Homes in Encinitas / Photo by Jamie Scott Lytle

One local city has taken a step toward banning natural gas in new construction projects. But the death knell for a fossil fuel isn’t coming from San Diego.

The Encinitas City Council is considering a requirement that new buildings be equipped to power everything — including stoves, water heaters, air conditioning and heating — with electricity. The move would knock out five of the city’s 20 goals under its Climate Action Plan, which aims to eliminate most planet-warming emissions, like the methane and carbon dioxide that come from natural gas.

San Diego, by far the biggest city in the region, hasn’t yet taken that leap. The city gave natural gas a pass under its first Climate Action Plan, which mandated the city abandon fossil fuels from electricity by 2035. Natural gas (the kind used in homes and by industry, excluding any gas used to generate electricity) accounted for about 20 percent of the city’s emissions in 2019, according to the most recently available data.

“All the time there are reminders we are in a climate emergency,” said Encinitas Mayor Catherine Blakespear during a City Council hearing of the ordinance on Aug. 18. “This is something the city of Encinitas could do to help address it.”

Encinitas’ action came last month around the same time the world’s top climate scientists issued a joint report saying extreme weather and other climate change problems were definitely caused by humans and will definitely get worse unless the world economy drastically reduces greenhouse gases, according to an analysis by Carbon Brief.

The new gas ban hasn’t passed yet. That’s because Blakespear pushed the Council to make the ordinance even more aggressive by removing some exemptions that still allow residents to put natural gas cooking appliances and pool heaters in homes, and to allow multifamily housing or accessory dwelling units (or granny flats) to skip out on the requirements altogether. (Staff will have to reintroduce the tougher ordinance before the Council can take a final vote.)

One developer during the Council hearing warned that electric water heaters could be more expensive and that multifamily housing doesn’t have enough roof area to support all-electric use.

But the number of cries of anti-gas advocates, from groups like Sierra Club to San Diego 350, were greater.

“While the city’s proposed ordinance is commendable and should be approved, it does not go far enough to eliminate methane gas from reaching our children’s lungs and the atmosphere,” said Leana Cortez, a student at University of California, San Diego, and member of the CleanEarth4Kids. She called on the Council to remove any exemptions that would allow developers to continue building gas hookups in new buildings.

Without the exemptions, Encinitas’ ordinance could arguably be more progressive than new energy efficiency standards passed by the California Energy Commission this month. Come 2023, single-family homes will have to be built all-electric ready (that means wired with the appropriate circuits and panels to install electric appliances) and there are also new electric standards for water heaters, which consume a lot of natural gas. Some of the standards apply to apartments.

“We use more natural gas in our homes on water heaters than we do on space heating,” said Karl Aldinger, a conservation organizer for Sierra Club. “It’s because they run constantly, so even in the summertime they’re still running and it’s something we take for granted.”

Meanwhile, the city of San Diego is working on an update to its 2015 Climate Action Plan, which addresses building efficiency but doesn’t outright ban natural gas in homes. And the city just signed a 10-year contract for natural gas delivery under its franchise fee agreement with San Diego Gas and Electric.

“We said, ‘Find a way to build in provisions to make sure there’s a rollback of methane gas infrastructure,’ and they did not prioritize that,” said Mat Vasilakis, co-director of policy at Climate Action Campaign, a nonprofit advocacy group that pushes cities to adopt and strengthen policies on climate action.

But San Diego is studying a path toward building electrification, said Alyssa Muto, director of sustainability and mobility for the city. A draft of the proposed Climate Action Plan update is due this fall.

“The city is considering what our next steps are and what our path is to reduce emissions in the energy sector. And all things are on the table right now,” Muto said.

Natural gas is the city of San Diego’s third-largest source of planet-warming emissions. Use dropped overall between 2010 and 2019, by 9 percent, but San Diegans consumed about 4 percent more natural gas in 2019 than they did in 2018.

One big way the region is hoping to cut out natural gas from its emissions portfolio is going 100 percent renewable on electricity.

Quick clarifier: Natural gas is used in power plants to make electricity, and it’s also piped into homes through underground pipelines, where it’s used by your stove, your water heater and other types of appliances. Environmentalists and governments are worried about leaks in those pipelines in which methane gas can eek out into the atmosphere. Methane is considered a potent greenhouse gas, meaning it can speed up the warming of the planet faster in the short term than carbon dioxide. But once methane makes it to your home, it burns and turns into carbon dioxide. That’s still not good because we have way too much carbon dioxide in the atmosphere from over a century of burning fossil fuels.

The San Diego region is expected to get rid of all its pollution from the electricity sector by 2035 for more ambitious cities — including San Diego — and in others by 2045, the year the state of California mandates all electricity be powered by renewables, like wind and solar. The region’s government-run power purchasing agencies, called community choice aggregators, are in charge of delivering that promise by building more renewable energy projects and purchasing more renewable power and slowly phasing out natural gas from the mix.

That leaves natural gas in buildings as the remaining thorn in the region’s side.

But it appears Mayor Todd Gloria isn’t ready to commit to ushering-out building emissions. In response to questions about whether the city can meet its climate goals without banning natural gas, Courtney Pittam, Gloria’s press secretary, said in an email that the city is focusing on phasing it out in government buildings first to “lead by example.”

Despite Encinitas being the first to move on building electrification for the region, focusing natural gas bans on new construction doesn’t change much in overall GHG emissions.

“We build about 1 percent of the building stock each year, so it’s a relatively small amount but overtime can build up,” said Scott Anders, director of the Energy Policy Initiatives Center at the University of San Diego, which assisted Encinitas on its ordinance. “Even if everybody in San Diego did an all-electric requirement for new construction, there’s still a lot of gas in the existing infrastructure used in homes, businesses and industrial settings.”

The next — and harder — climate policy step would be to start requiring or incentivizing developers and homeowners to retrofit their buildings so that they can run all-electric. That’s a much more difficult ask and it doesn’t appear environmental groups are pushing that yet.

“The campaign to convert over existing buildings is very contentious because it will cost most homeowners a great deal of money and it’s not as simple as changing out appliances, but some upgrades would have to happen to electrical panels,” said Aldinger of the Sierra Club. “We want to move the ball on that as well but we have to be careful not to harm low-income folks … that would be a hard standard for everyone to make.”

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