Skeletal House

A new house under construction. The CEC is deciding whether all new homes in California should have all-electric equipment and appliances, rather than models fueled by natural gas.

Energy officials in California are deciding whether methane molecules or electrons should flow to appliances and equipment in new low-rise residential buildings in the state.

The California Energy Commission is currently updating California's 2022 Building Energy Efficiency Code, and over the past month has received a pile of letters from more than 100 organizations urging the CEC to approve an all-electric, statewide building code for all new construction.

The commission has "everything it needs to move forward" with an all-electric mandate, local agencies, architects, and environmental organizations said in a February letter filed jointly [19-BSTD-03]. Buildings that use electric equipment provide significant climate, air-quality and public-health benefits, and are less expensive to build than those that include natural gas piping, the letter says.

CEC staff in a January presentation said its 2022 building-code update could require new homes to be "all-electric ready," yet still allow natural gas piping and equipment, such as gas stoves, clothes dryers and furnaces. The code might also require dedicated circuits for future electric appliances in homes, along with enough space on a home's main electrical panel for future electric appliance connections, staff said.

"We're really, really frustrated with the commission," Earthjustice staff attorney Matt Vespa said in a phone interview with California Energy Markets. "This is where we need the CEC. California sets the tone for the nation."

Vespa said the CEC is leaving local governments, which have limited resources, to do the work of requiring all-electric buildings. Passing new building codes at a local level takes a significant amount of time and resources, he said.

"We don't have time to let everyone go on their own," Vespa said. "Waiting isn't going to accomplish anything."

The CEC's current approach is "not the all-electric code that the clean buildings coalition . . . and the hundreds of concerned California residents who have been speaking at public hearings over the last six months have been calling for," Natural Resources Defense Council senior scientist Pierre Delforge said in a Feb. 16 online paper. Burning natural gas for heat and hot water in homes and buildings causes seven times more air pollution than all of California's in-state power plants, Delforge said.

However, Southern California Gas Co. representatives asked the CEC to take a closer look at the efficiency of electric heat pumps inside of buildings in colder climates. The National Renewable Energy Laboratory found that heat-pump water and space heaters operate most efficiently at temperatures between 45 and 110 degrees Fahrenheit, SoCalGas representatives said in a Feb. 11 letter to the commission that asked CEC staff to reevaluate energy savings calculations for heat-pump water heaters [19-BSTD-03].

Heat pumps are less efficient in colder climate zones, CEC spokesperson Amber Beck confirmed in a Feb. 17 email to CEM. Therefore, if customers in colder areas rely excessively on electric resistance heating, they could see higher energy bills, Beck said.

The 2022 building code might allow homebuilders to choose to install either a heat-pump space heater or a heat-pump water heater, but not require both, according to CEC staff. However, this could mean that a builder in San Diego might choose to install a heat-pump space heater rather than a heat-pump water heater, even though a typical new home in San Diego County burns between four and five times more gas for water heating than for space heating, the organizations said in their letter.

There are a few other barriers to construction of all-electric buildings in the state, Beck said. Currently, the installation rate of heat-pump water heaters in California is low—about 1.5 percent. Additionally, builders and consumers have limited installation and operational experience with heat-pump technologies, she said.

Thirty-eight local governments in the Bay Area have adopted policies to limit or ban natural gas use in new buildings, Jack Broadbent, CEO of the Bay Area Air Quality Management District, said in a Feb. 4 letter to the CEC. Publishing a statewide standard during this code cycle would send "clear market signals to appliance manufacturers, developers and builders," he said.

If the CEC waits until 2025 to mandate all-electric new construction, an additional 3 million tons of carbon will be released into the atmosphere by 2030, Broadbent said. He asked the commission to publish a single, all-electric baseline standard for all building types in the 2022 building-code update, adding that it would cost the state more than $1 billion in new gas-connection infrastructure if the CEC waits until 2025.

People in California in recent years have experienced public-safety power shut-offs lasting for days. When asked if power shut-offs would be harder on people living in all-electric homes, Vespa said that many natural gas appliances, such as stoves and tankless water heaters, require electricity to run anyway.

Rolling blackouts and PSPSes show that "we must invest in a more resilient electric grid infrastructure irrespective of heating electrification," Delforge of NRDC said in an email to CEM.

"Electrification will make it easier to pay for [reliability] investments by increasing electricity sales on which these investments can be recovered, helping mitigate electricity rate increases," he said.

Delforge asked the CEC not to disincentivize all-electric construction in 2022, and to require that a new home has space for a heat-pump water heater.

The CEC has not yet published its proposed 2022 building energy-efficiency code revisions, but plans to do so in mid-March, Beck said. California's current building energy-efficiency code is the strongest state energy code in the country, she said.

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.