University, Bellingham is a progressive college town in a Blue State. It is surrounded by nature and full of outdoor enthusiasts. The harbor town sits on the ecologically abundant Salish Sea and is fringed by evergreen forests whose silhouettes cut through the vibrant west coast sunsets. On a clear day, the snow-capped peaks of Mount Baker (aka Kulshan) is visible from the city center. This seems like a place where taking aggressive action on climate change would be relatively painless.
In 2005, city council joined the Cities for Climate Protection campaign, a global initiative calling on municipalities to take measurable action to reduce emissions and become more sustainable. Bellingham published his Climate protection action plan two years later, eventually leading to the task force that McDade joined.
The nine people on the task force were volunteers, with one exception: Lynn Murphy, an employee of Puget Sound Energy, who represented her employer’s interests, and Cascade Natural Gas, another utility. From McDade’s perspective, everyone on the task force except Murphy believed in the goal of charting the city’s road to zero emissions. When the group voted its final recommendations to city council in 2019, all measures were passed unanimously, except for those relating to the electrification of buildings and a handful relating to the production of renewable energy. Murphy was the only one to vote against them.
In an email to Grist, Murphy touted his 13 years of promoting energy initiatives in the community. She considered that her job was to weigh the merits of the different actions: “My job in the working group was to assess the feasibility, costs and impacts of the proposed climate action measures, as indicated by the [City] Council resolution. Puget Sound Energy, her employer, said she “felt some of the measures lacked feasibility and understanding of the potential negative impacts on our customers,” said Janet Kim, public relations manager for the power company.
Alyn Spector, head of energy efficiency policy at Cascade Natural Gas, said in an email to Grist that the region cannot afford to limit innovation to “a single source of fuel or technology, which is the basis of electrification “. The company believes the best process allows utilities to “embrace a suite of decarbonization solutions,” he added, including improved energy efficiency, hydrogen and renewable natural gas.
Renewable natural gas is a catch-all term for methane captured in landfills, sewage treatment plants, and manure pits found on livestock farms. Environmental organizations criticized its use in buildings on the grounds that it is too expensive, in limited supply and that it presents safety and health risks similar to those of natural gas, including methane leaks which contribute to global warming, explosions of pipelines and indoor air pollution from combustion by-products such as nitrogen oxide, carbon monoxide and particles.
Critics of electrification launched a public relations campaign when it appeared likely that it would be included in the recommendations of the Bellingham task force. A building industry group, with support from Cascade Natural Gas, sent out brochures to homeowners during the second half of 2019 claiming that replacing gas appliances in a typical Bellingham home would cost between $ 36 $ 050 and $ 82,750.
The brochure, which contained data from Puget Sound Energy, as well as fossil fuel and construction companies, concluded that all-electric could deprive more than 9,000 households in Bellingham of the housing market. He urged citizens to attend the working group meetings to voice their concerns.
Members of the local building and real estate sectors were frustrated by what they saw as a lack of engagement from the task force and the city, said Rob Lee, chief executive and director of government affairs from the Building Industry Association of Whatcom County, which created the brochure. Lee said his group believed in an owner’s right to choose their power source, rather than having it mandated. The costs shown in the brochure, he explained, were calculated by local builders.
However, some facts about building electrification have been omitted from the brochure: for example, although heat pumps are more expensive than standard air conditioners, they are often more efficient than natural gas furnaces and can save energy. money to homeowners on utility bills. Heat pumps also provide additional value to homes and businesses during heat waves, like the deadly heat dome that slammed Cascadia last summer.
The brochure also didn’t mention that the Bellingham task force recommended replacing water and space heating equipment at the end of its life, not immediately – an important distinction. The real cost is not just the total price of new electrical equipment, but the difference between new natural gas equipment and new electrical equipment.
But the industry’s message has caught on, McDade said. “They scared people very much,” she said. “If I didn’t know anything about it, and hadn’t been a fool and did the math, I would have been afraid.
When McDade sat down to calculate the costs herself, the numbers were drawn very differently. She estimated that the cash cost of electrifying an existing building as its equipment ages is, at most, $ 11,100, about a third of the industry’s lowest estimate. She also estimated that electrifying buildings would save a single-family household between $ 8,000 and $ 12,600 in utility bills over 20 years.