Push for decarbonizing California Wine Country meets construction industry resistance to natural gas limits

In the march to power California without fossil fuels by 2045, the choice by some cities to ban natural gas has lit the fuse on a battle pitting environmental groups against developers, involving not only cost of home construction, but whether government has picked the wrong target.

“Going after housing is like trying to knock that flea off an elephant’s butt. It is not going to effect change,” said Craig Lawson, president of the North Coast Builders Exchange board and owner of CAL Custom Building Services in Santa Rosa. The general contractor has been building homes in the North Bay since 1979. He would prefer people were tackling the harder issues like transportation that would have a greater environmental benefit based on that sector’s greenhouse gas emissions.

The battle has already led to lawsuits and concessions. Windsor adopted a natural gas ban for new construction ban in 2019, joined by neighboring Sonoma County cities Santa Rosa and Healdsburg. Those bans were approved by the California Energy Commission.

Even though the Windsor Town Council on Wednesday is expected to rescind its code that mandates future residential construction contain all electric appliances, the issue may not die with that vote.

“The settlement does not preclude the town from considering a similar ordinance in the future,” Town Manager Ken MacNab told the Business Journal.

Repealing the regulation is part of the settlement agreement with developers Bill Gallaher and Windsor-Jensen Land Co. Both filed lawsuits to stop the regulation from taking effect. While Gallaher also filed suit against Santa Rosa over a similar ordinance, the council voted to continue the legal battle. Healdsburg adopted a hybrid model that allows new homes to use gas cooktops and fireplaces.

Construction experts cite California Energy Commission numbers that say residential housing accounts for 7% of greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions, compared with transportation at 41% and industry at 24%. They say their industry is not a major contributor to the climate change, which some scientists say is accelerated by those emissions.

Contractors agree banning natural gas will drive up construction costs, could leave people in the dark and cold during power outages, and will limit people’s choices when it comes to the appliances they use.

Proponents of requiring all electric homes say the environment will be better off without natural gas, energy bills will be lower, and the health benefits from reducing emissions are measurable for people and the planet.

“Natural gas is mostly methane and 25 times more harmful than (carbon dioxide). When it leaks, it’s very harmful to the climate,” Geof Syphers, CEO of Santa Rosa-based Sonoma Clean Power, said. “If we don’t at least meet or exceed (the state’s goals), all of our current science says more and more of California becomes unlivably dangerous. There is no way to be lawful and compliant without phasing out natural gas.”

He said it’s what needs to be done before the bigger items are tackled: “Let’s do the easy stuff, like not adding more gas to new construction.”

Sonoma Clean Power is a customer-owned public utility serving the residents and businesses in Sonoma and Mendocino counties; except for Ukiah and Healdsburg which have their own municipal power programs. Customers pay the agency for electric generation, and PG&E for delivery and maintenance of its power poles and wires.

“There is only so much clean and efficient gas we can get. It will not get us to the goals we have,” said Alice Havenar-Daughton with Marin Clean Energy. MCE provides electricity to more than 480,000 customers in Marin and Napa counties, unincorporated Contra Costa County and 13 cities, and to Benicia.

PG&E, the main supplier of power to the North Bay, plans to limit exploration for new gas because of the state’s carbonless energy mandates.

However, Ari Vanrenen, spokeswoman with the utility, said, “Natural gas remains a critical and essential resource to Californians, supporting households and businesses with affordable energy used for heating and cooking, manufacturing and transportation. Beyond new construction, PG&E believes a multi-faceted approach is needed to cost-effectively achieve California’s greenhouse-gas reduction objectives, including both electrification and decarbonizing the gas system with renewable natural gas and hydrogen.”

Economics of gas and electric

A nonprofit contractors’ association that provides services and representation to construction-related firms in Sonoma, Mendocino, Lake, and Napa counties, NCBE calls these new city ordinances “reach codes” because they reach beyond the state’s requirements for construction.

“We have opposed them because of the minimal good it does and it’s punishing the new homebuyer who might want to cook with gas, and might want a gas fireplace. Our objection is there is so little effect on the environment, and all electric has the potential to raise the cost of construction on a new home by $5,000 to $10,000. Why do that when there is such an important need for new housing?” asked Keith Woods, the organization’s CEO. “For the government to mandate this is frustrating to us.”

Homes built pre-1980 have older, non-efficient appliances unless they have been updated by the homeowner; this includes gas and electric. Legislation regarding these issues was not passed in California until the late 1970s. New rules are always affecting the housing industry, like how solar panels are required on all new construction as of Jan. 1, 2020.

Both sides throw out figures when it comes to what the added costs or savings could be for a new home to be all electric, what those appliances will cost, as well as the cost of using gas vs. electric. That is a large part of the problem, knowing whose numbers to believe in order to determine what is cost-effective.

One issue is that most electric bills are based on a tiered system. After the flat rate customers are charged based on usage, with those using the most electricity charged a higher rate. That is why going all electric today is likely to be an expensive proposition.

The American Gas Association contends, “Households that use natural gas for heating, cooking and clothes drying save an average of $874 per year compared to homes using electricity for those applications.”

But not having to put in gas lines lowers the cost of home building, according to the Sierra Club.

“With new construction the cost of building new housing will be significantly less, saving $6,000 on single family housing if it’s all electric and about $1,500 on multi-family. The savings come from not hooking up the gas,” Rachel Golden, campaign representative on building issues for the Sierra Club, said.

Considerations when making changes

As with any change, there are consequences. While Marin Clean Energy is a proponent of all electric homes, the company knows it needs to be cognizant of potential negative outcomes.

“There is a lot that needs to get us (to all electric homes) so folks are not left behind in less clean homes and with a higher bill,” Havenar-Daughton with MCE said.

The concern is people with money can afford all electric upgrades, thus leaving low-income people with natural gas. If fewer people are using gas, the price will inevitably go up because there would not be as many people to split the expenses associated with supplying the fuel.

“Equity is a complicated issue. One factor is stranded assets as more and more homes use electricity; who is paying to maintain the gas infrastructure? It’s the people who use the gas,” Havenar-Daughton said.

Cultural considerations are also a component when talking about eliminating gas for cooking. An open flame is the best way to cook a poblano pepper, while woks often require gas. Whether a backyard propone barbecue will suffice remains to be seen or if other options come into play.

Havenar-Daughton believes the way to get cultural acceptance is by running pilot programs to get people acquainted with electric cooking devices and obtain people’s feedback. MCE has been conducting a pilot program for the last three years with low-income households throughout its four-county service area. Gas appliances have been traded in for electric. The study will compare emissions, energy consumption, and the cost of gas vs. electric. The conclusions are expected in April.

Syphers, with Sonoma Clean Power, also believes more pilot programs like what MCE is doing need to be conducted; possibly starting with retrofitting a few homes and increasing to an entire neighborhood to get real data.

SCP in the aftermath of the 2017 Tubbs Fire in Santa Rosa created a program to lend induction cooktops to homeowners. This is what the future of electric looks like, not the old coiled burners. It’s a flat surface that is hot right away, but is not suitable for all cookware. Syphers said 80% loved the induction stoves, 15% not so much.

Not everyone is convinced homebuyers want all-electric, and instead would prefer to let the individual decide.

Rob Koslowsky, an electrical engineer by trade who is an advocate for not going all-electric, lost his family’s home in the 2017 Tubbs Fire and rebuilt in Cloverdale where restrictions were less stringent. He has been outspoken at various meetings, and has challenged facts and figures presented by the all-electric proponents.

“I’m not against going green, but it should be a choice, especially with the price of housing in California.”

Life with all electric

Syphers, with Sonoma Clean Power, acknowledges it would be impossible for the state to go all electric today because the storage capacity for renewable energy does not exist. That is why his agency is working with other community choice aggregation entities to form a joint powers authority in order to procure large battery facilities.

“The amount of storage California needs is really significant,” Syphers said. “Anything that can deliver energy to the grid for eight hours or longer is rare in California. There are not that many batteries in California right now.”

Batteries are needed to store the renewable energy when it is not immediately needed on the grid. It is becoming common that as solar farms are developed outdoor battery facilities are built on-site. This makes for more efficiency and less transmission issues, according to industry officials.

But what happens when the power goes out? Smoke-filled days from fires reduce solar output. When the wind dies, that renewable source is not an option. Then there are the rolling blackouts that power companies have been using to ensure the grid has enough power.

“Natural gas provides critical electric generation by filling power supply gaps when renewable resources are not available, especially during winter peak periods,” PG&E’s Vanrenen said.

A generator would be the solution in an all-electric house. This, though, is an additional cost that not everyone can handle.

“Let’s talk about what happened during the fires. PG&E did extended power outages. I live in Oakmont. The power was out for 10 days. If you are fortunate enough to have solar on you roof and back up batteries, they are only good for three days,” home builder Lawson said. “Whereas if you were not evacuated and were just in a power outage, your gas furnace still works, gas water heater, gas range, and gas fireplace.”

Editor’s note: The story has been updated. The figure cited by Rachel Golden, campaign representative on building issues for the Sierra Club, on the savings from a multi-family development without natural gas is $1,500.

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