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Almanac

News - September 4, 2019

City to require most new commercial buildings to be all-electric

by Kate Bradshaw

Every three years, California updates its building codes. While those codes have become increasingly stringent and focused on environmental sustainability, the state permits cities to adopt their own amendments to them, so long as those policies exceed the state's sustainability standards.

Every three years, California updates its building codes. While those codes have become increasingly stringent and focused on environmental sustainability, the state permits cities to adopt their own amendments to them, so long as those policies exceed the state's sustainability standards.

The Menlo Park City Council on Aug. 27 decided to adopt several such amendments, called "reach codes," that will make the city one of the state's most pioneering jurisdictions in promoting greener buildings, requiring the vast majority of new nonresidential buildings to be all-electric. The decision is set to be finalized with a formal vote and first reading of the ordinance scheduled for the council's Sept. 10 meeting.

While the council initially recommended an exception for for-profit restaurants, it ultimately agreed to eliminate the exception.

Staff members reported that they had conducted market research and argued that using electric induction stoves is an increasing trend in the food service industry; they are safer, two to three times more efficient, and offer higher performance than gas and traditional electric cooktops.

Switching to all-electric systems can offer major construction and operational savings, staff reported. The switch could save a hotel up to $1.3 million in construction costs and $1.24 million in operational costs, staff said.

The council agreed to offer an appeal process for businesses that can demonstrate that using induction stoves instead of gas-powered ones would be a hardship.

Exceptions will be offered to life sciences buildings for space heating purposes only, due to their reliance on precise temperature-controlled environments for lab work. However, following the recommendation of commenter Scott Shell, an architect, the council agreed to require life sciences buildings to install wiring that will make the building ready to convert to all-electric when better electric heating technology comes along.

Emergency operation centers, such as fire stations and police and community centers, would also be exempt from the all-electric rule, since it is critical that those facilities be able to access natural gas during an emergency or disaster when electricity is not available.

In addition, the council agreed to require new nonresidential buildings and high-rise residential buildings to have solar panels that generate a minimum of 3 kilowatts for buildings under 10,000 square feet and 5 kilowatts for buildings greater than or equal to 10,000 square feet.

These steps are expected to help the city keep its commitment to reduce greenhouse gas emissions by 27% from 2005 levels by 2020. Building energy usage made up about 55% of the city's overall greenhouse gas emissions in 2013, according to staff.

Adam Stern, former executive director of local environmental nonprofit Acterra, noted while speaking in public comment that as the Amazon rainforest burns, "It's very easy to think that climate change is a problem we can't get our hands around. ... The new reach code, reviewed by many stakeholders, is an ideal opportunity to put a stake in the ground and say Menlo Park is going to lead on the path toward carbon neutrality and (advance) our policies to reduce greenhouse gases."

If passed as expected, the new building codes will be effective Jan. 1, 2020.