What businesses need to know about Berkeley’s historic natural gas ban

Earlier this year, the city of Berkeley, California, made history when it became the first U.S. city to ban natural gas hookups as of 2020 — sort of. 

The ordinance was praised by major environmental groups such as the Sierra Club, but although banning natural gas outright would be groundbreaking, the ordinance doesn’t actually do that. The legislation may be a compelling endorsement of an all-electric future, but as of right now, the ban will apply only to new construction of low-rise residential buildings, with bans for new commercial high-rise structures supposedly coming soon.

Pat Kennedy, a developer who has designed about 10 buildings in downtown Berkeley, said he "breathed a huge sigh of relief" when he found out that the ban applied only to low-rise buildings so far. All of his developments, like many Berkeley developers, are high-rise, high-capacity workforce housing projects. "It won’t really impact us right now," Kennedy said. "Now, if they expand it to higher-rises, then we might be in trouble."

Kennedy doesn’t use natural gas hookups for his building’s stoves and hasn’t in a decade, but he does use it for the buildings’ on-demand water heaters, something he plans to do as long as he is allowed.

Electric heaters are more expensive, heavier and more cumbersome, he said. They’re not ideal for Kennedy’s bottom line — or for his tenants, because he says he would charge more for rent if he had to go full electric.

"Natural gas is extremely cheap and extremely clean, much cleaner than coal. I really don’t see why it gets such a bad rap," he said.

Berkeley’s legislation is tied to the actions of the California Energy Commission (CEC), which is in the process of modeling fully electric building plans for various types of construction. The ban applies to each type of building that CEC models, an attempt to avoid stepping on the agency’s toes.

So far, the commission has modeled only low-rise residential buildings, so that’s all the Berkeley ban applies to. Very little of the new construction in Berkeley is low-rise residential at all, a fact that the legislation acknowledges, saying, "While most of the building occurring in Berkeley is not low-rise residential, this ordinance provides the City with an immediate and practical pathway to fossil-free buildings."

The ordinance has very little teeth, therefore, at least until CEC models high-rise buildings.

The ordinance did not seem to have the stirring impact that Berkeley hoped it would, but elsewhere in the Bay Area, companies are embracing a fully electric future of their own volition.

Learn more about electrifying buildings at VERGE 19, Oct. 22-24 in Oakland, California.

Adobe is in the process of building the first fully electric building in Silicon Valley, which likely will be completed in 2022. San Jose, where the Adobe headquarters is located, is considering a ban similar to Berkeley’s, but sustainability lead Vince Digneo says that didn’t factor into the company’s choice to build its new North Tower as a fully electric project.

"We didn’t have a lot of external pressure to do this. Simply put, it’s the right thing to do," he said.

Digneo sees sustainability as centrally important to the mission of not only his own company but of Silicon Valley as a whole. "As technologists, we have a duty to be a leader," he said.

Designing the North Tower has been challenging because of its unprecedented nature. "At our first strategy meeting, I said, ‘I want this to be a fossil- fuel-free building.’ People looked at me like, ‘What does that mean?’ which to me just shows that we still have to educate," he said.

Despite the roadblocks, Digneo hasn’t been deterred, and he hopes he’s been able to inspire other companies to act too.

"We have had a lot of interest, and our partners working on the project have been really good about answering questions. We want to share what we know," he said.

Adobe isn’t alone — other institutions and companies are following suit, including Stanford and the University of California system.

Electrification is becoming trendy, as customers and donors look to sustainability when considering where to spend. "Customers want to support companies that are acting sustainably," Digneo said.

Citizens may want to support cities that are acting sustainably, too. Berkeley’s ban is hardly the sweeping climate action it was marketed to be, but it still could sway other cities to electrify.

Indeed, the greatest power of Berkeley’s ban may be in its influence on other cities. San Jose is expected to ban natural gas, and its codes prioritize electric. In Menlo Park, California, heating systems will be required to be electric by 2020. 

"[Berkeley] is forward-thinking. They’re willing to move everyone forward, not just themselves," Digneo said.

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