US cities and the gas ban [NGW Magazine]
Efforts to ensure that natural gas acts as a bridge fuel – or even a long-term part of the future energy mix – are running into a new obstacle in a handful of US cities. This year, cities in California and – more recently – in Massachusetts have banned hook-ups to natural gas in new construction projects. The cities are aiming to tackle climate change by reducing their greenhouse gas emissions. However, these efforts have a variety of obstacles to navigate, and the natural gas industry has been vocal in opposing the moves.
The trend of banning mains connections in housing construction started with Berkeley, California, which made the move in July. A handful of other cities in California followed suit, with the total number of such bans in the state now estimated at over 15. In late November, Brookline, Massachusetts, also voted to ban oil and gas piping in future construction projects.
Brookline’s new bylaw allows for some exceptions, including for backup generators, cooking, laboratories and medical offices and hot water systems in large buildings. However, in other respects the ban goes further than those in California, as it extends to gut renovations, and not new construction alone. A number of other cities in the six north-eastern US states that comprise New England are reported to be considering similar bans. Other regions could also soon follow.
“As the momentum behind climate action grows, some of the more progressive cities and states are increasingly moving ahead with decarbonisation strategies on their own,” Akos Losz, a senior research associate at the Center on Global Energy Policy at Columbia University, told NGW. “I have no doubt that there will be more to follow, especially if the federal government is seen as going in the wrong direction on climate change mitigation,” he said.
Bruce Nilles, a managing director of building electrification at the Rocky Mountain Institute (RMI), a non-profit focused on accelerating the adoption of renewables and greater energy efficiency, agreed that momentum behind such moves is growing. The recent bans on new gas hook-ups are “the very tip of the iceberg”, he told NGW. “Cities and states are wrestling with what to do about cutting carbon emissions, and in most cities and states the burning of gas is one of the largest two or three sources of carbon pollution,” Nilles said. “It is a very logical place to start for any city or state that is looking to do its part on solving the climate crisis – and more and more cities and states are.”
Losz warned, however, that questions remain over the effectiveness of such local bans. “Their aggregate impact on global greenhouse gas emissions, which is the measure that matters for climate, is probably fairly minuscule,” he said. “But they can be effective tools to signal commitment and public support for deep decarbonisation and to galvanise climate action at the federal level or internationally among like-minded cities around the world.”
The first movers leading the way on shifting from natural gas have several obstacles to navigate, however. Brookline’s new bylaw, which still requires final approval by the state attorney general’s office, would require construction companies and home-owners to rely on electricity for heating and hot water, among other uses.
This is significant given the cold winter weather that New England experiences. January temperatures in Brookline can fall to 22 Fahrenheit (–6 Celsius).
The broader New England region is disproportionately reliant on fuel oil for heating compared to the rest of the US. Fuel oil is still the most common form of home heating in Connecticut, Maine, New Hampshire and Vermont. Natural gas use is also on the rise, especially in southern New England – accounting for more than half of heating demand in Massachusetts and Rhode Island. The shift comes amid vigorous debate over what direction home heating in the region should take – and some concern over the viability of greener options.
“All-electric space heating can be a challenge in cold climates like the US northeast,” Losz said. “Cheaper and simpler air source heat pumps do not work well below freezing temperatures, and more expensive ground source heat pumps can also become less effective during cold spells. They will probably become better and more reliable over time, but early adopters will probably want some backup options, just in case.”
Indeed, supporters of the more widespread adoption of electric appliances are already arguing that newer brands of heat pumps can withstand New England’s winter weather. The heat pumps are becoming more popular in northern New England in particular, as the region lacks widespread natural gas infrastructure. Maine has installed around 35,000 heat pumps to date, and is targeting an additional 100,000 by 2025. In Vermont, installations by the state efficiency utility – Efficiency Vermont – have risen from around 1,800 in 2015 to 6,000 in 2019.
A broader shift to all-electric homes is underway across the US. The US Energy Information Administration (EIA) recently reported that one in four homes in the country is all-electric as of 2015. The agency found that over 2005-15, the share of US homes using electricity for their main heating equipment rose from 30% to 36%. The share of heated homes using a heat pump increased from 8% to 12% over this period. The EIA noted that while the higher cost of electric heating was previously more of a deterrent, improvements to heat pump technology had helped expand their use even in regions that experience colder weather.
Industry groups continue to question the shift to all-electric homes, especially when it is policy-driven, arguing that it is more costly. A 2018 study by the American Gas Association (AGA) found that energy-related costs would be $750-910/yr more in all-electric homes.
Such findings are disputed by others, however. Nilles cited an RMI study of four cities in different climate zones across the US. This found that over a 15-year period, newbuild all-electric homes would all achieve cost savings. So too would retrofits, in many cases, depending on how they were carried out. He also argued that gas industry groups claiming that electricity is more expensive were measuring it on a British thermal unit (Btu) basis, but not taking the efficiency of gas versus electric into account.
“Gas appliances tap out – if you’re super-lucky – at about 97-98% efficiency. Heat pump technology is well north of 300%,” he said. Even if the shift to all-electric homes continues as expected, though, the impact on the natural gas industry could be limited given booming demand from other sources.
“Such local gas bans are not very consequential for the overall gas supply-demand balance,” Losz said. “The export market will be the primary outlet point for the incremental production of natural gas in the US in the foreseeable future, while domestic gas demand in the residential and commercial sectors remains stagnant at best, regardless of local bans on new connections,” he continued. “The infrastructure and building stock is fairly built-out in the US northeast, so it will take decades before a gas ban in new and reconstructed buildings makes a meaningful dent in gas demand locally, let alone at the national level.”