Why Are Cities Banning Natural Gas in New Construction?
As we adapt for a greener, healthier future, electric heat pumps and induction cooking are becoming more popular.
Living in a cold climate, I love the coziness of my natural gas furnace. I also adore cooking on a range with gas burners. Nothing warms a fresh tortilla like an open flame.
But burning natural gas is not so great for our health or the health of our planet. Inside our homes, our gas stoves, water heaters and furnaces give off dangerous levels of particulates and other air pollutants. Across our country, those fossil-fuel-powered systems and appliances emit nearly 15 percent of all greenhouse gases.
To achieve our climate goals, we need to make all new and existing buildings zero-carbon by 2050. As cities grapple with how to reach those targets, some are adopting all-electric building codes, especially in new construction.
Why Are Cities Banning Natural Gas in New Construction?
While climate change is the main reason, there are other benefits to all-electric buildings:
- Reducing indoor air pollution: “Electric appliances improve indoor air quality immediately by eliminating toxic air pollution from the combustion and leakage of natural gas, which are linked to asthma and cancer,” says Hadley Tallackson, electrification policy analyst at Energy Innovation. She noted research showing children living in homes with gas stoves had a 42 percent higher risk of experiencing asthma symptoms.
- Attaining zero-carbon: All-electric buildings are not yet zero-carbon, because our electric grid is still powered in part by fossil fuels. “But the grid has the capacity to become 100 percent clean, and it will,” says Ted Lamm, senior research fellow at the Center for Law, Energy & the Environment at UC Berkeley School of Law. “For all-electric buildings, today is the highest emissions they’re ever going to generate.”
- Reducing utility bills: Renewable energy is becoming far cheaper to produce than fossil fuel energy. As more of the grid becomes powered by solar and wind, electricity bills are expected to decrease as well.
- Reducing future infrastructure expenses: We know we need to switch over to electric soon. It’s more cost-effective to build clean from the start than undertake retrofits later.
- Improving quality of life: All-electric buildings are more likely to have built-in features like EV chargers, onsite solar generation and storage, and better performing appliances that last longer. “I think there’s a natural tendency if you’re using old-school fossil-reliant construction to not embrace all the new full electrification features that provide advanced technology and quality-of-life improvements,” says Lamm.
- Overcoming legal limitations: City governments can’t control some city-level greenhouse gas contributors, like private vehicles. But they do have the authority to regulate building construction and energy consumption.
What Cities are Banning Natural Gas in New Construction?
A growing number of cities and states are encouraging or requiring all-electric buildings. Some have embraced all-out bans of natural gas in new construction, while others are more gradually phasing it out or offering incentives for businesses and homeowners to ditch gas voluntarily. Some of the leaders include:
- More than 50 municipalities in California. Berkeley was the first, later joined by San Francisco, San Jose and Los Angeles, plus smaller towns like Hercules and Healdsburg.
- Ithaca, New York, became the first U.S. city to plan for electrifying all of its existing buildings, with the goal of decarbonizing the city by 2030.
- New York City’s new Local Law 97 lays out ambitious greenhouse gas reduction and building efficiency requirements.
- Denver is phasing out natural gas while offering an incentives program to help homeowners switch from fossil fuels.
- Illinois, Massachusetts, Colorado and Minnesota have passed state laws incentivizing or promoting electrification.
- Maine has become a state leader in heat pumps, which can heat and cool buildings.
- For more examples, check this ever-evolving list of highlights.
Who Is On Board With All-Electric Buildings and Who Is Not?
Not surprisingly, the natural gas industry is the largest opponent of all-electric buildings. It spurred 20 state governments to adopt preemption laws, which prohibit local governments from encouraging or requiring new buildings to be all-electric. However, such laws are hitting roadblocks; Tallackson says two governors already vetoed preemption laws in their states.
Natural gas companies also launched culture campaigns to lessen consumer support for all-electric buildings.
“The natural gas industry has spent the last seven decades marketing gas as a safe option for consumers,” says Tallackson. “Their campaign dates back to the 1950s when gas and electric companies were competing for consumer end-uses. As a result, gas is still prominent in homes and buildings.”
Some of their efforts include paying social media influencers to celebrate cooking with gas, as well as ads touting natural gas as “sustainable” and “green.” These ads are widely recognized as greenwashing, because the dangers of carbon dioxide emissions from burning natural gas, and the methane released from producing it, are well documented.
In the building trades, all-electric buildings are receiving a more mixed reaction, says Lamm. Many builders and contractors are embracing them, especially as consumer demand grows. “In the public there’s a lot of receptiveness to it,” says Lamm. “It’s higher quality construction. It’s higher quality indoor air. And they’re more efficient and better buildings overall.”
However, some contractors and real estate pros are reluctant to switch, Tallackson says. Why? Negative perceptions and lack of familiarity with the technologies; contractors training people to install new technologies while feeling they encroach on traditional ways of business; and the perceived value of gas stoves. The latter is especially a sticking point with restaurant owners.
“There’s culture attached to gas stoves,” says Lamm. “It’s what we’re used to, and food’s a very personal thing. But we are pumping particulate matter and other air pollutants into our homes. It may be what I’m used to cooking with, but it is not good for my lungs.”