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.