Skeletal House

Construction crews rebuild a home in Santa Rosa after a 2017 wildfire. The CPUC is proposing a program to install all-electric equipment in rebuilt homes that were ruined by natural disasters.

The California Public Utilities Commission is proposing a building-electrification program for people who lost their homes in wildfires or other natural disasters and are trying to rebuild.

More than 5,000 structures have been damaged or destroyed by wildfires in California so far in 2020. Some affected homeowners might choose to rebuild their homes, and if in doing so they choose to install electric equipment and appliances, rather than natural gas, they could qualify for financial incentives through the CPUC's proposed Wildfire and Natural Disaster Resiliency Rebuild Program.

"We are looking to leverage the opportunity of rebuilding from disasters," Commissioner Clifford Rechtschaffen said at a public workshop on Sept. 15. "As grim as this is, [rebuilding] does propose an opportunity."

The program would provide $50 million per year to Californians who choose to replace their ruined homes with new homes that emit less greenhouse gases, according to CPUC staff. Under the proposed program, homes that emit about 1 to 2 fewer metric tons of GHGs per year than the previous home would qualify for an $11,000 incentive, while homes that emit about 5 to 6 metric tons less per year would qualify for $82,500.

"Unfortunately, and tragically, it looks like there will be more communities that may be in line for this program after the current fires we're experiencing," Rechtschaffen said. "Compared to other sectors, we have made relatively little progress decarbonizing our building sector . . . The building sector is one where honestly we have not done enough."

California uses more natural gas for heating purposes than any other state in the country, according to Rechtschaffen. Emissions from the building sector account for about 12 percent of total emissions in the state, he said, adding, "We are more reliant on gas appliances than most other jurisdictions."

"We don't want [disasters] to happen, but if they're going to happen, and we know they're going to happen, this [program] is an innovative way for communities to build in an all-electric way," Rechtschaffen said.

Under the program, a home would qualify for incentives if it had been red-tagged after a natural disaster and if a local governing body had made a local emergency proclamation related to the disaster, CPUC staff said. A red-tagged building is considered unsafe to enter due to damages to the building's structure. The state's cap-and-trade program would fund the rebuild program; however, in an ideal scenario, funds would be collected but never used—i.e., in a year in which no homes were destroyed in a natural disaster, staff said.

Developing an accurate estimate of how much funding is needed each year will be challenging: Natural disaster damages have varied widely from year to year, and will continue to vary widely, staff said. Staff is also trying to determine how to provide incentives to homeowners who rebuild outside of their impacted community, staff said.

Southern California Edison, Pacific Gas & Electric and San Diego Gas & Electric should administer the program, according to staff's proposal. The investor-owned utilities would partner with local jurisdictions, community-based organizations and a technical third-party implementer, in an approach similar to programs used by the IOUs to rebuild homes in California after the 2017 and 2018 fires.

The rebuild program is part of the CPUC's building-decarbonization proceeding [R19-01-011]. Staff said the proposed rebuild program, along with other proposed building-decarbonization programs, would result in more efficient use of ratepayer dollars for appliance electrification and provide financial support to further all-electric new construction following natural disasters.

Staff Writer

David Krause is an energy reporter covering the California Energy Commission and Air Resources Board. He writes about transportation, climate change, utilities, and wildfires. He has an MFA in Writing, an MA in English, and a BS in Civil Engineering.