San Jose Contemplate Banning Fuel For New Industrial Buildings

by Sonya Herrera
November 11, 2020

In its next phase towards a gas-free future, San Jose will soon consider whether all new commercial buildings need full power.

“We need to convert all of our energy to renewable energy,” said Kerrie Romanow, San Jose’s chief sustainability officer. “We want to stop the problem.”

San Jose recently expanded the gas ban ordinance passed by the city council last year and recently hosted a webinar for commercial developers that answered questions about all-electric building architecture and equipment such as water heaters.

The gas ban was enacted as part of the city’s new range code, which introduced a series of environmentally friendly reforms.

Last year’s ordinance stipulates that new residential buildings – mainly single-family houses as well as flat apartments and condominiums – may only be supplied with electricity. This regulation, which came into force on January 1st, does not contain any office or retail structures.

The expanded regulation would include commercial buildings other than food processing plants, hospitals, industrial buildings and manufacturing facilities. This means that claims and applications processed after July 31 would have to exclude any natural gas infrastructure “for which an equivalent all-electric system or design is available”.

Will Smith, sales representative for IBEW 332, the local electrical workers union, said he was excited about the new job opportunities that this policy would follow. The union has 3,700 employees in Santa Clara County, and Smith said the growing number of people pursuing careers in electrical work should be able to meet the increased demand.

“I could honestly see that there was an increase,” said Smith. “There will be an influx of people trying to become electricians.”

However, Smith said the city needs to find ways to increase San Jose’s power and storage capacity to meet increased energy demands, especially given the impact of bullet trains, BART, and a growing number of electric vehicles.

“The reality is, if we wake up tomorrow and are fully electrified … the PG&E grid couldn’t support that demand,” said Smith. “The network has to be enough to carry this kind of load.”

Kimi Narita, senior strategic advisor for the American Cities Climate Challenge, helped draft the ordinance, which is part of a wave of initiatives to help San Jose meet its climate goals. San Jose is targeting 47% net carbon efficiency by 2030, which will cut the city’s carbon emissions by half.

The city received millions in support from Bloomberg Philanthropies in 2018 to study how to limit natural gas, offset the cost of residential solar systems, and lower the cost of new all-electric high-rise buildings.

“In a few years, San Jose will have all renewable energy in its power supply,” said Narita. Combined with all-electric buildings, the city’s CO2 emissions are likely to decrease significantly over time. “It’s this crossroads that makes it incredibly exciting.”

Narita said the finer details of the expanded ordinance had not yet been finalized, adding that San Jose would be the largest city in the country to enact such a policy.

Ken Davies, assistant director of Climate Smart San Jose, said the next phase of the gas ban will allow developers to apply for exemptions for restaurant and food production facilities, as well as certain industrial and manufacturing buildings. Davies said he wasn’t expecting too many of these types of apps because the city has worked hard with developers to provide tech support.

Davies said the city’s sustainability bureau has contacted hundreds of developers, builders and other property managers to provide information and answer questions about the new standard. He said the city intends to ban natural gas from all new buildings by January 21, 2023 – with no exceptions.

Given that a third of the city’s greenhouse gas emissions come from natural gas, eliminating the fuel from new buildings would save Davies 608,000 tons of carbon dioxide that doesn’t end up in the atmosphere. This assumes that the power source is renewable.

Kerrie Romanow, chief sustainability officer, said 98% of San Jose residents are enrolled in San Jose Clean Energy, which offers carbon-free energy from wind, solar and hydropower at costs comparable to Pacific Gas and Electric.

However, electricity continues to flow through PG&E power grid. When asked if all-electric buildings could make residents more vulnerable to power outages, which has become the utility’s standard practice for reducing forest fire risk, Davies said it wasn’t a huge problem , as the shutdowns particularly affect the “hilly outskirts” of San Jose and not the downtown core.

During the webinar, one participant asked if the city is developing microgrid projects to mitigate the effects of shutdowns that have become more common after successful lawsuits against PG&E for their role in igniting forest fires in Northern California. Davies said there was no timeline for when such a project would be ready for public review.

Narita, the climate change adviser, said banning gas from new buildings was only part of many approaches to reducing CO2 emissions in San Jose while preserving the quality of life for residents.

“The range code is an important part of the policy … but it’s not enough,” said Narita. “We still have to work on issues like storage and resilience.”

The city council is expected to vote on the extended gas ban on November 17th.

Contact Sonya Herrera at [email protected] or follow @SMHsoftware on Twitter.

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