Cities are banning natural gas in homes to save the planet


Fix global warming or cook dinner on a gas stove?

That’s the choice for people in 13 cities and one county in California and one town in Massachusetts that have enacted new zoning codes encouraging or requiring all-electric new construction.  

The codes, most of them passed since June, are meant to keep builders from running natural gas lines to new homes and apartments, with an eye toward creating fewer legacy gas hookups as the nation shifts to carbon-neutral energy sources.

The most recent came on Wednesday whenthe town meeting in Brookline, Massachusetts, approved a rule prohibiting installation of gas lines into major new construction and in gut renovations. 

For proponents, it's a change that must be made to fight climate change. For natural gas companies, it's a threat to their existence. And for some cooks who love to prepare food with flame, it's an unthinkable loss.

Natural gas is a fossil fuel, mostly methane, and produces 33% of U.S. carbon dioxide emissions from electricity generation, according to theU.S. Energy Information Administration. Carbon dioxide is the primary greenhouse gascausing climate change.

“There’s no pathway to stabilizing the climate without phasing gas out of our homes and buildings. This is a must-do for the climate and a livable planet,” said Rachel Golden of the Sierra Club’s building electrification campaign.

These new building codes come as local governments work to speed the transition from natural gas and other fossil fuels and toward the use of electricity from renewables, said Robert Jackson, a professor of energy and the environment at Stanford University in Palo Alto.

“Every house, every high-rise that’s built with gas, may be in place for decades. We’re establishing infrastructure that may be in place for 50 years,” he said.

These "reach" or "stretch" building codes, as they are known, have almost all been passed in California. The first was in Berkeley in July, then more in Northern California and recently Santa Monica in Southern California. Other cities in Massachusetts, Oregon and Washington state are contemplating them, according to the Sierra Club.

Brookline's was the first outside of the state, and the first to address renovations. Though it differs from the California town rules in that the bylaw exempts fuel piping needed for backup generators, cooking, laboratories and medical offices, and for central domestic hot water systems in large buildings. 

Some of the cities ban natural gas hookups to new construction. Others offer builders incentives if they go all-electric, much the same as they might get to take up more space on a lot if a house is extra energy-efficient. In April, Sunnyvale, a town in Silicon Valley, changed its building code tooffer a density bonus to all-electric developments.

No more gas stoves?

The building codes apply only to new construction beginning in 2020, so they aren’t an issue for anyone in an already-built home.

Probably the biggest stumbling block for most pondering an all-electric home is the prospect of not having a gas stove.

“It’s the only thing that people ever ask about,” said Bruce Nilles, who directs the building electrification program of the Rocky Mountain Institute, a Colorado-based think tank that focuses on energy and resource efficiency.

Roughly 35% of U.S. households have a gas stove, while 55%have electric, according to a 2017 kitchen audit by the NPD Group, a global information company based in Port Washington, New York. 

For at least a quarter of Americans, it doesn't matter either way. They already live in houses that are all-electric, and their numbers are rising, according to the U.S. Energy Information Administration. That’s especially true in the Southeast, whereclose to 45% of homes are all-electric.

For the rest of the nation, natural gas is used to heat buildings and water, dry clothes and cook food, according to the EIA. That represents 17% of national natural gas usage. 

But the number of natural gas customers is also rising. The American Gas Association, which represents more than 200 local energy companies, says an average of one new customer is added every minute. 

“That’s exactly the wrong direction,” Nilles said.

States weigh climate change solutions

The nudge toward all-electric buildings is the type of shift Americans will begin to experience more and more in coming years. Last year, California’s governor signed an executive order directing state agencies to work toward making the entire state economy carbon-neutral by 2045. 

California is not alone. New York, Hawaii, Colorado and Maine have economywide carbon-neutrality goals, and several more are debating them. More than140U.S. cities have committed to transitioning to carbon-neutral energy. 

The natural gas industry rejects the notion that it should not be part of the nation’s energy future.

“The idea that denying access to natural gas in new homes is necessary to meet emissions reduction goals is false. In fact, denying access to natural gas could make meeting emissions goals harder and more expensive,” said American Gas Association President and CEO Karen Harbert.