Coalition calls for “ambitious action” to move California homes, buildings off of fossil fuels

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California must rapidly implement a plan to cut pollution from homes and buildings, or risk locking in emissions from natural gas that will threaten the state’s climate goals. That’s the message from a coalition uniting stakeholders within the building industry with energy providers, local governments and environmental organizations, who are calling for dramatic and urgent action from Gov. Gavin Newsom to address what they call a blindspot in California’s climate policy: emissions from homes and buildings.

“Building emissions spiked 10 percent nationally in 2018, driving one of the largest national emissions increases in decades,” Panama Bartholomy, director of the Building Decarbonization Coalition, said in a statement. “Yet even here in California, the nation’s climate leader, there is no plan in place to address these emissions, the source of 25 percent of our climate pollution.”

In A Roadmap to Decarbonize California’s Buildings, released in February, the coalition lays out a plan for the state to cut building emissions 20 percent in the next six years and 40 percent by 2030 – and to adopt zero-emission building codes for residential and commercial buildings by 2025 and 2027, respectively. Residential buildings produce roughly two-thirds of the state’s building emissions, and commercial buildings produce around one-third.

“Reducing the environmental impact of homes and buildings is both an environmental imperative and an economic opportunity,” said Lauren Faber O’Connor, chief sustainability officer for the City of Los Angeles. “This roadmap shows that together, we can cut energy consumption and reduce costs at the same time — showing the world that going green is good for your health and bottom line.”

Zero-emission appliances must build market share

About half of all building emissions result from electricity use, while the other half come from gas and propane appliances used for heating. As California’s electricity becomes cleaner and the California Energy Commission’s most recent building code goes into effect, requiring all new homes to be built with on-site renewable energy, the former will decline. To cut the remaining emissions, fossil fuel burning appliances must be replaced with all-electric models.

“Methane and carbon dioxide emissions from natural gas carry a high cost for public health and climate in California,” said Tim O’Connor, senior director of the California Energy Program, at Environmental Defense Fund. “We need lasting policies to reduce our dependence on gas while increasing the market share of cleaner, electric appliances – which can lower costs and pollution to benefit everyone.”

Last month, the California Public Utilities Commission announced efforts to reduce building emissions, as it implements SB 1477 from Sen. Henry Stern, which deploys $200 million to help make clean heating options like electric heat pumps more accessible to all Californians through incentives for manufacturers and builders.

“LADWP welcomes this effort to accelerate the development and deployment of high efficiency heat pump technology,” said David Jacot, director of efficiency solutions, Los Angeles Department of Water and Power. “It is very important that the state’s electrification efforts be achieved with the highest efficiency electric appliances possible, and not with antiquated electric resistance technology.”

“SB 1477 is an important step in ensuring all Californians have access to clean, efficient heating technologies,” said Pierre Delforge, a senior scientist from Natural Resources Defense Council, which helped support the bill. “Electric appliances will play an important role in reducing emissions, while also helping to eliminate a significant source of indoor air pollution.”

“Every home or building that’s built using natural gas for heating deepens our challenge, further digging us into a climate hole we will eventually need to climb out of,” said Bartholomy. “Lucky for us the alternatives are here and at cost with natural gas appliances. In fact, by avoiding gas infrastructure to and in a building we are finding that all-electric construction can be cheaper than buildings with gas.”

Recent analyses from researchers including E3, Rocky Mountain Institute and Synapse have shown that transitioning to efficient electric appliances is the least-cost and most effective way to reduce emissions from homes and buildings.

Roadmap calls for consumer awareness and fair access for all Californians

The Roadmap – developed by energy providers, workers, developers, local governments and environmental organizations – responds to a range of market and policy barriers preventing mass adoption of zero-emission appliances, even though electric heat pumps, electric induction ranges and electric clothes dryers are readily available.

“As the electricity sector becomes cleaner, we need a range of tools and programs providing customers more choices for cleaner, safer electric technologies, including heat pump water and space heaters,” said Jill Anderson, vice-president customer programs and services, Southern California Edison. “The Building Decarbonization Coalition’s Roadmap is a visionary vehicle addressing one part of the overall economy-wide set of actions needed to meet California’s ambitious climate goals while maintaining affordability for customers.”

The Roadmap calls for an equitable approach to ensure vulnerable communities already struggling against skyrocketing housing costs and stagnating wages are protected as California moves toward zero-emission technologies.

“It is critically important that we do not shift the costs of moving off of fossil fuels onto communities that cannot afford to be squeezed any further,” said Stephanie Wang, policy director of the California Housing Partnership. “This policy roadmap highlights a key best practice for addressing the housing crisis – empower affordable housing developers to tap the full range of innovative low-carbon technologies so they can choose the options with the lowest upfront costs and greatest bill savings for residents.”

To achieve this, the Roadmap calls for low-cost, easily accessible financing options, re-aligning existing programs to help communities achieve carbon-free homes and implementing measures such as bulk purchasing, subsidizing installations and contractor training.

Industry prepares for the transition

The Roadmap finds that zero-emission building codes at the local and state levels are critical policy tools to help prepare industry.

“Zero-emission building codes send a strong market signal to industry stakeholders like developers, builders and consumers – allowing them to invest and plan for zero-carbon buildings, which in turn can help the market prepare for the retrofitting process,” said Bartholomy.

Research from the Rocky Mountain Institute has found that all-electric buildings cost less to build to code than those requiring additional gas infrastructure.

“Creating climate-friendly homes and buildings is actually a huge economic and workforce opportunity,” said Chris Walker of the California Association of Sheet Metal and Air Conditioning Contractors, National Association. “Not only must we retrofit hundreds of thousands of buildings across the state in coming decades – buildings are a primary source of climate emissions in the world. The rest of the world is looking for the economic models and successful technologies to go fully carbon neutral. California’s leadership and success in this endeavor will provide an international template for climate change solutions in building construction and operations.”

The Roadmap’s recommendations include:

  • California should adopt a Zero Emission Building Code for the residential sector by 2025, and commercial sector by 2028.
  • California should set greenhouse gas emission reduction standards for the overall building stock that accounts for emissions lock-in from fossil fuel-powered appliances:
      • 2025: 20 percent GHG reductions from building sector
      • 2030: 40 percent GHG reductions from building sector
      • 2045: 100 percent GHG reductions from building sector
  • California’s existing energy efficiency targets will help speed this process by ensuring buildings are well-insulated and reducing overall energy demand.
  • In order to achieve these emission reduction targets, California should build the market share for underlying technologies to hit the following targets:
    • Increase the share of high efficiency heat pumps for space heating from five percent of sales in 2018 to 50 percent in 2025 and 100 percent in 2030.
    • Increase the share of high efficiency heat pumps for water heating from one percent of sales in 2018 to 50 percent in 2025 and 100 percent in 2030.

“These goals are ambitious – but the climate crisis demands nothing less. We know we must eliminate fossil fuels from our buildings eventually,” said Bartholomy. “If California stalls action, it will only drive up costs, and prolong the serious public health and air quality issues inherent in keeping our homes and workspaces hooked to fossil fuels.”

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