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Home electrification: Why cities are phasing out natural gas

You’ve heard of electric cars, but what about all-electric homes? Maybe not. Home electrification doesn’t exactly get as much press as Tesla. But cities in the Bay Area (and around the world) are phasing out natural gas and phasing in all-electric appliances. Diane Bailey, Executive Director at Menlo Spark in Menlo Park California, explains why.

Before we go further, I’ll admit that I had some reservations about the idea of all-electric appliances before I interviewed Diane. The idea of swapping my gas stove for what I believed to be a slow and outdated electric cooktop made me a little uneasy. But Diane quickly debunked every myth I had about electric appliances and home electrification. So if you’re a little skeptical about the idea of swapping out your natural gas stove for an electric one, I hope you’ll take a few minutes to listen to the episode.

Update: Since this was published, my husband and I have replaced our natural gas stove with an induction range and we LOVE it. We’ve also replaced our wood-burning fireplace with an electric fireplace we bought on Amazon for less than $300 and it’s completely changed the way I feel about our family room. It used to be cold and drafty in there (that old fireplace was not exactly airtight) and now it’s so warm and cozy with the electric fireplace going. So if the idea of phasing out natural gas in your own home feels intimidating, I hear you, I understand, and I promise that the home electrification movement is not only better for the planet but also better for ourselves.

What are Reach Codes?

One final point of clarification before we go on. We need to understand what Reach Codes are. Why? Because they help make our cities greener and cleaner. So the next time you hear that Reach Codes will be discussed at a city council meeting, please support them.

Reach Codes are locally adopted green building policies that are more advanced in terms of energy efficiency and carbon reductions than those required by the state. The new California energy code (“Title 24”) supports new homes and buildings that avoid the use of natural gas (a fossil fuel), opting instead for all-electric construction that is more efficient and reduces carbon emissions.

Cities and counties that have adopted Reach Codes in the Bay Area are Berkeley, San Mateo, Menlo Park, San Jose, Marin County, Mountain View, Morgan Hill, Palo Alto, Alameda, Milpitas, Santa Rosa, Pacifica, Mill Valley, Saratoga, Brisbane, Healdsburg, Los Gatos, Cupertino, Los Altos Hills, San Francisco, and Campbell.

The below Q & A was edited for clarity and readability. The questions are mine, the answers are Diane’s.

What are carbon-neutral cities and communities?

Carbon-neutral cities are working to reach zero carbon output across their city. This means eliminating all emissions from different carbon sources within their cities such as transportation, energy, and waste. However, it’s not just from government sources that these carbon emissions need to be eliminated, but also from businesses and residents.

A group of about 20 cities is working together in the Carbon Neutral Cities Alliance. Outside of the Alliance there also a lot of other cities that are starting to take notice and adopt goals to become carbon neutral cities as well.

Why is natural gas bad for the environment?

I have a lot of green-leaning friends who say, “is natural gas bad, but it’s natural?” I respond by telling them that the name is a little misleading. Natural gas is not natural at all. It is actually a fossil fuel and most of it comes from fracking. The technical term is hydraulic fracturing. 

There are a variety of impacts on the community from fracking: contaminated water wells, earthquakes, health impacts, and reduced quality of life in the communities that have fracking wells.

What’s the problem with fracking?

In California, the majority of our gas comes from fracking. Most of this gas is imported, but we also have a lot of gas development here in California that is in close proximity to homes and schools. These gas developments put people’s health at risk and create air pollution. This is not representing the clean energy economy of California that we want.  

Natural gas can also create safety hazards. There are pipeline leaks and explosions every day. They are not usually reported in the mainstream media, but many of us can recall the San Bruno pipeline explosion. It killed several people and wiped out a whole subdivision. As the pipeline infrastructure ages, we are really at risk for more of these accidents every day.

There is also a health and safety component in the use of natural gas as well. As we begin to understand more about natural gas being a fossil fuel and the climate impacts of gas, it is becoming clear the climate impacts of gas really rival coal. Especially when you look at the life cycle of the fuel and all of the gas leaks throughout its distribution.

How does natural gas impact climate change?

Natural gas is known by the chemical name methane. Methane is 80 times more potent than carbon dioxide when it comes to global warming effects.  It is really a huge problem from a climate perspective when you consider all the leaks and the consequences of actually burning it.

Remember that we are burning natural gas inside our homes and businesses. This is called indoor combustion and it creates pollution that goes alongside the CO2 emissions. In the end, natural gas or methane, however you want to call it, creates a lot of pollution and has some pretty devastating climate impacts.

What is the alternative to natural gas?

Fortunately, there are a lot of alternatives. Here in Silicon Valley, our electrical grid has been cleaning up very quickly. We can have carbon-free electricity, or nearly carbon-free, from the various community energy providers that have sprung up in recent years.

Whether you are served by San Jose Clean Energy, Silicon Valley Clean Energy, or Peninsula Clean Energy, they are all striving to deliver clean, renewable, and carbon-free power.

Can you explain home electrification?  

Home electrification gets pretty wonky and we use even wonkier terms like de-carbonization and heat pump technology. Essentially you are using the same technology that your refrigerator uses. It is a heat pump or compressor and that equipment can run in reverse. It can either heat your home or it can cool your home. 

A lot of architecture firms are moving their projects to be all-electric because they save money, and they avoid the gas connections that have all the safety and health risks. This is a movement that started in California before requirements were established. Many architects and designers felt like the electric technology is performing much better. It is more efficient and the price has come down.

We have seen dozens of projects including affordable housing projects starting to go all-electric in their buildings. That means replacing the conventional gas heaters, gas boilers, gas cooktops, and dryers.

There are many appliances you might not realize use gas. It is really an unnecessary fossil fuel use because the electric alternatives are just as good and don’t cost more money. Most people aren’t going to notice whether their hot water heater, furnace, or dryer is running on gas or electric, they just want the performance.

What is the alternative to natural gas cooktops?

A lot of people are really tied to natural gas cooking. It’s almost emotional. Maybe they learned to cook with gas from their grandmother and they just love it because they can see the flame and relate their cooking to that. And so the switch to electric cooking, there is a learning curve there.

I do want to note that a lot of us remember the coil electric stoves that were popular in a lot of apartments back in the 70’s. They were not great. No one loves those old electric coil stoves. They did not cook well.

The induction cooktops are really getting more popular. One of our partner groups, Acterra, has a loaner program where they will loan you an induction cooktop burner to try out in your kitchen. You just plug it into any outlet and you’re good to go. That way people can learn, and see if it works for their particular style of cooking.

What we have heard from people who have tried it is that they love it. And people who make the switch to induction say, “I’m never going back to natural gas. This is so responsive. It’s so cool.” We’re seeing this take off on its own and that’s really exciting. 

If you’re interested in learning more about electric appliances for your home, check out these resources from Silicon Valley Clean Energy. I’ll be covering electrical appliances in more detail soon, so sign up for the newsletter and I’ll keep you posted.

Are induction cooktops the next generation of electric cooktops? 

Yes. Induction cooktops are high-end so they might be pricier than some gas stoves. There is a low-end electric cooktop option for people who just want a flat glass top.

Affordable housing developers, for example, have been using radiant glass flat top electric stoves because they’re safer and they are not going to spring for the fancy induction cooktops. It’s not the old electric coil stove. They look very sleek, they’re functional and they save a lot of money. They’re a more moderately priced option to the induction cooktops.

What are the cost savings associated with building all-electric homes? 

Building an all-electric house saves a lot of money. On one hand, you don’t have to install any gas lines. You don’t need a gas meter, you don’t need carbon monoxide sensors, you don’t need big ventilation hoods for the exhaust fumes. That can save around $10,000 to $20,000 just avoiding the gas piping and everything that comes with it and the connection.

If you look at apartments or condos, the average savings going electric over gas is around $3,300 per unit. So pretty substantial. Especially in a state where we do have a housing crisis and housing shortage. So every extra $1,000 that we can shave off the cost of new housing opens up access to many more lower-income people who need it.

How does natural gas affect your health?

It came out recently that the nitrogen dioxide levels can be a lot higher in your kitchen after cooking a full meal on a gas stove than you would find outside in any given large city. Those levels can be high enough that if they were found outside that they would exceed the clean air standards and trigger action at the local and the federal level to clean up that pollution. That’s what we’re breathing in our kitchens.

Then there are all these other toxic gases like formaldehyde that come out when you’re cooking with gas and those gases sink low to the ground. That creates a risk for kids or pets who might be playing lower to the ground and exposed to that pollution.

I was blown away by the health impacts of cooking with gas. People who use inhalers for asthma are using three times the asthma medication if they cook on a gas stove. 

For healthy people, they were finding elevated risk of respiratory impacts like asthma and also cardiac impact. So it impacts your heart health as well. That’s not for someone who’s just cooking once or twice. It’s for people who are cooking all the time. That repeated exposure is damaging to their health the same way that your health would suffer from a smoking habit or from living in an extremely smoggy city.

Yikes! I cook three meals a day on a natural gas stove. What should I do?

To lessen your own health impacts, make sure you’re using ventilation when you’re cooking with gas. When you replace your cooktop, strongly consider a zero-emission alternative, like going electric.

If you do have gas, it’s important to not internalize the guilt over the fossil fuel problem. It’s not your fault, it’s an industrial polluter thing. 

Listen to the full episode.

About Menlo Spark

Menlo Spark started in 2015 and is based in Menlo Park, California. Menlo Spark has a 10-year goal to zero out the city’s carbon emissions and make Menlo Park carbon neutral by 2025. Since inception, they have brought in and begun working with other cities to help them become carbon neutral as well. Listen to the podcast episode for the full interview.

Menlo Spark recently launched a campaign called Fossil Free Buildings in Silicon Valley. They are working with Santa Clara and San Mateo counties.  These counties include cities from San Jose on up to Daly City (The Silicon Valley.) Menlo Spark’s goal is to help those cities adopt policies that get new homes and buildings off fossil fuels. Namely natural gas. At the moment Menlo Spark is focused on new construction to implement these new policies. Once these policies have been adopted, the program will look to expand the same practice to existing homes and buildings, according to Diane.

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