Opinion

Berkeley Natural Gas Ban Misses the Mark

In July, the City of Berkeley unanimously voted to ban natural gas hookups for new buildings. Other cities, including San Jose, Sacramento and Los Angeles, are considering similar bans or other restrictive measures that push developers to install only electric appliances. These municipalities are operating under the misguided belief that the shift from natural gas to electric appliances will be better for the environment. In fact, the change will be expensive for area residents, and provide little environmental benefit.

Under the natural gas ordinance introduced by Berkeley Councilwoman Kate Harrison, all new single-family residences — including townhouses and small apartment buildings — are prohibited from installing natural gas appliances. Officials say that a similar regulation for commercial buildings and larger apartment complexes will soon follow.

With this announcement, Berkeley’s city council has struck a new blow – not only against common sense, but also against consumer choice, preventing residents from taking advantage of affordable, clean-burning and domestically produced natural gas. In a state that already boasts one of the highest costs of living in the nation, Berkeley’s ordinance will further increase utility costs for residents. According to Patrick Kennedy, a developer who builds high-density housing in the area, adding individual electric hot-water heaters to each apartment unit would be between 10 and 20 times more expensive than gas water heaters, a cost that could be as much as an additional $3,000-$4,000 per unit.

Natural gas currently represents a critical energy option across the U.S. — it is affordable, clean-burning and domestically-sourced. It currently provides more than 35 percent of America’s electricity. Meanwhile, wind and solar provide only 8 percent of the country’s power needs.

Across the country, utility providers have found natural gas to be a cost-effective replacement for coal, and by changing fuels, have simultaneously reduced emissions. In 2017, natural gas provided more than two-fifths of California’s total in-state net electricity generation. By moving to natural gas, power generators have lowered their carbon emissions 28 percent since 2005. The U.S. Energy Information Agency (EIA) expects this trend to continue.

In California, however, the rapid push to adopt renewables has, combined with fees and taxes, caused energy prices to spike. Since 2011, electricity prices in California have risen 30 percent, particularly because of reliance on wind and solar. Mandates like Berkeley’s, which increase the demand for electricity, will only push prices higher.

This hurts low-income residents the most because they are more likely to live in older housing and further away from where they work, so they often pay more for utilities and transportation. By banning one of the best supplies of cheap fuel, Berkeley’s ban only makes the situation worse. As one energy expert said, “Energy costs are through the roof. This is having a serious impact on low-income residents.”

Having an energy approach in which natural gas can complement intermittent renewables like wind and solar is important. Reliable energy ensures that the lights stay on and the air conditioning is running even on hot, still summer nights when solar and wind installations lie dormant. That’s critical for meeting demand when it comes to heating and cooling homes and powering stoves and ovens.

Berkeley’s natural gas moratorium is a blatant attempt to shut down consumer choice by pushing people to buy the sorts of household equipment they would not otherwise choose. These electric appliances mean higher utility bills for tenants each month and increased costs for landlords and developers.

 

Craig Stevens, a former senior adviser to U.S. Energy Secretary Sam Bodman, is the spokesman for Grow America’s Infrastructure Now, a national coalition focused on promoting key infrastructure investments.

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