Berkeley becomes first US city to ban natural gas in new buildings

By Sarah Ravani
San Francisco Chronicle

Berkeley became the first city nationwide to ban the use of natural gas in new low-rise residential buildings in a unanimous vote Tuesday by the City Council.

The ordinance, introduced by Councilwoman Kate Harrison, goes into effect Jan. 1, 2020, and phases out the use of natural gas by requiring all new single-family homes, town homes and small apartment buildings to have electric infrastructure. After its passage, Harrison thanked the community and her colleagues “for making Berkeley the first city in California and the United States to prohibit natural gas infrastructure in new buildings.”

The city will include commercial buildings and larger residential structures as the state moves to develop regulations for those, officials said. The ordinance allocates $273,341 per year for a two-year staff position in the Building and Safety Division within the city’s Department of Planning and Development. The employee will be responsible for implementing the ban.

“I’m proud to vote on groundbreaking legislation to prohibit natural gas in new buildings,” Mayor Jesse Arreguín said on Twitter. “We are committed to the #ParisAgreement and must take immediate action in order to reach our climate action goals. It’s not radical, it’s necessary.” The ordinance applies to buildings that have been reviewed by the California Energy Commission and determined to meet state requirements and regulations if they are electric only, said Ben Gould, the chairman of Berkeley’s Community Environmental Advisory Commission.

Gould said he spoke as a private citizen and not as a representative of the commission.

Those buildings are low-rise residential buildings, which include single-family homes, town homes and small apartment buildings. Therefore, Berkeley’s ordinance only applies to those buildings, but as the state approves more building types, the city will follow, Gould said. The way the ordinance is written, the city’s regulations will update as the state commission approves more building models without having to return to the City Council for a vote.

“We need to find ways to move forward innovative groundbreaking climate policy,” he said. “This policy is really important and critical. It helps address one of the largest sources of emissions in Berkeley.” In 2009, the city adopted a Climate Action Plan that aimed to reduce emissions by 33% by 2020 and 80% by 2050. The plan also commits
the city to using 100% renewable electricity by 2035.

In June 2018, the council declared a climate emergency and called for a review of Berkeley’s greenhouse emission reduction strategies. The city determined in a report last year that gas-related emissions have increased due to an 18% population growth since 2000. The report also concluded that the burning of natural gas within city buildings
accounted for 27% of Berkeley’s total greenhouse gas emissions in 2016.

As the city’s population soars, the need for more housing has also increased. From 2014 to 2017, the Planning Department approved building permits for 525 residential units and 925 built units were approved for occupancy. More housing is expected, particularly with the Adeline Corridor Plan, which calls for the construction of 1,400 units along Adeline Street and a portion of South Shattuck Avenue. Electric-only buildings prevent the installation of natural gas pipes and instead install heat pumps and induction cooking, Gould said. “Think about a refrigerator and how it makes inside your refrigerator cold and blows hot air out of somewhere else,” Gould said. “A heat pump works like that, but in reverse. It takes outside air and emits cold air outside and provides hot air inside. They can also be flipped in reverse and work as an air conditioner.”

Induction cooking transfers heat directly to any magnetic cookware, including cast-iron and steel, without using radiation. “It transfers heat right to the pot,” Gould said. “It boils water faster than anything else that exists. It’s very even, very quick to respond.” At Tuesday’s meeting, Harrison’s staff demonstrated the use of an induction cooktop by making chocolate fondue. The staff placed a piece of paper between the stove and the pot to show its safety features. The pot turned hot, but the paper didn’t burn, Gould said. The ordinance restricts developers applying for land-use permits from building anything that includes gas infrastructure, including gas piping to heat water, space and food.

Accessory dwelling units — built-in basements or attics of existing homes — are exempt from the ordinance. A public interest exemption may also be allowed if the council or the Zoning Adjustments Board determines that the use of natural gas is necessary.

Sarah Ravani is a San Francisco Chronicle staff writer. Email: Twitter: @SarRavani