California’s buildings cause 25% of the state’s greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions, with two-thirds of building GHG resulting from burning fossil fuels. So if we are going to reach climate change mitigation goals, we have to shift from fossil fuels (typically natural gas in buildings) to electricity from renewable resources for water and space heating and cooking appliances ASAP. Contra Costa County’s Board of Supervisors (BOS) took a step in the right direction on August 3, 2021, when it voted to direct county staff to draft an ordinance with the goal of requiring most new buildings to be all-electric. The BOS approved the Contra Costa County Sustainability Commission’s recommendation that all new hotel, office, retail, and residential buildings be required to be completely electric. Other non-residential building types are not included in the proposed ordinance because the county assumed that it needed to wait for more data to be available. However, other California localities have state-approved all-electric ordinances covering all new building types. While the timeline for when the ordinance would go into effect is unclear, given some bureaucratic hurdles, it is expected to be significantly earlier than the January 1, 2026 start date for a California state requirement that most new building construction be all-electric. The BOS deserves commendation for this victory for the environment. 

The next step in the ordinance adoption process is for county staff to draft the detailed language. The draft ordinance will go back to the Board for a vote of approval and, finally, to the state’s California Energy Commission (CEC) for its’ approval. Given that PG&E and other energy experts expect natural gas to be phased out during the lifetime of newly constructed buildings in favor of renewable resources, because of cost, final approval is likely.  The CEC’s website lists 19 Bay Area localities that currently have all-electric requirements for some types of new building construction. But obtaining CEC approval make take months.

A far more difficult transition, with a much greater impact, remains to be tackled: the electrification of existing buildings. While the state receives roughly 100,000 applications for new home permits each year, California’s current housing stock totals about 14 million units.  Similarly, the number of existing non-residential buildings far outweighs new construction, although this writer couldn’t find relevant figures. The obstacles standing in the way of retrofitting existing buildings are economic rather than technological. This necessary investment that will have big future paybacks in human health, environmental sustainability, and utility expenses will, even at our local level, cost millions. Where the money comes from is a matter for government policy and political will. You and 350 Contra Costa can help keep a spotlight on the urgency of getting existing buildings off their addiction to fossil fuels.

Cover photo by Blake Wheeler on Unsplash