Story at a glance
While environmentalists lauded California’s decision to phase out natural gas-powered heaters, others are concerned about the feasibility of implementing the ban.
Natural gas combustion from residential and commercial buildings makes up an estimated 5 percent of total nitrogen oxide emissions in the state, and 90 percent of these emissions result from space and water heating.
As part of the proposal, the state will offer rebates to those who make the transition from natural gas heating to electric.
As California moves to become the first state to ban natural gas-powered space and water heaters by 2030, a growing debate about what the ban means for homeowners, and any potential expansion to other appliances, is kicking off.
The ban, which was unanimously voted on by the California Air Resources Board (CARB), directs agencies to create a draft rule which will be put to another vote in 2025. The move was introduced to help wean Californians off of natural gas, transition to more renewable energy, and meet federal ozone standards.
Under the proposal, only zero-emission replacements for old furnaces and water heaters will be available to residents in 2030. However, some question the feasibility of the decision.
Heater and furnace upgrades
Natural gas plays a major role in California’s energy landscape with consumption far outpacing other resources like motor gasoline and renewables in 2020. Although the combustion of natural gas emits less carbon dioxide compared with coal and oil, the fuel poses additional health and environmental risks. Research has shown natural gas water heaters in particular do emit methane, but permanent vents allow for the gas to be released outdoors.
In the public comment portion of CARB’s meeting, Michael Kapolnek, a retired engineer, offered his support for decarbonization efforts but called out the new policy for being burdensome to homeowners.
The standard “will force many homeowners into expensive retrofits of their electrical service in the midst of trying to do an emergency repair to restore hot water or heating to their home,” Kapolnek said.
However, in April, the California Public Utilities Commission announced incentives for residents to switch to electric heat pump water heaters. Single-family, residential and low-income customers can receive up to $4,885, and incentives are capped at $3,800 for other customers. The commission will also offer incentives if an electric panel upgrade is needed to install the heat pump water heater.
Research from RMI, a clean energy nonprofit, found heat pumps are more cost effective than natural gas heating and air conditioning units combined.
But Kapolnek argued families will need to go without space or water heating while they undergo the process, and he offered an alternative recommendation of implementing building code requirements that mandate the zero-emissions appliances only in homes whose service panel already includes the capability for those units.
Concerns have also been raised about supply chains.
“The electric heat pump water heater market penetration in [California] is currently less than 4 percent,” Christopher E. Ochoa, senior counsel at the California Building Industry Association (CBIA) told Changing America.
“PG&E and other major utilities across the state are more than a year behind in locating transformers to energize our new communities. We have finished homes in which the new owners are being housed in hotels because utilities can’t turn on the lights.”
CBIA also has yet to hear “any concrete and realistic evidence” on how CARB plans to reach its 2030 goal, Ochoa said, adding the state’s power grid may not be equipped to handle such an increased demand in electricity.
“CBIA has not seen any plans or real discussion as to how [California] plans to harden the grid to accommodate all-electric homes and electric vehicles, which will add 2-3x the current load to our existing grid. Battery storage combined with solar will need to become more standard in the coming years adding significant costs to housing as well.”
The Southern California Gas Company, one of the leading natural gas providers in the state, supports California’s efforts to meet federal air quality standards, as well as its building decarbonization and net-zero goals, a spokesperson told Changing America.
“We will continue to engage in these efforts along with other stakeholders and to offer innovative solutions. We continue to believe that SoCalGas’ assets, operational experience and expertise in owning and operating pipeline infrastructure are critical to delivering clean, reliable and affordable energy to customers – today and in the long-term,” the spokesperson said.
Natural gas combustion from residential and commercial buildings in California makes up an estimated 5 percent of total nitrogen oxide emissions in the state, while 90 percent of these emissions result from space and water heating. Nitrogen oxides are a major contributor to smog.
According to CARB’s proposal, “at the regional level, approximately one-third of projected building-related emissions in South Coast could be reduced by 2037 if zero-emission standards were implemented in 2030 for space and water heating.”
The Sierra Club of California and American Lung Association were among the groups who supported CARB’s proposal on banning natural gas-powered heaters and furnaces.
“We applaud the measure requiring 100 percent zero emission space and water heater sales in the state by 2030. This will reduce the building sector’s carbon footprint and improve public health,” said Daniel Barad, a senior policy advocate at the Sierra Club during the public hearing.
Leah-Louis Prescott, manager of the Oakland office at RMI called on the board to go further and finalize the rules by 2024 instead of 2025.
“Buildings emit four times more nitrogen oxide than all of our state’s power plants and nearly two thirds the nitrogen oxide pollution of all passenger cars,” Louis Prescott said. “It is well past time that we addressed building pollution.”
What about other appliances?
Despite the current vote only affecting heater and furnace sales, restrictions on gas-powered stoves, ovens and other appliances have garnered controversy.
This year, Los Angeles moved to ban gas stoves in new residential and commercial buildings by Jan. 1, 2023, due in part to the health hazards the appliances pose to individuals in their homes.
“Research has shown that gas stoves leak unburned gas while they are off and unburned natural gas contains hazardous air pollutants, some of which are known carcinogens, such as benzene,” said Eric Lebel, a senior scientist at PSE Healthy Energy, a nonprofit research institute, in a statement to Changing America.
“Gas stoves have also been found to emit nitrogen dioxide, formaldehyde, and carbon monoxide while in use.”
Appliances can also leak unburned methane gas — a greenhouse gas more than 80 times stronger than carbon dioxide — into the atmosphere, even when they are off, Lebel added.
Passage of the Inflation Reduction Act means consumers looking to purchase an electric cooking appliance could receive a rebate of up to $840 and up to an additional $500 to help mitigate the cost of converting from natural gas or propane to electric.
In August, the Sierra Club petitioned the EPA to ban all natural gas appliances at the federal level.
In response, the American Gas Association, which represents local natural gas companies stated, “Any proposal that bans natural gas or natural gas appliances would be harmful to consumers and to the environment.”
“This proposal would impose undue burdens on consumers at every step of the process, including our most vulnerable communities, all without the environmental benefit that is claimed. This proposal is simply bad policy,” the Association continued.
In California, the cost of transitioning all appliances in a home from natural gas to electric can range from $5,000 to $20,000. However, several factors play into the long- and short-term costs of natural gas vs electric home appliances. These include the type of appliance purchased, whether the home is already equipped for gas or electric appliances and if rebates are taken into account.
“The point is that product rating services like Consumer Reports think all-electric induction stoves and ovens perform better, medical research shows gas stoves drive childhood asthma rates up dramatically, and gas costs more to use,” said Ari Matusiak, Co-Founder & CEO of Rewiring America in a statement to Changing America.
Rewiring America is a non-profit organization working to electrify American homes and businesses.
“None of those reasons are even about the climate. So some cities and states are banning new gas hookups, while others, like Chicago, are simply requiring new homes be built electric-ready. The key is to reduce the friction that inhibits people from going electric, and encouraging folks,” said Matusiak.
Whether more states will follow California’s lead in phasing out natural gas appliances remains to be seen. Similar efforts have been implemented in New York state, but lobbying efforts have made it so municipalities in 20 states with Republican-controlled legislatures are unable to ban natural gas due to preemption laws.
These include the majority of states in the south, along with New Hampshire, Wyoming, Utah and Arizona. Bills are being considered in Pennsylvania and Michigan.
Representatives of the gas industry also say laws mandating electrification will stymie natural gas companies’ efforts to invest in more renewable natural gas, like methane captured from landfills. At the same time, the U.S. electrical grid may not be able to handle ramped up electricity production and transmission as more buildings convert.
Forty percent of the United States’ electricity is currently supplied from carbon-free technologies like wind, solar and nuclear power, according to the U.S. Energy Information Administration. But a long timeline for implementation allows more time to prepare for the increased demand, lawmakers say.
Over the past year, the industrial price of natural gas in California has steadily increased, with rates reaching their highest point since July 2008. Meanwhile, June 2022 data show prices for residential consumers at an all-time-high of $21.69 per thousand cubic feet.
Editor’s note: This article was corrected on Sept. 27th to reflect methane leaks from water heaters are vented outdoors.