In a momentous and likely highly influential vote at the end of a six-hour meeting on Wednesday, the Bay Area Air Quality Management District (BAAQMD) voted to ban the sale of gas heaters. More specifically, water heaters and boilers that emit any nitrogen oxides (NOx) cannot be sold or installed if manufactured after 2026, and the same for gas furnaces manufactured after 2028. (1) While theoretically NOx-free gas heaters are allowed, they do not exist and all indications are that replacements will be electric. This ban is conditional on a determination of “equitable outcomes”, with a focus on low-income households. A working group will evaluate that condition and adjust dates or requirements as needed. An earlier blog post outlines the proposal in more detail.
The vote was nearly unanimous, with 20 of the 21 directors who were present voting yes and one abstaining. Well over 90% of the 200 speakers who commented in person or on Zoom at the meeting advocated for the ban. Some were physicians concerned about the health impacts of nitrogen oxides. For example, an OB/GYN doctor talked about how she helps pregnant women adopt healthy habits but has little control over the often polluted air that they breathe. The doctors all encouraged the board to reduce disease and save lives.
Some speakers were students concerned about their own or their relatives’ asthma. One talked about how he loves to play sports with his siblings, but their asthma makes it difficult for them to enjoy sports. Eighth graders from the Urban Promise Academy in Oakland spoke about a survey they had done at school that found that 16% of the 163 respondents had asthma and 31% had a relative with it. Some speakers were parents or grandparents concerned about their kids’ future. Renters spoke up who were glad to have a policy that would reduce their building emissions, since they could not do it themselves.
Representatives from environmental organizations advocated for clean air, noting the equity impacts and the fact that we are out of compliance with our own air quality standards many days a year in the Bay Area, which has some of the dirtiest air in the nation. A representative from the EPA mentioned that those standards are being tightened further and this policy will help the Bay Area to comply. Other speakers were concerned about global warming and eager to reduce our burning of fossil fuels. One speaker talked about how he grew up in Virginia where household heating was clean electric. He was shocked to find after moving to California that we use dirty gas-burning heat.
Of the few speakers who spoke against the policy, there were concerns about cost; about grid reliability (some had no power still today from yesterday’s storms); about the disruption to tenants of multi-family housing if the building had to switch from gas to electric heat; about the space requirements for electric heat; about the time needed for panel upgrades; and about the “complicated nightmare” of updating very old homes. One owner of a large apartment building said he is on year 3 of an update that so far has cost $1 million and he is still waiting for PG&E to provide the necessary service.
I found the public comments to be moving and interesting. Some speakers may have been misled that this proposal would improve indoor air quality (it generally won’t), or cure asthma (it affects only 5% of NOx emissions in the Bay Area), or leave their gas stoves and fireplaces intact (plummeting gas demand is likely to make them unaffordable). But nevertheless most were eager to move forward into a future with cleaner air and reduced emissions, and trust the BAAQMD to ensure that the mandate is affordable and equitable. All speakers were respectful and thoughtful and used their one minute well.
After the public comment, the 21 directors in attendance took turns speaking. All felt strongly about reducing air pollution, which is the charter of BAAQMD. Director Brian Barnacle spoke about how this ruling would give time and certainty to equipment manufacturers, inspiring entrepreneurs and catalyzing innovation to reduce NOx emissions. Vice Chair Davina Hurt of Belmont said that the timing would allow the area to be “first in line” for federal money. Vicki Veenker of Palo Alto noted that with the long lifetime of these appliances, full compliance wouldn’t be until 2046 or so. “We have time to get this right.” Sergio Lopez of Campbell enthused about the ability to influence others with this ruling. “This is a region where we do big things… We will be the first, but I guarantee we won’t be the last.” Lynda Hopkins of Sonoma County similarly expressed excitement about “disruptive, radical, transformative change”.
But some highlighted relevant cautions as well. Tyrone Jue of San Francisco hammered on the need to get PG&E committed to and successfully supporting this effort with regard to grid capacity, electrical upgrades, reliability, and responsiveness, and others concurred. Mark Ross of Martinez talked about the importance of making the wide and confusing array of incentives accessible. Margaret Abe-Koga of Mountain View said it is important for this to work well in cities like hers that have rent control.
Juan Gonzalez of San Leandro highlighted implementation challenges, including getting adequate power to homes, responding quickly to replace a broken heater, and preventing unpermitted work by unskilled contractors. He worried that some regions that would benefit least (e.g., sparsely populated areas without much NOx from buildings) might bear undue costs. And he clarified that eliminating building NOx is hardly a panacea when it comes to asthma. And yet he supports sending this market signal to see how technology and workforce will respond, and trusts the two-year checkpoint reports to avoid big problems.
Ray Mueller of San Mateo County, the lone abstainer, read a letter from Peninsula Clean Energy, a local Community Choice Agency working very hard to equitably electrify buildings, with concerns that he shares. Costs to electrify buildings can be very high and are highly variable. The grid in many areas is not reliable, particularly in the coastal communities that he and Peninsula Clean Energy represent. PG&E improvements to the grid are not happening at the pace needed, and the alternative of battery storage is expensive and in short supply. They believe San Mateo County will need additional money from BAAQMD in order to comply, based on their experience. Mueller is skeptical that adequate technology will be available in just four years to handle the diversity of electrification needs. (I think of replacements for tankless water heaters as one example, though they get an additional four years.) Moreover, if a sufficiently large and trained workforce doesn’t exist, Mueller worries that greater demand will increase rather than decrease rates, as it has done with building contractors in his area, pushing up housing costs beyond reasonable values. He says BAAQMD isn’t appropriately anticipating the “amazing amount of contractors” and training that will be needed. Mueller says he is fully committed to working hard to make this a success, but he is very concerned about the scale of the effort that will be required, the potential cost burden on the middle class, and the significant negative impacts that can occur if the Implementation Working Group doesn’t execute perfectly.
I find myself wondering how many of the board members have attempted to electrify their own homes. It is not always simple or cheap. Many are optimistic about the power of capitalism to respond to the mandate and lower costs, but others noted the long length of time it took to develop electric vehicles. Houses are complex and varied. Gonzalez seems aware of all of these risks, and ultimately trusts the built-in process to slow things down if equitable outcomes cannot be ensured. Whether that protects the middle class, Mueller’s concern, remains to be seen.
The critical next step is to create an effective Implementation Working Group to enumerate and make progress on these issues. The group will be able to lean on many high-level state senators and representatives who are strongly supportive of this effort. There is funding from multiple sources. And there are some aggressive local efforts driving electrification in Palo Alto, Peninsula Clean Energy, and Silicon Valley Clean Energy territories that will help suss out issues of cost and complexity. This is going to be a very informative and interesting next few years. This vote is just the start.
Notes and References
0. The staff report, a fact sheet, infographics, and more can be found here. The presentation from the meeting can be found here.
1. Bigger water heaters have a 2031 deadline, and even bigger ones are exempt entirely at this point. Propane heat is exempted as is gas heat in mobile homes.
Current Climate Data (February 2023)
Global impacts, US impacts, CO2 metric, Climate dashboard
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