To combat climate change, California must wean buildings off fossil fuels

By Sam Liccardo, Special to CALmatters

For decades, innovators in California have understood that the challenge of climate change demands ingenuity. Several technological improvements related to transportation and clean energy have emerged, helping to drive a concrete reduction in greenhouse gas emissions. But we’ve still got a long way to go, and the urgency of climate change demands we focus on some not-so-sexy solutions.

Notably, we still don’t have a comprehensive statewide plan to help cities cut pollution from homes and commercial buildings. That’s like having a global naval military strategy that omits the Pacific Ocean.

Construction, heating, and operating of our work and homes account for nearly 40 percent of our nation’s CO2 emissions.  

A large share of these emissions come from burning natural gas in our home and office appliances. Indoor gas appliances emit more greenhouse gases than all of California’s power plants combined.

This problem has only worsened. Across the country, emissions from homes and buildings spiked last year, driving one of the largest national emission increases in decades.

In San José, we’re taking our buildings—and their greenhouse gas emissions—seriously.

I joined three other California mayors and 15 global cities to carve a path to a requirement for zero-emission buildings for all new construction.

For existing buildings, we’ve adopted a building performance ordinance that requires owners of commercial and multifamily buildings larger than 20,000 square feet—a far stricter threshold than the state’s—to track and disclose their buildings’ energy and water use through a free online tool.

By making energy costs more transparent to tenants, we will incentivize owner-funded investments in energy-efficient retrofits, and better understand the energy profiles of our existing building stock.

The most impactful change that we can implement lies in shifting from natural gas-fueled heaters and stoves to electricity, through the installation of electric heat pumps, electric hot water heaters, electric induction stoves, and other retrofits.

Studying our city’s emissions profile, we learned that swapping gas appliances with clean, electric options in San José’s homes would reduce our city’s aggregate greenhouse gas emissions by 8 percent. Commercial retrofits could reduce greenhouse gas emissions even further.

Why do electric appliances present such opportunity?

In communities throughout California, we’re seeing dramatic progress in the decarbonization of our electrical grid. Part of the credit goes to the growth of community choice aggregation programs, which allow residents and businesses to choose the source of the electricity they buy.

San José Clean Energy, for example, offers nearly every residential customer and many businesses 80 percent carbon-free electricity at a lower cost than the private utility, Pacific Gas & Electric.

By 2021, our base offering will consist of 100 percent carbon-free electricity through a rapid ramp-up of contracts with renewable providers.

With cleaner sources of electricity, the conversion from gas to electric appliances in our homes and workspaces will dramatically cut emissions and reduce air pollution. It will also help grow California’s innovation economy, opening up the kind of clean-tech economic opportunity that we’ve seen with solar, wind, and zero-emission vehicles.

We need effective coordination among California’s leaders and public agencies, however.

The Building Decarbonization Coalition, which unites the building industry with energy providers, local governments, and environmental organizations, recently called on the state to cut building emissions by 40 percent by 2030 and 100 percent by 2045, and to adopt zero-emission building codes for residential and commercial buildings by 2025 and 2027 respectively.

As with any ambitious goal, cutting building emissions will generate challenges, but also opportunities.

For example, electrifying our buildings can help to lower the cost of new construction by avoiding costly gas hookups and pipeline infrastructure investments. We can also take steps to ensure that renters and lower-income communities have access to clean energy appliances.

Every year, California invests $1.1 billion in energy efficiency programs. But unfortunately, a legacy policy barrier prevents the California Public Utility Commission from allowing these investments to go toward clean, electric appliances.

This outdated policy is propping up fossil fuels at the expense of cleaner air, and it needs to be changed so that our programs and mandates reflect our commitment to zero-carbon living.

Moving California’s buildings beyond fossil fuels is a lofty goal, but one worthy of our collective ambitions.

I join the Building Decarbonization Coalition in calling on local and state leaders to join San José in growing the market for the clean energy appliances and retrofits needed for California’s zero-emission future.

Sam Liccardo is the mayor of San Jose, [email protected] He wrote this commentary for CALmatters.

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