Posted by Charley Cormany, EFCA Executive Director
What’s the deal with California and natural gas in buildings? It started with cities and counties requiring new construction projects to be all-electric. On Sept. 22, 2022, California policymakers voted unanimously to ban the sale of gas furnaces and water heaters after 2030. What’s with all these restrictions, and why now?
Over the last few years, California legislators have set increasingly aggressive greenhouse gas (GHG) reduction goals. Perhaps the most aggressive legislation is SB 100, the California 100% Clean Energy Act, signed into law by Jerry Brown on Aug. 29, 2018. SB 100 sets the goal of 100 percent carbon-free electricity by 2045. The state is aiming for emissions reductions across the board at the same time.
To help meet this goal, researchers have categorized the state’s leading sources of greenhouse gas emissions by sector. Most people would not be surprised to learn that transportation is the largest single source, responsible for roughly 40 percent of GHG emissions in the state. What may come as a surprise is that burning natural gas to heat buildings and water accounts for nearly 10 percent of GHG emissions in California.
Reducing GHGs From Transportation Will be Challenging
Addressing GHGs emissions from transportation will be challenging. Unfortunately, with the millions of cars on the road in the state, the transition to electric vehicles will be a process that occurs over decades. Electric cars are seeing more adoption, but the numbers today represent a small fraction of the overall sales of automobiles. Compounding the issue is that electric vehicles (EVs) are selling at a premium compared to their gas counterparts. The cost premium and lack of availability put EVs out of reach for most of the population for now. The good news is things are changing. There are more choices daily, and as more EVs enter the market, prices will eventually reach parity with internal combustion alternatives.
Emission Reductions in Buildings are Easier Than Transportation
Natural gas provides ninety-five percent of residential heating loads in California today. The two largest natural gas consumers in buildings are furnaces and water heaters. Every house or apartment building that burns gas has an exhaust pipe (flue) that spews greenhouse gas into the atmosphere for long periods. When you realize how many buildings there are in the state, you can see why controlling these emissions is critical.
Reducing fossil fuel use in buildings is more attainable than electrifying transportation, despite the high number of existing gas appliances we use. This is because we already have viable electric options that provide the same service with additional benefits over their natural gas counterparts.
Electric heat pumps are time-tested and have been around for years. Heat pumps are everywhere. The refrigerator in your home uses a heat pump, and so does your air conditioner. You can find electric heat pumps in grocery stores, cars, and spaceships. Heat pump space heating is a mature technology, and heat pump water heaters are the most efficient way to heat water today.
Heat pumps have already obtained cost parity with their natural gas alternatives in many applications. For all these reasons, weaning buildings off fossil fuels will be much easier than electrifying the transportation sector.
Renewable Energy Plays a Part
Why is the state so determined to transition to electric cars and electric heat pumps in the first place? The answer is renewable energy. Today, renewable generation, such as wind and solar, is the cleanest, cheapest energy available. Unlike fossil fuels, which are often sourced from hostile regions, local renewable generation can be made in the state or your backyard (or rooftop).
In recent years, California has dramatically increased the amount of renewable energy on the grid, and this trend will only continue. Electricity from renewable sources will replace the combustion of fossil fuels in almost everything we do.
How to Reduce Smog and Improve Indoor Air Quality
Nitrous oxide (NOx) emissions are a byproduct of combustion. High NOx levels can pose serious health concerns, such as increased asthma and lung cancer rates. Most of us are familiar with the effects of Nitrous Oxide, or NOx emissions, as they are a primary component of smog. But I bet you never considered how your hot shower contributes to the smog levels outside your home. Furnaces and gas water heaters are significant contributors to NOx emissions.
The Los Angeles basin has been combating smog for years and has significantly reduced air pollution by requiring natural gas furnaces and water heaters to meet strict particulate emissions ratings. Manufacturers have been forced to meet these regional ultra-low NOx standards with new products. While these products have helped measurably decrease smog, they are also expensive and sometimes unreliable.
Heat pumps, on the other hand, don’t create GHG emissions or produce any NOx. In LA, many contractors have given up on ultra-low NOx gas appliances and switched to heat pumps. These heat pumps can meet customer needs and their fossil fuel counterparts, are more affordable and reliable, and take advantage of zero-carbon electricity. When sized and installed correctly, heat pumps offer safer operation, improved comfort, and zero site-generated emissions.
To meet the state’s aggressive GHG reduction goals, we must transition from fossil fuels to carbon-free electricity as much as possible. Some sectors will be a challenge to electrify. Electrification of the transportation sector will take years.
On the other hand, many all-electric buildings exist today. Gas furnaces and water heaters will not be available for sale in the state after 2030, but you don’t have to wait that long to switch. Heat pump technology is tested and proven and can be installed right now.
Emissions are a genuine concern. Greenhouse gas emissions, NOx emissions, and particulate emissions are health concerns and a threat to our environment. The state is taking aggressive steps to reduce all forms of emissions.
We are amid an energy transition focused on transitioning to clean, renewable energy. There will be winners, losers, and tremendous opportunities. The train has left the station. Are you in a position to take advantage of the changes? I certainly hope so.