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Richmond could become next California city to ban gas appliances

on October 28, 2021

Gas stoves and fireplaces may be a thing of the past in Richmond under a proposed ordinance that would shut natural gas out of new buildings.

Richmond City Council could vote next month on the  proposed ordinance by Councilmember Eduardo Martinez that closes a loophole in the city’s natural gas ban, which applies to new structures and major renovations. Gas-powered appliances and fireplaces are now exempt from the ban but would not be under Martinez’s proposal, which would leave electricity as the city’s go-to power source.

If approved, Richmond would follow cities like Berkeley and San Francisco in phasing out natural gas in the building sector as a way to address climate change

“Somebody has to go first,” said Berkeley City Councilmember Kate Harrison, lead author of her city’s ordinance. “I also think it just proves that local government has a lot of untapped power to change business as usual.”

After Berkeley’s ban, about 50 California cities followed, according to the Sierra Club, an environmental advocacy organization.

Martinez introduced the measure in September and it was supposed to return to City Council this month. But the council asked city staff for more information, pushing any vote into November. It is likely to pass, since Martinez and other members of the Richmond Progessive Alliance make up a majority. 

Martinez did not respond to multiple requests for an interview. 

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While some laud such measures as an appropriate and swift response to climate change, others see it as unpragmatic or overreaching.

“Banning gas in buildings is a necessary step needed within the next eight years to make a serious effort to address climate, air pollution and energy security,” Mark Jacobson, an environmental engineering professor at Stanford University, wrote in an email. 

But Richmond also faces a housing crisis, said Christopher Ochoa, senior counsel for the California Building Industry Association. Electric- powered appliances are more costly, he said. Plus, other energy reforms are adding to the cost of housing such as Gov. Gavin Newsom’s ban on the sale of new gas-powered cars by 2035. Electric vehicle chargers will become necessary to build into homes, Ochoa noted, further raising the costs of housing.

“We’re not climate deniers, we’re pro decarbonization,” Ochoa said. “We get it. But we also have to balance it out with the housing crisis that we have, as far as affordability and lack of inventory.”

Melissa Yu, conservation program coordinator for the Sierra Club San Francisco Bay chapter said cities that added natural gas bans to their building codes had to demonstrate that the new code was cost-effective over the lifespan of a building. Yu said hooking up electricity is more cost-effective than building gas pipelines in new homes. While she acknowledged that electricity costs more than gas, she said more could be done to design rates that are more equitable. 

According to city data, natural gas makes up 72% of the total energy emissions in Richmond, while electricity makes up only 28%. Of all the greenhouse gas coming from the residential sector, natural gas counts as almost 40%. 

Chris Castanchoa, building regulations official for Richmond, said the city remains committed to its 2016 Climate Action Plan, which aims to replace fossil fuels and promote renewable and alternative energy “throughout the community.” 

The transition to electricity, Jacobson said, will have “significant benefits.”

But California cities with natural gas bans have encountered resistance from industries. After Berkeley enacted its ordinance in 2019, the California Restaurant Association filed a lawsuit, claiming the ban “is unworkable, undercuts California’s need for reliable and resilient energy, increases the cost of housing, and denies consumers choice.”

Shortly after that, two developers in Windsor sued that city for its new natural gas ordinance. While the case against Berkeley was dismissed in federal court, Windsor rescinded its legislation.

Restrictions on gas-powered kitchen appliances have been especially controversial. The California Restaurant Association declined to comment specifically on the Richmond proposal but pointed to an August statement in which the association said it would continue to fight the measure. 

“The loss of flame cooking in restaurant settings would dramatically impact restaurant kitchens, where chefs rely on gas stoves to grill vegetables, sear meats and create meals of all kinds, inspired by cuisines from all over the world,” Jot Condie, the association’s president and CEO, said in the statement. “Any law mandating the use of electric rather than gas stoves reduces those choices, and is also likely to impact what restaurants pay for energy in the future.”

Scientists have remained optimistic about efforts to phase out natural gas. Pierre Delforge, a senior scientist of the Natural Resource Defense Council at San Francisco, called it a “no-regret strategy.”

“The problem of natural gas appliances is they are so inefficient compared to modern electric ones,” Delforge said. While electricity seems more expensive per unit of energy, the appliances ultimately use much less energy. Electric heat pumps, furnaces, stoves, Delforge argued, “would actually cost less to use.” 

Health, Delforge said, is another reason to switch to electricity. “People don’t realize today that they have combustion exhaust gases which really pollute their home,” Delforge said. He cited a 2013 European study that found children living in homes with gas cooking are 42% more likely to have asthma. That is important for cities like Richmond, Delforge said, where the asthma rate is already higher than the Alameda County average due to long-existing air quality problems.

Meanwhile, the architecture community also is optimistic about the shift toward renewable energy for home heating. According to Jared Green, senior editor of the American Society of Landscape Architecture and author of “Good Energy, a new trend in design and construction could work in concert with electrified buildings and bring Richmond one step closer to its goal.

“In the architecture developer community, a lot of people are looking at ‘passive houses’,” Green said. 

This approach uses building positioning, structure layout, and window organization to take advantage of solar power and local climate, reducing energy costs. Attracted by lower costs and the structures’ resilience to natural disasters, more architects view passive houses as a critical step in transitioning homes away from natural gas or oil, Green said.

“Given Bay Area cities like San Francisco and Richmond have a quite temperate climate,” he added, “the passive house approach would really work there.”

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