When Will the Next Building You Design Be All-Electric? 

Cate Leger, Principal at Leger Wanaselja Architecture and Chair of the Berkeley Energy Commission

The Berkeley City Council, led by Council Member Kate Harrison, just passed an ordinance that would prohibit gas infrastructure in new buildings. It is the considered to be the first such prohibition in the country.

While this may seem bold, it is only one of many such efforts underway in the state to shift building operation away from fossil fuels and toward electricity.  40 or so jurisdictions, including Berkeley, Oakland and San Francisco, are working on reach codes for the coming year that would encourage all electric construction.  They are looking at various mechanisms the most common being a requirement that buildings beat minimum energy performance requirements by XX% or use electricity for space and water heating. 

The ordinance goes into effect in January to coordinate with the new 2019 Title 24 energy code and is tied to California Energy Commission development of energy code modeling software for all electric systems. 

The reasons for this policy shift are both environmental and economic.  

Historically, energy efficiency standards have been based on the assumption that natural gas appliances have lower greenhouse gas emissions than electric appliances. However, this is no longer the case. Because of steady increases in renewably generated electricity and a better understanding of the leaks from the natural gas infrastructure, electric heat is proving to have a lower carbon footprint than natural gas.[1]   

At the same time, the cost and efficiency of electric equipment is improving dramatically making electric operation more and more cost effective.  Heat pumps for space and water heating are now 3 to 5 times as efficient as their gas equivalents. Improvements in induction cooking make it competitive with gas both in terms of economics and performance. 

All electric new construction is economical for many building types and is becoming more so over time as electric equipment improves and knowledge for installation grows.  Several recent studies have found that there is both upfront and long term financial savings.[2]  At the April 24, 2019 Berkeley Energy Commission meeting, Scott Shell of

EHDD presented many new, all electric, midrise residential buildings in the bay area.  These are mostly affordable housing projects where minimizing cost is essential. Serving 10 million people annually, the new Bradley wing of the LAX airport, including all restaurants, is all electric because of the significant cost savings of not running gas infrastructure.  In 2018, the University of California instated a policy of no gas infrastructure in new buildings. [1]

Finally, there is so much interest in development of reach codes in part because there are cost savings for building owners which meet California’s cost effectiveness requirements for new building codes. 

Electrification of homes and buildings is also a health issue.  Removing fossil fuel combustion from the inside of our buildings also improves indoor air quality.  Fossil fuel powered appliances release dangerous toxins, including nitrogen dioxide, carbon monoxide, nitric oxide, and ultrafine particles, as well as formaldehyde and acetaldehyde, leading to air pollution levels in many homes that would be illegal outdoors.[2]

Natural gas infrastructure is a public safety issue, particularly in urban areas.  Even though PG&E is working to upgrade existing infrastructure, rising sea levels and major active earthquake faults threaten the bay area.[3]

The momentum to phase out fossil fuels is growing rapidly.  When will the next building you design be all electric?


[1] Justin Gerdes, “California Universities Are Transitioning to All-Electric Buildings,” Green Tech Media, September 24, 2018, https://www.greentechmedia.com/articles/read/california-universities-are-transitioning-to-all-electric-buildings#gs.j6pqs2.
[2]https://newscenter.lbl.gov/2013/07/23/kitchens-can-produce-hazardous-levels-of-indoor-pollutants/
[3] In 2017 the U.S. Geological Survey conducted the HayWired Scenario simulating “a 7.0
quake on the Hayward fault line with the epicenter in Oakland.” The agency’s report
predicted that “about 450 large fires could result in a loss of residential and commercial
building floor area equivalent to more than 52,000 single-family homes and cause
property (building and content) losses approaching $30 billion.” https://pubs.er.usgs.gov/publication/sir20175013v2  The report identified ruptured gas lines as a key fire risk factor. Electricity infrastructure has its safety issues as well.  Money saved on gas infrastructure could be used on improving the safety and reliability of electric power. 
[1] Next year it is predicted that 50% of California electricity will be generated from renewable sources such as wind and solar.  https://pv-magazine-usa.com/2017/11/14/californias-big-utilities-to-reach-50-renewable-energy-in-2020/ 
Bay Area sources of electricity are currently a minimum of 80% carbon free and getting cleaner.   https://www.pge.com/en_US/about-pge/environment/what-we-are-doing/clean-energy-solutions/clean-energy-solutions.page
Recent studies show methane leakage rates from well to appliance are around 2.8%. “Given the global warming potential of methane over a 20-year period, from a purely climate change perspective, burning coal would produce less greenhouse gas emissions than natural gas.” Adopt an Ordinance adding a new Chapter 12.80 to the Berkeley Municipal Code Prohibiting Natural Gas Infrastructure in New Buildings, page 68 of July 19, 2019 revised Berkeley City Council agenda: https://www.cityofberkeley.info/Clerk/City_Council/City_Council__Agenda_Index.aspx
[2] https://rmi.org/insight/the-economics-of-electrifying-buildings/
https://www.nrdc.org/experts/pierre-delforge/new-report-heating-next-clean-energy-frontier-ca
https://www.ethree.com/wp-content/uploads/2019/04/E3_Residential_Building_Electrification_in_California_April_2019.pdf