Atherton is taking a gradual approach to going all-electric with new construction to curb the use of natural gas, allowing exemptions for residents who don't want to give up their gas stoves. Meanwhile, Portola Valley recently passed similar reach codes, but with fewer exemptions than Atherton is permitting.
On Nov. 16, the Atherton City Council opted to provide exemptions in new construction for indoor and outdoor cooking appliances, fireplaces and outdoor fire pits that use the fossil fuel, the changes which take effect Jan. 1. It adopted stricter policies than other Peninsula cities for electric vehicle (EV) charging, requiring more level 2 chargers than most cities, including making EV chargers available to accessory dwelling units (ADUs), guest houses and pool houses.
"The most important thing is, we're setting a standard in the green building codes to support all-electric space heating and water heating for new houses and I think that's a very big deal," said Mayor Rick DeGolia at the Nov. 16 council meeting. "Gas is a fossil fuel and pollutant and that is a problem. I don't know that it's entirely our job to tell people what to do, because I do think that people can choose."
Exemptions in the town's rules also include the use of gas-powered emergency generators.
Council member Diana Hawkins-Manuelian said that it's important to move away from gas-powered appliances.
The City Council accepted $10,000 grant from Peninsula Clean Energy in 2021 to compensate for staff and consultant time to explore adopting reach codes to require new buildings in Atherton be all-electric. Atherton's recently completed civic center is all-electric. Reach codes are local regulations that go beyond what's required in state codes.
Nineteen of the 22 agencies in the area have adopted reach codes, said Rafael Reyes, director of energy programs at San Mateo County's electricity provider Peninsula Clean Energy. Although some cities have opted to include exemptions, which commonly involve using gas for cooking and fireplaces, in years' past, it's worth noting that a number of cities are reducing exceptions in the 2022 cycle, he said.
"PG&E has noted that exceptions increase complexity and can result in increased costs to maintain the gas system," he said in an email. "Cities are interested in improving the emissions reductions potential and PG&E has noted that continued small usage across the system will result in significantly increased gas costs over time."
Burlingame recently eliminated its exemptions for indoor and outdoor cooking appliances, and fireplaces. The city of San Mateo recently adopted a resolution requiring all-electric new construction and transitioning to electric in most remodels of existing homes, according to the San Mateo Daily Journal.
"Atherton is cutting edge compared to much of the state (and) nation, but it's fairly average regionally," said Stacy Miles Holland, chair of Atherton's Environmental Programs Committee, and an incoming Atherton City Council member, in a statement. "But being average is a big improvement!"
Switching from gas to electricity could reduce the annual emissions of a California household by 50–70% and 46–54% for water and space heating, respectively, according to a 2019 study published in The Electricity Journal.
State officials voted in September to ban the sale of new gas furnaces and water heaters beginning in 2030.
"As a mother worried about the impact of climate change for my toddler, it is immensely satisfying to see Atherton join the majority of the Peninsula in adopting a reach code," Miles Holland said. "There was no path for Atherton to hit its state-mandated emission reduction target while adding new methane gas infrastructure to the Town, so we've made a big first step in the right direction."
Miles Holland said she is in the midst of electrifying her home, and plans to replace her gas stove with an induction stove next month.
"I never thought I'd know so much about the amps/volts of my appliances," she said.
Portola Valley changes to green code met with some resistance
Portola Valley, on the other hand, is a town that opted to adopt a green building code that includes few exceptions. On Oct. 26, its Town Council gave the go-ahead to require all new construction to be all-electric. The all-electric requirements apply to all newly constructed buildings and gas-fired outdoor amenities (such as outdoor kitchens, grills, pools, spas, fireplaces, fire pits and outdoor heaters).
It also requires major remodels to be all electric, and adds some new requirements for the installation of a heat pump air conditioner on the replacement, upgrade or relocation of an air conditioner, as well as pre-electrification requirements when replacing or upgrading the main electrical panel.
However, residents will not be required to replace their failing gas-powered devices with electric ones under this reach code. Owners of new construction projects which have already received planning approvals may apply for exemption from new green building amendments.
The town had explored an all-electric reach code in 2020, but work on the ordinance was disrupted by the COVID-19 pandemic.
Some praised the town for taking action that will have an impact on climate change.
There was also resistance from residents who are worried about the costs of requiring electric appliances. Some even suggested the town code changes be put up for a resident vote or a referendum.
Resident Dale Kane called the code change Draconian and said it could compromise the character of a remodel or new build. He said he's wanted to install two natural gas fireplaces for their ambiance and safety. He also wants a backup option because of the common power outages in town. (Although gas fireplaces generally work during a power outage, gas stoves and ovens will generally not work because gas appliance ignition is electric, according to PCE and the Sacramento Bee)
Others asked the town to take a more gradual approach, with one resident calling it "too much, too fast" for the town.
"I do agree with eventual electrification," said Nan Shostak, a geologist and a member of the Geologic Safety Committee. "I do think it's going to be a drop in the bucket compared with coal-powered power plants in China for instance. We are much safer with the gas generator than without. New construction and remodeling projects deserve the option of having some gas. We are thinking of going all-electric too soon."
Council member John Richards said there is a misunderstanding of how this might affect costs. For example, in a new construction project, putting in an electrical system without having to put in gas is going to cost you less, he said. A Peninsula Clear Energy report said that, for example, building all-electric thermal systems in a home cost a little under $19,000, while building mixed fuel systems costs about $29,000 on average.
For single-family homes in general, operating costs are about the same with all-electric, said Reyes. If the home has solar power, operating costs are much lower, he said.
"It's time to pick some low-hanging fruit and move ahead," he said.
Council member Jeff Aalfs emphasized that burning natural gas inside homes actually results in "really unhealthy, and perhaps even dangerous, air."
Natural gas and propane stoves can release carbon monoxide, formaldehyde and other harmful pollutants into the air, which can be toxic to people and pets, according to the California Air Resources Board. Using a wood stove or a fireplace to cook can cause high levels of indoor air pollution from smoke.
Gas stoves in homes increase children's asthma risk by 42%, the PCE report states. Total electric living eliminates the risk of carbon monoxide poisoning and induction ranges automatically turn off when not in-use, eliminating a leading cause of house fires, according to the report.
Mayor Craig Hughes noted that the town is simply "doing what other towns in the area have already done."
Council member Maryann Derwin described it as a difficult, but necessary change.
Other local green building codes
A slew of local cities adopted reach codes to limit the use of gas in 2019.
Palo Alto adopted an ambitious building code amendment last month that requires every new building to be all-electric. It expands on the existing all-electric requirement, which the council adopted in 2019 and which only applies to low-rise residential buildings, with exceptions for ADUs.
The requirement applies to water heaters and space heaters, and heating, ventilating and air conditioning (HVAC) systems, as well as for major remodeling projects where 50% or more of the walls are being replaced or razed or where 50% or more of roof structural framing area is replaced.
In 2019, Mountain View's reach code process led to a bold, and rather controversial, ban on natural gas appliances in new homes, while this year's amendments mainly centered on bringing the city into compliance with new state requirements, and in a few cases, recommendations from local agencies like Silicon Valley Clean Energy, the community choice energy program that serves multiple Bay Area cities including Mountain View.
Menlo Park adopted reach codes in 2019 that required electricity as the only fuel source for new commercial buildings and low-rise residential buildings starting in 2020.
East Palo Alto adopted reach codes in 2019 to limit gas devices in buildings, including commercial and residential spaces. It exempts ADUs and 100% affordable housing.
Woodside officials declined to consider these building reach codes in October, said Town Manger Kevin Bryant in an email.