Today the Washington Post published a story about the battle over the use of natural gas in homes and kitchens. This is ultimately a battle between consumers, many of whom like their gas stoves, and activists who want to see gas removed from home heating and cooking in favor of electric appliances. Naturally, this is a fight that began in Berkeley, California.
The issue started heating up in July 2019, when Berkeley, Calif., became the first city in the nation to ban natural gas hookups in new construction or substantially renovated structures…
Since then, municipalities across the country have followed suit. In California alone, 42 municipalities, including San Francisco, changed their building codes to make natural gas use impossible or difficult. Denver’s Office of Climate Action, Sustainability and Resiliency endorsed a plan that calls for newly built homes and buildings to be mostly electrified by 2027. In Colorado, Boulder changed its building code and imposed a maximum energy use per square foot on new residential construction of 3,000 square feet or larger, effectively leaving little room for gas.
The state of Washington also is at the forefront of this campaign. Gov. Jay Inslee (D) has backed a bill that would phase out the gas utility service and give local governments the authority to set more stringent energy standards than the state code. On Feb. 1, the Seattle City Council voted unanimously to restrict natural gas use in new commercial buildings and multifamily homes higher than three stories.
But this hasn’t been a one-sided fight. In November 2019 the California Restaurant Association sued Berkeley over the ban on natural gas. Arguments in that case took place earlier this month, with the CRA’s attorney arguing the ban was a violation of federal law and Berkeley’s City Attorney arguing it wasn’t. The fight over gas cooking is also being waged in San Francisco:
San Francisco restaurant owners, already simmering over covid-19 restrictions, are ready to boil over because of a city ban on natural gas stoves in new buildings that takes effect in June…
“If you get rid of the gas element, I don’t think restaurants can do it unless you’re like a coffee shop with a panini press,” said Matthew Dolan, executive chef and partner of restaurant 25 Lusk in San Francisco. “Whoever cooked up this idea should be reprimanded.”…
“You cannot cook with an electric wok,” said Vice Mayor Chin Ho Liao of San Gabriel, a Los Angeles suburb with 200 restaurants, mostly Asian. “You can cook with them, but it won’t taste good.”
Supporters of the new regulations argue that burning natural gas creates indoor air pollution which is harmful to residents. The most frequently mentioned research being cited to support this comes from a UCLA professor who modeled indoor air quality. If you read to the bottom of this summary you find out where this is coming from: “The report was commissioned by the Sierra Club.”
One of the interesting quirks of the UCLA paper is the apparent decision not to take into account the impact of range vents [emphasis added]:
While studies have shown that range hoods can significantly reduce exposure, they are infrequently used and not always available or appropriately sized or installed .78,79,92 Small-scale survey results show that less than 35% of California residents use range hoods when cooking,98 while a CARB study of California homes found that 54% of participants did not use their range hood .96 As mentioned previously, studies have shown that the excessive noise produced by many range hoods and fans is a primary reason for the lack of range hood use .92,96,97 It is important to note that increased awareness of the need for ventilation during cooking and encouragement of range hood use may reduce exposures to pollutants emitted by combustion appliances for those with properly sized, installed, and maintained hoods . However, renters sometimes do not have range hoods installed, or existing hoods are not vented outdoors and may not meet standards, therefore putting renters at heightened vulnerability to exposure to air pollutants from gas cooking appliances .99 Due to the infrequency of range hood use, our analysis assumed that there is no significant range hood use as a health-protective conservative assessment, though it is still useful to consider our estimates in the context of conditions involving range hoods as well, with varying levels of capture efficiency.
If I’m reading this right, the authors of this report are saying that you could probably mitigate the danger of indoor air pollution from gas cooktops by encouraging people to use their vents when cooking and possibly by requiring such vents over gas ranges. The text even suggests that the main reason people don’t use them more often is the noise they make. The point is, there are probably other ways to address the problem of indoor pollution than banning natural gas but for purposes of this study the models simply ignored those options. Eventually, the Post gets around to the real kicker:
Natural gas is cheaper than electricity in most parts of the United States, at least for now. Forty-seven percent of U.S. homes rely on natural gas for heat while 36 percent rely on electricity, according to the EIA.
“Right now there is a significant upfront cost to the transition to different appliances. There are real switching costs. That’s important for us to be honest about,” said Eileen Quigley, executive director of the Seattle-based Clean Energy Transition Institute. “That doesn’t mean we don’t make the transition. It means we have to address them. The challenge of decarbonization is upfront cost now and the payback that we’ll get later.”
I’m guessing that upgrading vents would be cheaper than replacing entire appliances but that doesn’t seem to be on the agenda. Eventually the story does quote one state representative from Massachusetts who strikes a more reasonable note. “The science is the amount of combustion you do at your oven is minuscule compared to the damage done by a water or space heater. It’s a tiny, tiny fraction. It’s small ball,” he said. He added, “people really like their cooktops. There is something intimate and ritualistic about it. So let’s go after the things that are big and that people don’t have strong attachments to.”
That sounds lie a somewhat reasonable position but it won’t be good enough for the Sierra Club though which ultimately wants to mandate an end to the use of all fossil fuels. You might say they have other fish to fry.