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Encinitas bans natural gas in new buildings, including homes

Encinitas Mayor Catherine Blakespear with Encinitas City Councilmember Joe Mosca in the background.
Encinitas Mayor Catherine Blakespear, with Encinitas City Councilmember Joe Mosca in the background, speaks at a news conference in favor of passing a building electrification ordinance for the city.
(Rob Nikolewski/The San Diego Union-Tribune)

The measure is designed to help the city cut greenhouse gas emissions.

The Encinitas City Council passed a sweeping building electrification ordinance that, with just a few exceptions, will eliminate installing natural gas infrastructure on new residential and commercial construction within the city limits.

The ordinance, which passed on a 5-0 vote late Wednesday, Sept. 22, is similar to other measures adopted by 49 other communities in California in the past couple of years but most of those municipalities are located in Northern California. The Encinitas ordinance is the most comprehensive ordinance passed by a community in San Diego County.

“We’re really excited because we’re doing our part, we care about climate change, we want to be a more environmentally committed city and we’re doing everything we can to get there,” said Encinitas Mayor Catherine Blakespear.

The exceptions are quite narrow and are reserved for emergency buildings that are deemed essential facilities as defined by the California Health and Safety Code and construction in extreme scenarios for projects that would need significant utility upgrades.

Restaurants that demonstrate they need to cook with a flame also could qualify for an exception. Examples include eateries that use woks, pizza ovens and barbecue-themed restaurants. However, if an exception is made, the restaurant must employ methods that will reduce the gas-fueled appliance’s greenhouse gas impacts.

When an exception is made to the ordinance, the new construction must be wired so it can transition to be electric-ready in the future.

The ordinance also applies to accessory dwelling units, more commonly called granny flats.

“This is a very good ordinance that will essentially allow us to reduce our local greenhouse gases and air pollutants within our building structures, so it’s a very good step forward,” said Encinitas City Councilmember Joe Mosca.

Blakespear, who is running in 2022 for the state Senate in the 36th District, said the ordinance will not lead to a steep rise in construction costs.

“For example, an electric water heater is about the same cost as a gas water heater so it actually is not supposed to add substantially to costs,” Blakespear said. “If somebody is building a granny flat to their house, they have to put in electricity because you have to flick on the light. But if you don’t have to run gas, it’s actually cheaper because you then don’t have (to install) infrastructure for the gas.”

According to the California Air Resources Board, residential and commercial buildings are responsible for about 25 percent of the state’s greenhouse gas emissions when accounting for fossil fuels consumed onsite and electricity demand. California has set a goal to derive 100 percent of its electricity from carbon-free sources by 2045 or sooner.

The Encinitas ordinance was supported by the San Diego Building Electrification Coalition, a recently formed partnership of local environmental and public policy groups.

“It is clear there is no time for modest actions to address climate change and we need our cities to act boldly,” Karinna Gonzalez of Hammond Climate Solutions said at a news conference before the vote. “Adopting an all-electric ordinance is the first step to eliminating our dependency on fossil fuels.”

However, Kerry Jackson, a fellow at the Center for California Reform at the Pacific Research Institute, a think tank based in San Francisco that espouses free-market solutions to public policy issues, questioned the effectiveness of all-electric ordinances.

“If you permanently shut down fossil fuel use in all of California tomorrow, the impact on greenhouse gas emissions would be about zero,” Jackson said. “This state puts out only about 1 percent of global greenhouse gas emissions. Meanwhile, China and India will be building dozens if not hundreds of coal plants in the coming years. There’s nothing this state, not even this entire nation, can do to offset the increased emissions from those countries.”

San Diego Gas & Electric, which includes natural gas as a crucial part of its energy portfolio, issued a carefully worded statement about the Encinitas ordinance.

“Fighting climate change requires the widespread adoption of multiple strategies and technologies to reduce greenhouse gas emissions — everything from stronger building codes and transportation electrification to energy storage and hydrogen innovations,” SDG&E spokeswoman Helen Gao said in an email.

“SDG&E supports policies that are cost-effective and inclusive of all technologies with the potential to reduce (greenhouse gas) emissions. SDG&E has set an aggressive goal to achieve net-zero emissions by 2045, and we look forward to collaborating with Encinitas and other regional leaders to achieve this critical milestone.”

SDG&E is a subsidiary of Sempra, which is also the parent company of Southern California Gas, the largest natural gas distribution utility in the country.

A coalition in 2019 backed by SoCalGas and business groups lined up about 100 cities and counties that endorsed a push for “balanced energy solutions” that clean energy advocates said would slow local governments banning or discouraging gas hookups in new construction.

SoCalGas also filed suit against the California Energy Commission last year, complaining the commission failed to fulfill its legal requirement to report on the benefits of natural gas. The company and the commission quietly settled the lawsuit last month. Details were not disclosed but a spokeswoman for the energy commission told the Los Angeles Times the commission did not take the steps SoCalGas had sought.

Berkeley in the summer of 2019 was the first city in the U.S. to adopt a ban on natural gas hookups for new construction. Since then, communities ranging from San Jose to Oakland to San Francisco have passed similar measures. The trend has not been as strong in Southern California, with the exception of Santa Monica, Ojai and now Encinitas.

In February 2019, elected officials in Carlsbad strengthened the town’s Climate Action Plan but the measure did not go as far as the ordinance passed by Encinitas. As part of bolstering Carlsbad’s energy efficiency efforts, the city mandated that all new residential and non-residential systems — with a few exceptions — had to install electric water heaters or solar-powered water heaters instead of natural gas.

Some cooks and chefs have said they prefer gas-powered ovens to electric. The California Restaurant Association has challenged Berkeley’s ban on natural gas in new construction in court.

“This shouldn’t need to be said, but the loss of flame cooking in restaurant settings would dramatically impact restaurant kitchens, where chefs rely on gas stoves to grill vegetables, sear meats and create meals of all kinds inspired by cuisines from all over the world,” restaurant association CEO Jot Condie said last month. “Any law mandating the use of electric rather than gas stoves reduces those choices, and is also likely to impact what restaurants pay for energy in the future.”

San Diego area real estate analyst Gary London doubts whether the Encinitas ordinance will have much of an impact because the coastal community is not home to a lot of new construction due to relatively strict building policies there.

“My sense is it’s pretty much built-out there,” London said. “I’m thinking this is more about political pabulum, making the policymakers feel good about themselves but I don’t think it will make a material impact on the price or the delivery of housing in Encinitas.”

The Encinitas building electrification ordinance will go into effect, as per city rules, once it is approved upon a second reading of the City Council. The second reading is scheduled for Oct. 13.


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