Berkeley becomes first U.S. city to ban natural gas in new homes

Berkeley has become the first city in the nation to ban the installation of natural gas lines in new homes.

The City Council on Tuesday night unanimously voted to ban gas from new low-rise residential buildings starting Jan. 1.

It’s not the first time Berkeley has passed pioneering health or environmental legislation. In 1977, Berkeley was the first in the country to ban smoking in restaurants and bars. In January the city banned single-use disposables, requiring restaurants to use to-go foodware that is compostable.

The natural gas ordinance, introduced by Councilwoman Kate Harrison, requires all new single-family homes, town homes and small apartment buildings to have electric infrastructure. After its passage, Harrison thanked the community and her colleagues “for making Berkeley the first city in California and the United States to prohibit natural gas infrastructure in new buildings.”

“It’s an enormous issue,” Harrison told The Chronicle. “We need to really tackle this. When we think about pollution and climate-change issues, we tend to think about factories and cars, but all buildings are producing greenhouse gas.”

The city will include commercial buildings and larger residential structures as the state moves to develop regulations for those, officials said.

The ordinance allocates $273,341 per year for a two-year staff position in the Building and Safety Division within the city’s Department of Planning and Development. The employee will be responsible for implementing the ban.

Mayor Jesse Arreguín called the ordinance innovative and groundbreaking.

“I’m really proud to be on this City Council to adopt this groundbreaking ordinance. … We know that the climate crisis is deepening and is having cataclysmic impacts,” he said at the meeting. “Warmer temperatures and the year-round fire season … the melting of the polar ice caps, growing sea level rise, all these conditions prove that we are in real trouble and that we have to take bold action now.”

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California Energy Commission Chairman David Hochschild, a Berkeley resident, also spoke at the meeting and said that 50 cities across the state, including San Francisco, are considering similar action and Berkeley would pave the way for future legislation.

“That is how change happens,” Hochschild said at the meeting. “Right now, in California, we have a big focus on cleaning up the building sector because there are more emissions coming from combustion natural gas in our buildings than our entire state power plant fleet.”

I’m proud to vote on groundbreaking legislation to prohibit natural gas in new buildings. We are committed to the #ParisAgreement and must take immediate action in order to reach our climate action goals. It’s not radical, it’s necessary. #berkmtg

— Jesse Arreguin (@JesseArreguin) July 17, 2019

The ordinance applies to buildings that have been reviewed by the California Energy Commission and determined to meet state requirements and regulations if they are electric only, said Ben Gould, the chairman of Berkeley’s Community Environmental Advisory Commission.

The way the ordinance is written, the city’s regulations will update as the state commission approves more building models without having to return to the City Council for a vote.

“We need to find ways to move forward innovative, groundbreaking climate policy,” said Gould, noting he spoke as a private citizen and not as a representative of the commission. “This policy is really important and critical. It helps address one of the largest sources of emissions in Berkeley.”

In 2009, the city adopted a Climate Action Plan that aimed to reduce emissions 33% by 2020 and 80% by 2050. The plan also commits the city to using 100% renewable electricity by 2035.

The city determined in a report last year that gas-related emissions have increased due to 18% population growth since 2000. The report also noted that the burning of natural gas within city buildings accounted for 27% of Berkeley’s total greenhouse gas emissions in 2016.

“To put that in context, (the 27%) is equivalent to 20 million gallons of gasoline a year,” Harrison said.

As the city’s population soars, the need for more housing has also increased. From 2014 to 2017, the Planning Department approved building permits for 525 residential units, and 925 built units were approved for occupancy. More housing is expected, particularly with the Adeline Corridor Plan, which calls for the construction of 1,400 units along Adeline Street and a portion of South Shattuck Avenue.

Instead of having natural gas pipes, electric-only buildings install heat pumps and induction cooking, Gould said.

“Think about a refrigerator and how it makes inside your refrigerator cold and blows hot air out of somewhere else,” Gould said. “A heat pump works like that, but in reverse. It takes outside air and emits cold air outside and provides hot air inside. They can also be flipped in reverse and work as an air conditioner.”

Induction cooking transfers heat directly to any magnetic cookware, including cast iron and steel, without using radiation.

Restaurateur Jonnatan Leiva said that chefs prefer to work with open flames because that is how they have been trained. But Leiva, whose Full Skoop is planning to open a Berkeley location, said with climate change worsening, it is their responsibility to adapt. He said he supports Berkeley’s ordinance.

“I think we all have to do our part some way or another. As citizens of this world, when do we start taking responsibility?” he said. “As chefs in the industry, we try to reduce our carbon footprint and try to source as local as possible. I think this is just going to be the new normal.”

At Tuesday’s meeting, Harrison’s staff demonstrated the use of an induction cooktop by making chocolate fondue. The staff placed a piece of paper between the stove and the pot to show its safety features. The pot turned hot but the paper didn’t burn, Gould said.

Nearly 40 people spoke at the City Council meeting Tuesday in support of the ordinance. Tom Lent, a Berkeley resident, said he changed his gas stove to an electric cooktop about three years ago.

At a glance

The ordinance bans installation of natural gas lines in low-rise residential buildings, including single-family homes and town homes.

It goes into effect Jan. 1 and does not affect existing buildings. Accessible dwelling units, including basements and attics, are exempt.

It applies to building models reviewed by the California Energy Commission and determined to meet state requirements if they are electric only.

Berkeley’s new regulations will update as the state commission approves more models, without the City Council having to vote again.“Cooking with induction is really fun,” Lent said during public comment. “It’s so fast, it’s so controllable. I will never go back to gas again.”

Kristin Davis, the co-owner of KC’s BBQ in Berkeley, said she prefers using a gas stove over an electric cooktop.

“I just prefer an open flame,” Davis said. “I don’t think there is a huge difference in the taste, but I do think the taste is a little more enhanced over an open flame.”

Davis said she is concerned that installing electric equipment in new restaurants could be a financial burden for small businesses.

Harrison acknowledged that electric appliances might be more expensive, but she said the use of electric equipment is cost-effective in the long term.

“Electricity on an ongoing basis will be less expensive,” she said.

Sarah Ravani is a San Francisco Chronicle staff writer. Email: Twitter: @SarRavani