San Jose is projected to be the largest U.S. city banning natural gas from almost all new buildings to usher in an era of all-electric power to fight climate change.
However, some environmentalists fear that a special exemption added by the city at the eleventh hour could jeopardize the general intent of the ban.
San Jose City Council is expected to approve a proposal on Tuesday to ban natural gas in new commercial and high-rise residential buildings from August 2021. The measure would expand a regulation that came into force in January and bans natural gas in new individual. Single-family houses, free-standing granny flats and flat multi-family houses with up to three floors.
“San Jose really makes history, and I hope local governments in the state and country see this as a model for the kind of ambitious policies we need in our cities to really tackle climate change,” said Olivia Walker, one Research Associate with the Defense Council for Natural Resources.
While natural gas used to be seen as a positive alternative to more destructive fossil fuels like coal, it is now viewed by many as an inferior substitute for electricity. Amid a national move to combat global warming, San Jose joined nearly two dozen cities across the state that require new buildings to be all-electric.
Earlier this month, San Francisco passed a natural gas ban on all new builds, affecting more than 54,000 homes and 32 million square feet of commercial space in the city’s development pipeline. Berkeley paved the way in July 2019 when it became the first city in the country to ban natural gas.
In a memo to the San Jose City Council, Kerrie Romanow, the city’s chief sustainability officer, said extending the city’s natural gas ban would improve indoor air quality and significantly reduce future greenhouse gas emissions from the construction sector.
Based on the city’s development projections for the next five years, the natural gas ban would offset around 608,000 tons of carbon dioxide emissions.
In early 2018, San Jose announced plans to become one of the first cities in the country to reduce greenhouse gas emissions to the levels set in the Paris Agreement. Later that year, Bloomberg Philanthropies selected San Jose for a two-year program designed to help cities meet their climate goals. The city has launched its own energy program for the community and aims to produce enough solar energy to power 250,000 households by 2040.
The ordinance is also designed to help the city meet its ambitious climate goals, including ensuring that all new residential buildings by 2020 and commercial buildings run out of net energy by 2030, which means that the amount of energy consumed by the building is equal to the amount of renewables produced locally Energies.
“It is important for us to maintain our climate leadership,” said Mayor Sam Liccardo in a recent interview. “As the largest city in Silicon Valley, the country wants to drive initiatives that have an impact on reducing greenhouse gas emissions.
“I’m grateful that we have a very dedicated community and great partners who both push us and are receptive to being pushed.”
The expansion of the San Jose ordinance would have no impact on existing homes or commercial buildings.
It would also exclude hospitals, new residential units attached to an existing home, and facilities with a distributed energy source – or the on-site generation and storage of electricity through a variety of small, on-grid or distribution system devices.
Until December 31, 2022, “limited hardness exemptions” will be available for new food operations as well as production and industrial plants. However, new buildings for which an exemption is requested would still have to install the infrastructure and connections for fully electric devices in order to ensure an easier transition from natural gas to electric devices in the future.
The exemption for systems with distributed energy sources is being examined in detail. According to Mothers Out Front Silicon Valley group, Bloom Energy – a San Jose-based publicly traded fuel cell company with major clients like Apple and PayPal – has negotiated an exception to the all-electric code and has labeled its fuel cells as a vital source of emergency power in the event of outages. The company’s fuel cells generate electricity primarily from natural gas and, according to Stadt and Bloom, emit more than three times as much carbon dioxide as electricity from the San Jose Clean Energy utility.
Earlier this year, Bloom won a lawsuit against the city of Santa Clara after they tried to ban the company’s cells.
Hoai-An Truong, a member of the executive team of Mothers Out Front Silicon Valley, said in a letter to the council that the exemption “would seriously undermine the intent of the proposed gas ban.”
“We are strongly against exemptions that allow significant continuous use of fossil gases instead of clean energy in new buildings,” wrote Truong in a letter to the council. “… A fossil fuel company’s late attempt to manipulate this policy is inappropriate.”
However, the company argues that banning its pipeline infrastructure “will limit the state’s ability to fully decarbonize.”
“The roadmap to meeting the state’s carbon reduction targets should include a variety of strategies and technologies to enable a clean, reliable, and affordable transition,” wrote Carl Guardino, Bloom’s new executive vice president, in a letter to the city council. “Intermittent renewable resources need to be combined with reliable generation to keep the lights on and keep business going.”
Others are less receptive to the city introducing new mandates for the construction industry, citing concerns about rising costs and differing views on how harmful natural gas actually is to the environment.
Myron Crawford, a government affairs specialist at real estate development firm Berg & Berg Enterprises, Inc., issued a letter urging the council not to extend its natural gas ban, arguing that doing so would lead to higher property prices and encourage an exodus of people leaving California.
“Just because another city is banning natural gas doesn’t mean San Jose should do so,” Crawford wrote in the letter. “… Berkeley’s natural gas ban increases the ever-increasing cost of home ownership in California, which has already been underlined by environmental requirements.”