Draft building code urges more electric, less gas

·4 min read

May 9—A newly released draft of California's 2022 building code proposes probably the most ambitious electrification policies in the country but stops short of a ban on new natural gas-burning appliances that climate activists had pushed for.

The update proposed Thursday by staff of the California Energy Commission would encourage but not require use of heat-pump technology and would insist homes be built "electric ready" for eventual conversion to electric.

Ventilation standards would also be strengthened to improve indoor air quality, addressing a main concern of environmental advocates calling for a phase-out of methane use in residential buildings.

While groups advocating aggressive greenhouse-gas emissions said the draft doesn't go far enough toward full electrification, the state's building industry criticized the proposal as unsupported by feasibility studies regarding costs and potential strain on the state's power grid.

"Bottom line, these regs are putting the cart before the horse," the California Building Industry Association's senior counsel on codes, regulatory and legislative affairs, Christopher E. Ochoa, said by email Friday.

But environmental advocates pointing to respiratory and climate-change concerns called for swifter action toward all-electric kitchen ranges and water and space heaters.

"The 2022 code update is a step in the right direction, but with the health and prosperity of millions of Californians hanging in the balance, we can no longer be satisfied with incremental progress," Earthjustice staff attorney Matt Vespa said in a news release.

METHANE SHIFTS

The draft had been widely anticipated as a sign of California's direction on the use of methane, an efficient and widely used but polluting fuel blamed for poor indoor and outdoor air quality. Far more methane is produced in Kern than elsewhere around the state.

California has promoted production and use of biomethane, which comes from Central Valley dairies and may one day flow from gasification plants fueled by local ag waste. The gas is virtually indistinguishable from petroleum-derived methane and can add up to be considered carbon negative.

The energy commission said the draft covers newly built structures and any proposed additions or alterations to existing buildings.

It would set appliance "energy budgets" likely to persuade builders to install heat-pump technology for space or water heating, staff said. Such technology is used in about 5 percent of new residential construction in California, according to the commission.

The draft would also require single-family homes to be built with 240-volt outlets in case electric appliances are installed later, and raises airflow standards for kitchen hoods.

Additionally, new proposed standards would extend residential and solar power requirements to new buildings including high-rise, multifamily buildings, offices and schools. The draft is proposed for adoption in August but wouldn't take effect until Jan. 1, 2023.

AT WHAT COST?

Ochoa at the building association said the group has stated its support toward an all-electric future "in a planned and strategic manner," similar to the way solar requirements took effect in 2020 after almost a decade of work.

"There is always a need to ramp up market penetration of the products, educate builders and installers of the products, etc.," he wrote.

He said concerns remain about the costs of residential electrification and whether the state's power grid is up to the task. A report addressing these topics was due in January but hasn't been released, he noted.

How much it would cost to completely electrify residential space and water heaters is the subject of some debate. But a recent UCLA study found appliance electrification might increase consumer costs while having little impact on the state's greenhouse gas emissions.

Environmental advocates have highlighted an analysis by Energy Innovation Policy & Technology LLC suggesting new construction across the country would have to be all-electric by 2025 to meet the Biden administration's goal of cutting climate pollution in half by 2030.

FURTHER OUT

Activists said they will likely turn their attention to California's 2025 code.

"We know that all-electric buildings are cheaper. We know they are healthier," Denise Grab, manager of the nonprofit Rocky Mountain Institute's Carbon-Free Buildings team, said in a news release.

"Meanwhile, every new gas building in the state locks us into decades of emissions and wasted infrastructure costs," she continued. "Delaying all-electric construction is a mistake. The CEC needs to commit publicly to going all-electric in the next code cycle, so that the state can stop expanding the use of expensive and dangerous fossil gas."

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