As the focus on the need to address climate change grows, one major greenhouse gas emitter – natural gas – has largely flown under many people’s radar.
Expanding Decarbonization: Electrification Isn’t Just for Transportation
Methane is bad for our climate, our State, our communities and our families. We need the leadership to push a rapid transition off of it.
Panama Bartholomy, Director of the Investor Confidence Project, at the Local Government Commissions 2018 Yosemite Policymaker’s Conference
As the focus on the need to address climate change grows, one major greenhouse gas emitter – natural gas – has largely flown under many people’s radar. Even renowned climate activist Bill McKibben recently noted that one of the greatest failings of the climate movement is the fact that the public still accepts natural gas as a cleaner replacement for other fossil fuels.
“It’s true that when you burn natural gas in a power plant, you emit less carbon dioxide than when you burn coal,” McKibben said. “Here’s the trouble: carbon dioxide is the main greenhouse gas, but it’s not the only one.”
Methane (CH4), the primary component of natural gas, is present in smaller amounts but it is far more potent – 84 to 86 times more potent than carbon dioxide in the short term.
“If you burn natural gas, you get less carbon dioxide than with coal. But any methane that escapes unburned into the atmosphere on the way to the power plant warms the planet very effectively – so effectively that if you leak more than 2% or 3%, it’s worse for climate change than coal,” McKibben concluded.
This is troubling because most studies show that the leakage rate (from the fracking process, pipe connections and thousands of miles of pipeline) is at least 3% and probably higher.
America has cut its carbon emissions, but only at the cost of dramatically increasing its methane emissions.
McKibben compares the public’s embrace of this so-called bridge fuel to “proudly announcing that we kicked our Oxycontin habit by taking up heroin instead.”
Methane doesn’t last as long in the atmosphere as carbon dioxide but sadly, while it’s around, it traps heat far more efficiently.
Climate Implications of Natural Gas Use
There are many measures in place to reduce our emissions from the transportation sector, including a stronger focus on transit-oriented development through our SB 375-required Sustainable Community Strategies and efforts to electrify our transportation through California’s Clean Vehicle Rebate Project and state goals of achieving 1.5 million zero-emission vehicles on the road by 2025 and 5 million by 2030.
We also need to need to be addressing greenhouse gas emissions in our homes and businesses, which are equal to the amount of emissions produced by electricity generation in the state. How we design and operate our buildings matters!
Approximately 50% of greenhouse gas emissions from the average California home comes from gas (mostly space and water heating). This doesn’t include emissions from methane leaks (i.e., fugitive methane emissions), so this number could be higher.
The majority of our natural-gas use goes to power gas stoves and ovens, gas water heaters, furnaces and heaters. Water-heating and space-heating make up nearly 90% of residential gas consumption. Of California’s 13 million households, 90% are heated with natural gas.
While there are many policies in place – such as Renewable Portfolio Standard, Senate Bill 350 and Zero Net Energy goals – to shrink emissions from electricity, few of them target reductions of emissions from natural gas.
In addition to the climate implications of natural gas, there is growing concern about the risks to our health and safety.
Health and Safety Risks from Natural Gas
Gas appliances in buildings contribute to outdoor and indoor air pollution and can exacerbate fire hazards.
Indoor Air Pollution
A significant portion of residences exceed outdoor air quality standards on a weekly basis as a result of cooking with gas burners, according to a study of southern California homes in “Environmental Health Perspectives” in 2014.
“If these were conditions that were outdoors, the EPA would be cracking down. But since it’s in people’s homes, there’s no regulation requiring anyone to fix it,” said Brett Singer, one of the studies’ scientists from Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory.
They estimated that 60% of California households who cook with a gas stove at least once a week can generate pollutant levels that would be illegal if found outdoors. That equates to 12 million Californians being routinely exposed to nitrogen dioxide levels that exceed federal outdoor standards, 10 million exposed to formaldehyde levels that exceed federal standards, and 1.7 million exposed to carbon monoxide in amounts that surpass ambient air standards in a typical week during the winter.
As our codes have become more stringent to increase energy efficiency, our buildings have become less leaky – which makes indoor pollution all the more concerning and makes ventilation increasingly important.
Fire and Safety Risks
Incidents involving natural-gas pipelines are fairly common, occurring once every two days in the United States, according to the Pipeline and Hazardous Materials Safety Administration. For example, there were 298 natural-gas distribution pipeline incidents that killed eight people, injured 34 more, and caused $222 million in property damage in 2017.
In April 2015, the California Public Utilities Commission imposed a record $1.6-billion penalty on PG&E for causing the San Bruno explosion (on charges of neglecting maintenance and record-keeping), which left eight people dead, 58 badly injured and 55 houses destroyed or severely damaged.
The Aliso Canyon gas leak in October 2015 emitted more than 100,000 metric tons of methane into the air above the San Fernando Valley. The pollution forced thousands from their homes in the northern San Fernando Valley before it was capped four months later. But that wasn’t before many people complained of health problems such as bloody noses and headaches. It cost Southern California Gas Co. and its parent company nearly $1 billion to remediate and stop the leak and mitigate local community impacts – costs which will go up if civil, criminal fines and other penalties are imposed.
While firefighters were trying to put out the firestorms in Sonoma County last year, and even after the fires subsided, gas flares (such as the one pictured below) continued to burn. The natural-gas supply could not be turned off, keeping the flames going.
It’s not just big pipeline leaks: A number of smaller natural-gas fires have been reported just in the last few months alone, including one of New York City’s deadliest blazes in decades, which was started by a child playing with a gas stove. Twelve people died, including five children.
Local Responses Can Make a Difference
Reducing these health and safety risks must include building electrification – replacing gas and propane appliances in our homes and commercial buildings with efficient electric appliances powered by California’s increasingly clean grid or on-site renewables like rooftop or community solar sources.
Electrification can also reduce costs. According to California Public Utilities Commissioner David Hochschild and Mark Ferron, member of the Board of Governors of the California Independent System Operator— California home builders such as City Ventures and KB Homes have begun building homes without gas lines, where gas central heating, hot water and stoves are replaced by electric appliances. By avoiding the need to install gas pipelines under the streets and inside homes, these forward-thinking builders are able to reduce the price of the home by $4,500.
The Sierra Club recommends a number of steps that local governments can take to reduce the carbon, health and safety concerns around natural gas:
- Setting binding building-electrification targets.
- Building public interest in switching from gas to electricity.
- Educating and training contractors.
- Adopting local reach codes (local codes that require buildings to go beyond state standards).
- Passing “time of sale” requirements that set energy standards before buildings of a certain size can be sold.
- Establish bulk-buy programs to drive down the costs for electric appliances.
- Creating incentive and rebate programs for electric appliances.
- Leveraging political influence by signing onto support letters for new legislation and participating in public proceedings at the California Energy Commission, the California Public Utilities Commission, the California Air Resources Board and regional air districts around the state.
Several local jurisdictions are already leading the way:
- Los Angeles – LA’s City Council recently directed the City’s Building and Safety Department and Department of Water and Power to report back within 90 days on ways to reduce gas usage in buildings, particularly in heating, cooking and water heaters. The action also requires the Department of Water and Power to set building electrification targets for 2028 and 2038 to align with the City’s greenhouse gas targets of 45% below 1990 levels by 2025 and 60% by 2035. https://www.sierraclub.org/compass/2018/02/los-angeles-lead-california-aligning-building-electrification-targets-ghg-goals
- The City of Vancouver set a goal of having no operational greenhouse gas emissions from all new buildings by 2030. http://vancouver.ca/home-property-development/zero-emissions-buildings.aspx
- Amsterdam set a goal of gas-free homes by 2050. They’ve removed gas supplies from 10,000 public housing units, and new neighborhoods in the city won’t have natural gas as an option. https://www.citylab.com/solutions/2016/11/amsterdam-natural-gas-ban-2050-climate-change-regulations/508022/
- Sonoma Clean Power, in partnership with PG&E and the Bay Area Air Quality Management District, will be rolling out an incentive program this May to help homeowners affected by the October 2017 firestorms to rebuild energy-efficient, sustainable homes. The program will offer between $12,500 and $17,500 to rebuild all-electric homes in Sonoma and Mendocino counties. https://sonomacleanpower.org/advancedenergyrebuild/
- The City of Palo Alto Utilities and the Sacramento Municipal Utilities District are both offering $1,500 rebates for residents to switch from natural gas to electric heat pump water heaters.
The Power Is in Our Hands
With the advancement of renewable energy in California and in states across the nation, we should expect – and demand – better results from our infrastructure investments that power our homes, commercial buildings and public facilities. With growing concerns about the health, safety and climate impact of the methane in natural gas (84 to 86 times more potent than carbon dioxide in the short term), it’s worth remembering that we have better options now!
Renewable energy can provide the environmental benefits that help us achieve our climate goals without the negative impacts and is an increasingly viable option as costs continue to decline, particularly for solar.
Local governments can take practical and cost-efficient steps now to improve immediate climate impacts, indoor air quality and public health and lay the foundation for smarter, healthier long-term plans for generations to come.
Pollutant Exposures from Natural Gas Cooking Burners: A Simulation-Based Assessment for Southern California. Jennifer M. Logue, Neil E. Klepeis, Agnes B. Lobscheid, and Brett C. Singer. https://ehp.niehs.nih.gov/1306673/
How Climate Activists Failed to Make Clear the Problem with Natural Gas. Bill McKibben. https://e360.yale.edu/features/how-climate-activists-failed-to-make-clear-the-problem-with-natural-gas-mckibben
Join the Building Decarbonization Coalition: http://www.buildingdecarb.org/
Special thanks to the following leaders whose presentations at the recent 2018 Yosemite Policymakers Conference informed much of the content of this newsletter:
- Panama Bartholomy, Director, Investor Confidence Project
- Rachel Golden, Senior Campaign Representative, Sierra Club
- Wendy Goodfriend, Climate Program Manager, City of San Francisco