Tacoma Building

The City of Tacoma, Washington, is working on a draft climate action plan that may incorporate building-electrification measures.

Following the lead of 18 California cities, municipal governments in Washington, Colorado and Massachusetts are working on building-electrification ordinances to move away from natural gas use.

Denver and Boulder; Tacoma and Bellingham, Washington; and several cities in the Northeast, including towns outside Boston, are among those following California cities in adopting ordinances phasing out natural gas use in residential and commercial buildings, according to Rachel Golden, the Sierra Club's deputy director for building electrification.

"It's really spreading," she said. Many cities are progressing from "cleaning up their local grids" to supporting electric-vehicle charging before progressing to building electrification. "It's definitely a trend nationwide," Golden said.

Although California law requires all power providers to have 100-percent greenhouse gas-free power by 2045, cities are adopting reach codes designed to advance their local environmental goals.

The California ordinances are "proof of concept" measures that are "raising policymaker confidence" nationwide, Golden said. She expects more cities and counties to enact similar policies in 2020.

Washington state's Clean Buildings Act, designed to improve energy efficiency in structures statewide, includes incentives and standards to reduce GHG emissions. This includes incentives for reducing natural gas consumption.

The City of Tacoma is proposing building electrification as part of its draft environmental action plan. City staff is currently working on this and related measures with Tacoma Public Utilities representatives.

"It always helps if [a city] is doing or has done something similar," James Parvey, sustainability officer for the City of Tacoma, said. "As more [building electrification ordinances] are adopted, there is less perceived risk."

Work will begin in earnest in 2020 when the funds budgeted for the plan become available, Parvey said. City staff will, as is typical, utilize benchmarks from peer cities in developing its plan, including those in California.

There is some confusion around what constitutes decarbonization. Some reports have erroneously added the cities of Houston and Albuquerque to lists of cities moving toward all-electric buildings; however, these cities are not. The City of Houston is drafting a climate action plan as well as supporting vehicle electrification. The City of Albuquerque is working on energy efficiency by upgrading municipal buildings to reduce energy consumption by 65 percent, compared with 2007 levels, by 2025.

"There is lots of confusion around the term 'net zero,'" Golden said. "It's important to get clear on what you're trying to zero out, and that is emissions." Electrification is one means of reaching a net-zero-emissions future.

In contrast, the City of Berkeley instituted its ban of natural gas on public health and safety grounds. It has yet to enact a reach code. Reach codes refer to making municipal building codes more stringent than state codes, which requires state approval, while natural gas can be banned in new construction by local government agencies based on public health and safety grounds.

Roughly 50 California cities are considering the adoption of building-code standards stricter than those of the state in order to move toward building decarbonization. Others, including the cities of Santa Monica and Menlo Park, have already approved their reach codes (see CEM Nos. 1556 and 1558). San Diego is among the cities that should be part of a second wave of reach-code adoptions in 2020, once it has tackled its effort to form a community choice aggregator.

Not all cities are taking the same approach. The San Jose reach code, for example, modifies the municipal building code for new construction only. It includes specifications for solar-photovoltaic readiness and electric charging structures, but still allows for mixed-fuel buildings, making it less stringent than the recently adopted reach codes of other cities in the state (see CEM No. 1557).

Most recently, Milpitas, Santa Rosa and Pacifica adopted reach codes.