This week, California became the first state in the U.S. to include electric heat pumps as a baseline technology for new homes and buildings.
The new code was passed unanimously Wednesday by the California Energy Commission, which develops standards for new construction every three years. The new code, which will go into effect in 2023 but is confusingly called the 2022 code, will take a step towards removing natural gas from buildings by encouraging electric heat pumps and requiring all new builds to be electric-ready.
The code strikes a familiar note for climate legislation. On one hand, it’s exciting to see standards go further than anything in the past and encourage a new generation of clean, electric buildings. On the other, there is a disconnect between what trailblazing standards require and the urgency of the problem. Simply put, we need to do more faster.
Infographic from the California Energy Commission
Why all-electric building codes matter
All-electric buildings are critical for curbing emissions. Buildings consume nearly 40 percent of energy in the United States (and a whopping 70 percent of electricity in California, and the fossil fuel combustion in residential and commercial buildings accounts for 29 percent of U.S. emissions.
Electrification is the answer. Research across institutions including the Center for Climate and Energy Solutions, RMI, Rewiring America, Energy Innovation and Berkeley Lab agree: Electrification is critical for decarbonizing buildings and, in turn, limiting global warming.
The technology exists. But the problem is distributed, with millions of buildings and millions of owners making decisions independently, and upfront costs of all-electric technologies being more than their natural gas counterparts (although cheaper over the lifetime of the appliance).
Some companies are already making moves towards all-electric buildings. Adobe, for instance, broke ground on an all-electric tower as part of its global headquarters in 2019. Microsoft is building an all-electric campus in Redmond, Washington. Google’s new Bay View campus will be heated and cooled by geothermal instead of natural gas. All of these tech giants cite climate and sustainability as central to their decisions, and all have been trailblazers on myriad clean energy initiatives.
But in order to decarbonize buildings on a scale needed to bend the emissions curve, we can’t wait for individual companies and homeowners to make individual choices. So it’s exciting that California is moving to require all-electric heat pumps, one of the four appliances that are often powered by natural gas. It’s the type of clear policy signal that we’ll need everywhere in order to have a chance at a safe-ish climate future.
Why California’s new code should do more
While I’m heartened to see a state adopt electrification standards — and the largest state in the nation, at that! — it should go farther and happen faster.
First, the standard only requires heat pumps to be all-electric. Of the natural gas-powered appliances in buildings, this makes sense: Heat pumps are responsible for consuming a larger share of natural gas use than other appliances, which include stoves, water heaters and clothes dryers. And because of the efficiency of heat pumps, they could provide more flexibility to California’s electric grid.
But only requiring heat pumps to be electric is leaving emissions reduction potential on the table. In order to truly cut emissions from the buildings sector, the literature is clear: We must move to all-electric buildings.
Not requiring all-electric buildings today could also ultimately cost homeowners and businesses more money. By allowing the other major appliances to still use natural gas, new buildings in California could still opt to connect to natural gas infrastructures. Part of the savings of all-electric buildings comes from avoiding the costs of new natural gas hookups. If houses are still piping in natural gas, the economics change, and will be more costly for owners if and when they transition to all-electric buildings.
Further, the new code applies to new builds or major renovations starting in 2023. With the state working to address a housing shortage now, the building sector should be doing everything it can to get the next generation of buildings as clean and resilient as possible.
With the release of the newest report of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change this week making it clear that our window of opportunity to address climate chaos is rapidly closing, the wind is at the back of new climate policies. While I’m here to celebrate these incremental steps forward in standards where we can get them, it’s past time to not also acknowledge where they fall short and could do better. California set the bar; now let’s push every other locality to raise it.