The City and County of San Francisco is part of a growing number of local governments that’ve adopted policies to restrict the use of natural gas. As of last year, all new buildings in the City have to be fully electric, with use of gas effectively banned. Sixty local governments in California have approved similar laws.
The policy reflects an effort to curb greenhouse gas emissions, improve public health, and reduce the risk of gas-fueled conflagrations. According to Charles Sheehan, San Francisco Department of the Environment (SFDoE) chief policy and public affairs officer, while “everyone knows we need to get off of fossil fuels, just as important are health and safety issues.”
Gas appliances are found in more than 90 percent of California homes. Although so far building electrification policies have focused on new construction, if the effort expands to existing uses residents and businesses will no doubt notice.
Natural gas is primarily composed of methane. While less polluting than coal or oil, its environmental impacts are notable. According to SFDoE, gas use in residential and commercial buildings accounts for more than one-third of San Francisco’s carbon footprint. As much as four percent of methane associated with gas is leaked into the atmosphere as it travels through distribution pipelines. Methane is a potent greenhouse gas, with 80 times the heat-trapping capacity of carbon dioxide.
As the effects of climate change become more acute, environmental advocates see electrification as an essential approach to reducing human’s influence on the weather. Electricity consumed in San Francisco is largely generated renewably, from wind, solar, and hydroelectric, which don’t emit greenhouse gases. These sources now constitute nearly 70 percent of electricity supply, with a City goal to reach 100 percent by 2025, just three years from now.
The San Francisco Public Utilities Commission is leading municipal electrification efforts, offering low-income customers rebates on solar panel installation under GoSolarSF, reduced fees to switch from Pacific Gas and Electric Company (PG&E) service to Hetch Hetchy Power’s hydroelectric supply through CleanSwitch, and up to a $1,000 rebate to replace gas water heaters with electric heat pumps.
The Board of Supervisors cited urban fire risk as a primary factor behind the new construction natural gas ban. Nationally, gas and oil infrastructure are associated with a blaze every four days and a fatality every 26. In 2010 a gas explosion and ensuing fire in San Bruno caused eight deaths and ruined nearly 40 homes. In 2019 a leaking gas line triggered a blast that damaged several buildings in San Francisco’s Richmond district.
Fire risks associated with gas infrastructure are amplified by significant earthquake hazards, with the Bay flanked by the Hayward and San Andreas faults to the east and west, respectively.
In mostly rural areas the electric grid has triggered catastrophic fires. In 2018 the Camp Fire, sparked by electrical transmission lines, became the deadliest and most destructive wildfire in state history. In the ensuing years PG&E and other state utilities have aggressively used power shutoffs to suppress fire risks during high-heat and drought conditions.
Health risks are associated with gas combustibles. Studies indicate that gas byproducts, such as carbon monoxide and nitrogen dioxide (NO2) can exceed state and national standards in household kitchens. NO2 levels exceeded air quality thresholds in 90 percent of modeled scenarios when stoves and ovens were used for more than an hour. Pollutant concentrations are especially prominent in apartments. A meta-analysis of more than 41 studies on the subject concluded that children living in a home with gas cooking face a 32 percent higher risk of developing asthma, a leading cause of emergency department visits for kids.
Still, gas-fired electricity generation and gas appliances remain popular. Gas use in residential buildings in California rose 15 percent since 2014. Gas stoves are relished by home chefs; gas appliances are ubiquitous in commercial kitchens.
Stewart Chen, owner of Umi, a Potrero Hill Japanese restaurant which relies on a gas grill, fryer and stove, said he had practical issues with switching to electricity.
“I understand in residential kitchens but not for restaurants because of the need for cooking volume and speed,” he said.
Chen wondered whether the electric grid would be able to reliably accommodate increased demand. His reliability concerns were validated by a University of California, Berkeley Haas Institute study, which concluded that in Northern California, particularly the Bay Area, growing demand associated with electric vehicles and building electrification could exceed the current rate at which Pacific Gas and Electric Company is upgrading its system.
David Jablons, owner of Dogpatch-based Daily Driver bagel bakery, said that his kitchen uses gas-powered and wood burning ovens, acknowledging that electrification would be a challenge. Simjon Gompers, a Goat Hill Pizza employee, expressed similar sentiments, stating that it’d be difficult to switch the high heat pizza ovens from gas to electric. All restaurateurs interviewed by the View worried that investments into all-electric equipment would be expensive and could increase operating costs.
Sheehan countered that fossil fuels, including gas, are more susceptible to price pressures prompted by supply constraints, arguing that “some of the price fluctuations will go away with renewable energy since you do not have that commodity-based finite supply.”
The California Restaurant Association (CRA), a nonprofit association of restaurant owners and chefs, is suing the City of Berkeley over a gas ban passed in 2019. CRA argues that local governments are preempted from all-electric ordinances by the Federal Energy and Conservation Act (ECPA) and California State Law. The Court ruled in favor of Berkeley, dismissing CRA’s federal preemption claim. CRA has appealed.
Sheehan concedes that change is difficult, which “…is why we are committed to a stakeholder process to make the transition as easy as possible, and to get buy-in from all sectors.” He said electrification is broadly supported at state and federal levels. The California Public Utilities Commission has authorized $200 million to incentivize electric space and water heaters. Governor Gavin Newsom included $300 million for building electrification upgrades over the next two years in his latest budget proposal. The Federal Infrastructure and Jobs Act allocates $65 billion for grid reliability, resiliency, and clean energy technologies.