Even in the greenest places, phasing out natural gas isn’t easy

A task force in Bellingham encountered reluctance over a proposal that required new buildings to use electricity over natural gas.

A woman seated on the porch of a house

Erin McDade, a green building advocate who served on Bellingham’s Climate Action Task Force, sits on her porch. (Ysabelle Kempe/Grist)

In late 2019, mere weeks before the coronavirus pandemic set in, the city council of Bellingham gathered for a presentation from its Climate Protection Action Plan Task Force: nine community members charged with drawing up a road map for Bellingham to achieve its goals for cutting carbon emissions.

In front of a packed house, the task force walked the council through 50-odd recommendations for the better part of 90 minutes. One point split the audience like no other: phasing out natural gas in Bellingham buildings in favor of electricity, beginning with new construction and gradually spreading the energy source to existing businesses and homes.

Under the panel’s proposal, gas furnaces and water tanks would be swapped out for heat pumps, which run on electricity and can heat and cool buildings and efficiently heat water. Gas stoves and ovens would be replaced with electric or induction models.

A public comment period later that day ran for nearly two hours. A majority of those in opposition to the measure were in the natural gas, building and real estate industries, joined by a handful of community members.

This report is contributed by Grist, a nonprofit media organization dedicated to reporting on climate solutions and a partner in InvestigateWest’s yearlong reporting initiative Getting to Zero: Decarbonizing Cascadia. InvestigateWest’s work is supported in part by the Fund for Investigative Journalism.

An older man wearing a red Trump 2020 hat stepped to the lectern to call the task force’s presentation “idiotic.” Another commented: “How many people really believe that cooking and heating their home in the winter with fire is a critical threat to mankind? I’m sorry, it just doesn’t resonate with me.” A third warned the city council that without gas, no restaurants or small businesses would survive. Calmer commenters asked the council to keep studying the costs and feasibility of operating buildings without fossil fuels.

Local environmental groups had brought other community members to speak up for the measure. There was the owner of a local green construction company, who guaranteed he could build all-electric homes for market rate. There was an 18-year-old woman who urged the local government to act on climate change for the benefit of her generation.

And there were the parents, concerned for their children’s future on an overheated planet. “We can’t breathe carbon dioxide, and we can’t eat money,” one said. “When my kids look at me in 20 years, I don’t want them to say, ‘You didn’t do anything.’ ”

In 2018, Bellingham committed to slashing its greenhouse gas emissions to levels 85% below 2000 levels by midcentury.

The collision over natural gas was inevitable, according to panelist Erin McDade, who works for Architecture 2030, a nonprofit pushing to decarbonize buildings. She said the city cannot achieve its emissions target if homes and businesses continue to burn natural gas. “Using on-site fossil fuels in our buildings is not compatible with being carbon neutral,” said McDade. “Whether [the city] knew it or not, when they wrote that in the climate action plan, they were already having that conversation.”

If the Bellingham City Council adopts the Climate Action Task Force’s building electrification proposal, new buildings like this one will not be serviced by natural gas. (Ysabelle Kempe/Grist)

Buildings are a formidable source of planet-warming pollution: Their use of fossil fuels accounts for nearly one-tenth of U.S. emissions — a contribution that triples if you account for the gas and coal burned off-site to generate electricity. In Bellingham, the buildings sector accounts for 43% of the city’s emissions, according to a 2018 update to the Climate Protection Action Plan.

In Washington, Oregon and British Columbia, where carbon-free hydropower abounds and the use of clean sources like wind and solar is growing, experts consider the shift known as electrification to be a crucial piece of the decarbonization puzzle.

Cities taking action

Real estate developers already have the technology to replace gas furnaces, water heaters and cooktops. And because cities and towns control building and energy codes, those codes are one of the few areas where municipalities have the power to mandate deep emission cuts.

During her time on the Climate Protection Action Plan Task Force, McDade conducted an unofficial study on what could be achieved if Bellingham required all new commercial and multifamily buildings taller than three stories to be entirely electric. (Washington state does not allow cities to alter energy codes for single-family homes or two- and three-story multifamily buildings.) She estimated that by 2035 new buildings would be responsible for 17% of the city’s building-sector emissions.

When McDade first raised the idea in 2018, no cities in the country had banned natural gas in new construction. That’s no longer the case.

Berkeley, California, led the charge in July 2019, when it became the first U.S. city to pass such a law. Others have followed, including 48 other municipalities in the Golden State. In 2020, the city council of Vancouver, British Columbia, mandated zero-emission space and water heating in all low-rise residential buildings built after this year. And earlier this year, Seattle passed legislation to begin phasing out natural gas in new commercial and apartment buildings taller than three stories.

There’s more such legislation coming, said Alex Ramel, a state representative from Bellingham and an activist with Stand.earth, an environmental group with offices in Bellingham, San Francisco and Vancouver, British Columbia. But experience shows that it’s going to be a fight.

Earlier this year, Ramel introduced a bill in the Washington House of Representatives that would prevent new construction statewide from using gas for space and water heating by 2030. Even with its nearly decade-long buffer, his bill died in committee.

“There are still plenty of folks that I would talk to about this, and they’d say, ‘Well, can we even do that? Is that efficient? Is it affordable? Is there enough electricity in the grid?’ ” said Ramel. “There are good answers to all those questions, and if you can say, ‘Yes, I can explain to you why there are good answers,’ that’s one thing.

“If you can say, ‘We're doing it in Bellingham, it’s fine,’ that’s a quicker answer and sometimes more compelling.”

That’s a big if.

Bellingham’s city staff is now drafting an ordinance based on Seattle’s, and the city council isn’t expected to consider the proposal until this winter — more than three years after Erin McDade first advocated the idea. The delay is not just a result of the slow grind of local government. Bellingham has had to contend with the natural gas industry’s well-funded national campaign against electrification.

“Knowing what we need to do is the easy part,” McDade said. “How we implement it is, of course, the complicated part.”

Campaign in support of natural gas

Home to Western Washington University, Bellingham is a progressive college town in a blue state. It’s surrounded by nature and brimming with outdoors enthusiasts. The port city sits on the ecologically abundant Salish Sea and is bordered by evergreen forests whose silhouettes cut across vibrant West Coast sunsets. On clear days, snow-capped Mount Baker (aka Kulshan) is visible from downtown. It seems like a place where passing aggressive action on climate change would be relatively painless.

In 2005, the city council committed to the Cities for Climate Protection Campaign, a global initiative enlisting municipalities to take measurable steps toward cutting emissions and becoming more sustainable. Bellingham released its Climate Protection Action Plan two years later, ultimately leading to the task force McDade joined.

The nine people on the task force were volunteers, with one exception: Lynn Murphy, an employee of Puget Sound Energy, who represented the interests of her employer as well as Cascade Natural Gas, another utility. From McDade’s perspective, everyone on the task force except Murphy believed in the goal of mapping the city’s road to zero emissions. When the group voted on its final recommendations to the city council in 2019, all the measures passed unanimously, except those relating to building electrification and a handful regarding renewable energy generation. Murphy was the only one who voted against them.

In an email to Grist, Murphy touted her 13 years advancing energy initiatives in the community. She saw it as her job to weigh the merits of different actions: “My work on the task force was to evaluate the feasibility, costs, and impacts of proposed climate action measures as directed by the [City] Council’s resolution.” Puget Sound Energy, her employer, said it “felt some of the measures lacked feasibility and understanding of the potential negative impacts to our customers,” according to Janet Kim, the utility’s public relations manager.

Alyn Spector, an energy efficiency policy manager at Cascade Natural Gas, said in an email to Grist that the region cannot afford to limit innovation to “a single fuel source or technology, which is the basis of electrification.” The company believes that the best process empowers utilities to “embrace a suite of decarbonization solutions,” he added, including improved energy efficiency, hydrogen and renewable natural gas.

Renewable natural gas is a catchall term for methane captured from landfills, wastewater treatment plants and the manure pits found on animal farms. Environmental organizations have criticized its use in buildings on the basis that it is too expensive, in limited supply and introduces similar safety and health risks as natural gas, including methane leaks that contribute to global warming, pipeline explosions and indoor air pollution from combustion by-products such as nitrogen oxide, carbon monoxide and particulate matter.

Critics of electrification launched a public relations campaign when it appeared likely it would be included in the Bellingham task force recommendations. A building industry group, with the support of Cascade Natural Gas, sent pamphlets to homeowners in the latter half of 2019, claiming that replacing gas appliances from a typical Bellingham home would cost $36,050 to $82,750.

The pamphlet, which featured data from Puget Sound Energy, as well as fossil fuel and construction companies, concluded that going all electric could price more than 9,000 Bellingham households out of the housing market. It urged citizens to attend task force meetings to voice concerns.

Members of the local building and real estate industries were frustrated with what they viewed as a lack of engagement by the task force and the city, said Rob Lee, executive officer and director of government affairs at the Building Industry Association of Whatcom County, which created the pamphlet. Lee said his group believes in a property owner’s right to choose their energy source, rather than have it mandated. The costs in the pamphlet, he explained, were calculated by local builders.

Omitted from  the pamphlet, however, were some facts about building electrification: For example, while heat pumps are more expensive than standard air conditioners, they’re often more efficient than natural gas furnaces and can save homeowners money on utility bills. Heat pumps also provide extra value to homes and businesses during heat waves, such as the deadly heat dome that slammed Cascadia this past summer.

The pamphlet also didn’t mention that Bellingham’s task force recommended replacing water- and space-heating equipment at the end of its life, not immediately, an important distinction. The  real cost is not simply the full price of new electric equipment, but the difference between new natural gas equipment and new electric equipment.

That cost disparity is lessening. In fact, there is now evidence that all-electric construction is cheaper than the status quo of equipping a building to use both natural gas and electricity.

But the industry’s message took hold, McDade said. “They scared people pretty bad,” she said. “If I didn’t know anything about this, and I hadn’t been a wonk and done the math, I would have been scared.”

When McDade sat down to calculate the costs herself, the numbers penciled out much differently. She estimated that the cash cost of electrifying an existing building as its equipment ages out is, at most, $11,100, about one-third of the industry’s lowest estimate. She also estimated that building electrification would save a single-family household between $8,000 and $12,600 in utility bills over 20 years.

Bellingham Climate Action Task Force members, left to right, Rick Nicholson, Erin McDade and Clare Fogelsong speak during a 2019 presentation at the Bellingham City Club. (City of Bellingham)

Winning arguments for electrification

There are similar fights raging across the country. In the Pacific Northwest, gas companies have poured millions of dollars into local efforts to promote the fossil fuel as part of a clean energy future. In New England, it was revealed that a large utility had outlined a strategy to prevent building decarbonization at an industry conference earlier this year. And several states, including Texas, North Carolina and Florida, have passed or introduced legislation stripping municipalities of authority to phase out natural gas.

Each city that passes a building electrification ordinance offers lessons for those looking to be the next to adopt one, according to those who advocate banning natural gas.

Berkeley’s law placed a strong focus on public safety, targeting explosions and fires associated with natural gas infrastructure, said Sean Armstrong, co-founder of all-electric design engineering company Redwood Energy. This helped it stand up in court when a California restaurant industry group filed a lawsuit arguing the city couldn’t legally favor one energy source over another.

Deepa Sivarajan, Washington policy manager at the Seattle-based clean energy nonprofit Climate Solutions, noted that San Francisco’s Zero Emission Building Taskforce engaged with labor unions before the city banned natural gas from new buildings. The city announced the gas ban in November as it began work on a policy for recycled-water and drain-water piping. The water policy promises to create pipe-laying jobs, helping replace jobs lost to natural gas projects.

Duane Jonlin, an energy code adviser with the city of Seattle, draws on his experience enacting the city’s electrification ordinance to help other municipalities educate local developers on how to build all-electric structures. Jonlin said there’s a significant discrepancy in the amounts bid by contractors who have constructed buildings with heat-pump-based water heating and those who haven’t. It’s simply a result of experience, Jonlin said, and he expects the gap to eventually shrink.

“The miracle of capitalism kicks in, and people start competing on cost, and they find smarter ways to do things,” he said.

The challenge now, said Jonlin, is to figure out how to get building conversion rolling more smoothly. “I don’t think any jurisdiction in the world has really solved this problem of existing buildings,” Jonlin said. “Whoever does crack this nut and comes up with a really spiffy thing is going to get a Nobel Prize.”

Conversion and equity challenges

The issue of electrifying existing buildings is so complex because it requires an upfront cost for the building owner, whether it’s a homeowner living on a property, a landlord or a business.

McDade has some ideas on how to address those financial challenges: There are natural “intervention points,” such as when a building changes ownership or equipment needs to be replaced, when owners could be required to opt for electric-powered over gas-powered, she said. To cover the expense, homeowners could be allowed to bundle retrofit costs with their mortgages, or electric utilities — beneficiaries of all this electrification — could be required to provide low-interest loans that customers pay back via their monthly power bills.

Financing roadblocks at the state level need to be removed, say several local environmentalists and policymakers. The Seattle-based Sightline Institute, for example, recently pointed to rules in Washington and Oregon that prevent utilities from providing incentives for customers to switch their natural gas equipment to electric.

Powering buildings solely with electricity could be a serious upgrade for residents of affordable housing. Cheaper utility bills are most meaningful for low-income households that spend a larger share of their income on energy costs.

On the other hand, experts and advocates worry that building electrification ordinances that are not coupled with a regional coordinated transition from natural gas will leave poorer households shouldering the costs.

People with a low income are more likely to live in older buildings that aren’t required to upgrade. If widespread electrification causes gas companies to lose customers, residents who continue to use natural gas could be strapped with skyrocketing bills as utilities try to recoup millions invested in gas distribution networks.

Carmelita Miller, senior director of climate equity at California-based nonprofit The Greenlining Institute, said the state needs a large-scale transition plan to address these concerns — something that the California Public Utilities Commission began considering last year.

“At the moment, a huge population of Californians are unable to pay their utility bills,” Miller said. “And we cannot imagine how much that will get worse if an unplanned transition away from gas happens.”

For now, a building electrification ordinance for new construction looks likely in Bellingham. But the long, rocky path to success could discourage other jurisdictions from even trying, said Ramel, the Washington state representative. Instead of being able to tell his colleagues in the Legislature about how Bellingham created a building-electrification policy, and it was a snap, the story is more about how costly and time-consuming it was.

“Citizens were upset about something they read from their cousin on Facebook,” Ramel said. “It wasn’t true, but then the city council had to spend a whole meeting responding to it.”

Nevertheless, McDade remains hopeful that, in the long run, Bellingham will benefit run from its rocky start. She said Bellingham could eventually be the first in the country to enact legislation that eliminates carbon emissions from all of its buildings, a move that could be adopted by cities and towns across the continent.

“Being the first at something isn’t just a feather in the cap — you’re creating a precedent that is replicable,” she said. “Once there is one existing building-electrification policy in place, then suddenly, all the rest of the dominoes are so much easier to fall.”

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About the Authors & Contributors

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Ysabelle Kempe

Ysabelle Kempe is a journalist based in Bellingham, Washington.