California needs an equitable strategy for transitioning to all-electric buildings

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Heads of state and policymakers should develop a systematic strategy for the long-term phasing out of natural gas in our buildings.

By Ethan Elkind

Ethan Elkind is the director of the climate program at UC Berkeley’s Law, Energy, and Environment Center, [email protected]

Ted Lamm, special for CalMatters

Ted Lamm is a Senior Research Fellow at the UC Berkeley Center for Law, Energy, and the Environment, [email protected]

Tens of millions of Californians live and work in buildings that burn natural gas to power their air heating and cooling, hot water, and cooking appliances. This energy consumption, in turn, causes around 10% of the country’s greenhouse gas emissions and significant amounts of harmful indoor air pollution.

In order to improve indoor air quality in California and combat climate change, some state and local authorities are considering how these buildings can be converted to purely electrical energy sources in the coming decades. More than 40 California local governments have already responded with gas phasing out ordinances, from all-electric new builds in Oakland, San Francisco and San Jose to power requirements in places like Richmond and San Luis Obispo.

However, a patchwork of government initiatives and local ordinances can result in a slow or incomplete transition to electrification, with wealthier Californians being the first to benefit from new builds and retrofits. Lower-income communities facing significant barriers to adopting efficient and electrified building technologies could be left behind.

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Despite the state’s ambitious commitment to be statewide carbon neutral by 2045 and concerns that all residents will benefit from climate change, California lacks a clear strategic timeline for phasing out this fossil fuel in our homes and offices.

The time has come for governance. Electric heat pumps, electric water heaters, and induction hobs are widespread and becoming more affordable. And newly proposed bills would direct local governments, government agencies and state incentive dollars to encourage building electrification.

To avoid uneven results and maximize the benefits of public spending while ensuring that California is on the road to carbon neutrality by 2045, leaders should develop a systematic strategy for long-term gas phasing out in our buildings.

Policy makers should start with high-priority communities and target incentives and programs for lower-income communities that have the least financial resources and benefit most from improved air quality. Areas with new construction and / or aging gas infrastructure that already need to be replaced; Communities with an explicit willingness to transition; and areas that have been rebuilt due to forest fire damage.

This strategy should include a firm timetable for the transition to full electrification in order to limit the risk of developing stranded assets in the natural gas distribution network. Otherwise, these assets could add to the cost of a shrinking group of customers who cannot afford to switch quickly and undermine the long-term return on utility investments and systems maintenance.

Heads of State should also develop a structured just transition plan for workers in the gas system, including funding and retraining support in areas where sustainable wages are paid.

The task will not be easy. California had millions of households before 1990, and while all-electric appliances can reduce energy costs in the long run, the upfront cost of retrofitting existing buildings can still be prohibitive. The main challenge is in low-income communities with more tenants, more apartment buildings and older buildings. And a range of stakeholders, from utilities who operate under decades of business and regulatory models to local residents who fear loss of service, can oppose the transition.

Heads of State can begin to remove some of these barriers by clarifying the legal “duty” of utility companies to ensure that gas supplies can be replaced by electrical ones, limit the expansion of the existing gas system, and improve air quality and long-term quality benefits communicate. Time saving of electrical devices. However, to ensure a timely and equitable transition, the legislator, the Public Utilities Commission, the Energy Commission, local governments and others need to develop a comprehensive and coordinated approach.

As California works to decarbonize its power grid through increased use of renewable energy, with a mandate for carbon-free electricity through 2045, this all-electric transition will help the state meet its long-term climate goals. Equally important is that residents save significant indoor air pollution while protecting our neighborhoods from vulnerable infrastructures, especially in high-priority communities. It is time for leaders to take the necessary steps to make this happen.


Ethan Elkind and Ted Lamm co-authored the new report Building Towards Decarbonization: Political Solutions to Accelerate the Electrification of Buildings in High Priority Communities.

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