In summary

California Air Resources Board’s resolution shows leadership on the importance of all-electric buildings to meet the state’s climate goals.

By Denise Grab, Special to CalMatters

Denise Grab is a manager on Rocky Mountain Institute’s Carbon-Free Buildings team, where she focuses on California policy and appliance regulation, dgrab@rmi.org. She lives in San Francisco.

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California led the nation earlier this year with the country’s first gas-powered vehicle phase-out, but the state’s air regulators aren’t stopping there. 

An overlooked directive during a recent California Air Resources Board meeting was the first step in phasing out gas-powered appliances in our homes, citing the health and climate risks. 

Board members voted unanimously to adopt a groundbreaking resolution that commits the agency to taking significant action on emissions from gas appliances in buildings. As Air Resources Board Chair Mary Nichols indicated, this is the clearest commitment that the board has made to-date to address the climate and health impacts from gas appliance emissions in the buildings sector. And to my knowledge, this is the strongest statement so far on building emissions from any air regulator nationwide.

With the new resolution, the Air Resources Board is committing to support the California Energy Commission and other agencies to adopt new building standards that require better ventilation of gas appliances and encourage electric appliances. They also intend to support new rules to reduce nitrogen oxides and other harmful emissions from gas appliances, while expanding their efforts to improve health within disadvantaged communities. 

Fossil fuel appliances, such as gas stoves, furnaces and water heaters, emit pollutants known to harm health and increase asthma risk. One in eight Californians has asthma, and asthma rates are even higher in lower-income communities and communities of color. More than 12 million Californians living in homes with a gas stove are breathing levels of nitrogen dioxide that would be illegal outdoors, while 1.7 million are breathing levels of carbon monoxide that would exceed outdoor limits. 

Meanwhile, building emissions are the No. 1 source of premature deaths from air pollution statewide, accounting for more than 6,000 premature deaths per year. These health risks can be avoided by removing combustion sources from our buildings and using clean and efficient all-electric alternatives, like heat pumps.

This resolution marks the beginning, not the end, of the process to enact formal regulations that are directly binding on appliance manufacturers and other relevant entities. But it is a huge first step and an important signal to the market about where policy is heading. 

The Air Resources Board’s resolution comes at a crucial time, as the California Energy Commission is currently making key decisions for its 2022 Building Energy Efficiency Standards. More than 200 organizations and individuals have submitted comments to the commission in support of an all-electric code for 2022. Supporters range from health professionals, to environmental justice organizations, to architects and building engineers, to electrical contractors, to utility companies, to city and county leaders from across the state. This commission process will determine whether the state will still allow polluting and expensive gas infrastructure in new buildings, or whether California’s buildings will shift toward a cleaner and healthier all-electric future. 

California is currently adding more new gas connections than any other state, which is only taking us further away from our climate goals. If we wait until the next code cycle in 2025 to move toward an all-electric building code, that will result in 3 million excess metric tons of carbon emissions by 2030, and more than $1 billion of unnecessary spending on new gas connection infrastructure.

All-electric buildings can also reduce costs over the life of the appliances, as compared to gas alternatives. A new single-family home in Oakland with electric space and water heating will save customers more than $2,000 compared to heating with gas. Meanwhile, California households can expect to save money on their energy bills with new heat pump appliances, compared to their older gas appliances. 

With all-electric buildings, we can save money, protect public health, and help our state achieve its climate goals. California Air Resources Board’s resolution shows crucial leadership on the importance of building electrification for the state to meet its climate, health and economic goals. It’s now time for other state leaders, like the governor and members of the California Energy Commission, to step up and lead on building electrification, as well. 

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