Palo Alto will consider limits on natural gas this fall

BY SARA TABIN
Daily Post Staff Writer

Berkeley banned natural gas appliances in new buildings in July. Earlier this month, Menlo Park partially banned gas appliances in new homes. Palo Alto is going to take its shot at natural gas this fall.

City Manager Ed Shikada told City Council on Monday that he hopes to have an update of the city codes ready for council on Nov. 4. If council votes in favor of the update, it will take effect in 2020, according to city spokeswoman Meghan Horrigan-Taylor.

The city has been looking to reduce natural gas over the past few years to help fight climate change. In 2015, it launched a program to allow residents and businesses to purchase carbon offsets for their natural gas use. Palo Alto made reducing natural gas use in buildings a goal of its 2016 Sustainability and Climate Action Plan.

Natural gas is a fossil fuel made up of different chemicals including methane. Burning natural gas creates more carbon dioxide than using renewable energies like solar and wind power. A 2018 report from the city says that natural gas use has been the second largest cause of greenhouse gas emissions in Palo Alto, after road travel, since 2013. But road travel, including from commuters, is responsible for more than twice as many emissions in the city.

Several cities have been looking into restrictions on natural gas. Berkeley made headlines with its complete ban in new construction.

Menlo Park’s ban, which was passed last week, only impacts new offices and apartments. Existing structures will not be targeted. New family homes can still have gas stoves as long as a hook-up for an electric stove is included in the house.

Most of Menlo Park’s businesses and homes get their energy from Peninsula Clean Energy, a publicly owned cooperative that buys renewable sources of energy such as solar and wind and uses PG&E’s lines to bring it to consumers. Peninsula Clean Energy says it gets at least 53% of its energy from renewable sources.

But Menlo Park resident Steve Van Pelt, who spoke out against the ban, said there have been a number of power outages in the past year, but gas is rarely if ever disrupted. If people have only electric appliances, they will not be able to cook, heat their homes or heat water if there is a power outage, Van Pelt said.

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9 Comments

  1. @sara – it would be fantastic if you could include some data on costs to your article.

    How much more does it cost per month to heat an average home and dry your clothes with electricity as compared to gas?

    How much does it cost to install upgraded electrical service with the capacity for heating, drying and cooking in a home?

    To me, these natural gas bans are really in the end a big new tax on consumers. If it was truly cheaper and better to heat and cook with electricity everyone would all do it! We wouldn’t need city councils forcing us to.

    The other issue your article is silent on – isn’t the bulk (or a large percent) of electricity production in California coming from burning natural gas? So the power plant burns gas to make electricity which I then use to heat my home, which is hugely less efficient than just heating my home with gas directly – so we burn more gas, not less by shifting to all electric houses?

    It seems to me this is well meaning stuff that has a certainty of increasing the cost of building homes and our cost of living, with an uncertain or maybe even negative impact on reducing carbon emissions…

    • Here’s a comparison to look at how much gas it takes to heat a Palo Alto house using an electric heat pump vs. a gas furnace. Say the house needs 10 units of heat.
      A 85% efficient furnace would need about 11.8 units of gas to provide about 10 units of heat.
      A normal electric heat pump would use about 3 units of electricity to grab about 7 units of heat from the breeze and deliver all 10 units of heat energy to the house. Palo Alto has a policy of procuring amounts of carbon free (non gas fired) electricity so no gas was burned to heat the Palo Alto electric house. I would argue that about 0.4 units of gas got burned in power plants that sold electricity to the CAISO to cover electric transmission losses for the 3 units of electricity palo alto provided to the home. Palo Alto pays (the CAISO) for losses but does not yet pay to cover them with renewable energy volumes. So either zero or 0.4 units of gas are burned to provide heat pump heating for the example 10 units of heat. this is much less than the eleven units of gas needed for a gas furnace to deliver the same heating.
      Rooftop solar electricity costs about 1/3 to 1/2 the cost of local grid power and it’s the cheapest way to provide as much electricity as the heat pump needs. That’s how I heat my house in Menlo Park.
      Note the 11.8 units of energy needed for the gas furnace is about 4 times as large as the 3 units of electricity to power the heat pump. That 4 to one ratio is how Rafael was able to convey that heat pumps are 4 times as efficient as furnaces.

  2. Heat pump water heaters are four times more efficient than their natural gas equivalents and homes without natural gas are less expensive to build without natural gas plumbing, meters, etc. – not to mention safer and healthier without an explosive, combustion system. Having natural gas also doesn’t help if there is a power outage. Natural gas furnaces and water heaters require electricity to run.

  3. @Rafael – can you cute the source for that claim about heat pumps? I did a Google search and what I found was electricity costs about 3 times more than natural gas for heating and hot water, and heat pumps are better but they still cost about 50 percent more to operate than natural gas (heat pumps use less energy, but they require electricity which costs a lot more than gas. So not sure where you found heat pumps cost 4 times less to heat your home and hot water than natural gas – Google seems to say that’s not correct…

  4. All new gas appliance have electronic ignition and don’t run without electricity. Your furnace has a fan as well so if power is out heat doesn’t work.

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