San Francisco has banned gas in new buildings. Is Australia next?

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Madeline Taylor, University of Sydney and Susan M Park, University of Sydney

Last week San Francisco became the latest city to ban natural gas in new buildings. The legislation will see all new construction, other than restaurants, use electric power only from June 2021, to cut greenhouse gas emissions.

San Francisco has now joined other US cities in banning natural gas in new homes. The move is in stark contrast to the direction of energy policy in Australia, where the Morrison government seems stuck in reverse: spruiking a gas-led economic recovery from the COVID-19 pandemic.

Natural gas provides about 26 per cent of energy consumed in Australia – but it’s clearly on the way out. It’s time for a serious rethink on the way many of us cook and heat our homes.

Cutting out gas

San Francisco is rapidly increasing renewable-powered electricity to meet its target of 100 per cent clean energy by 2030. Currently, renewables power 70 per cent of the city’s electricity.

The ban on gas came shortly after San Francisco’s mayor London Breed announced all commercial buildings over 50,000 square feet must run on 100 per cent renewable electricity by 2022.

Buildings are particularly in focus because 44 per cent of San Francisco’s citywide emissions come from the building sector alone.

Following this, the San Francisco Board of Supervisors unanimously passed the ban on gas in buildings. They cited the potency of methane as a greenhouse gas, and recognised that natural gas is a major source of indoor air pollution, leading to improved public health outcomes.

From 1 January 2021, no new building permits will be issued unless constructing an ‘All-Electric Building‘ This means installation of natural gas piping systems, fixtures and/or infrastructure will be banned, unless it is a commercial food service establishment.

Switching to all-electric homes

In the shift to zero-emissions economies, transitioning our power grids to renewable energy has been the subject of much focus. But buildings produce 25 per cent of Australia’s emissions, and the sector must also do some heavy lifting.

A report by the Grattan Institute this week recommended a moratorium on new household gas connections, similar to what’s been imposed in San Francisco.

The report said natural gas will inevitably decline as an energy source for industry and homes in Australia. This is partly due to economics – as most low-cost gas on Australia’s east coast has been burnt.

There’s also an environmental imperative, because Australia must slash its fossil fuel emissions to address climate change.

While acknowledging natural gas is widely used in Australian homes, the report said “this must change in coming years”. It went on:

This will be confronting for many people, because changing the cooktops on which many of us make dinner is more personal than switching from fossil fuel to renewable electricity.

The report said space heating is by far the largest use of gas by Australian households, at about 60 per cent. In the cold climates of Victoria and the ACT, many homes have central gas heaters. Homes in these jurisdictions use much more gas than other states.

By contrast, all-electric homes with efficient appliances produce fewer emissions than homes with gas, the report said.

A yellow triangle sign that says 'no coal or coal seam gas' on a wooden fence.
Natural gas produces methane, a greenhouse gas that’s far more potent than carbon dioxide.
Shutterstock

Zero-carbon buildings

Australia’s states and territories have much work to do if they hope to decarbonise our building sector, including reducing the use of gas in homes.

In 2019, Australia’s federal and state energy ministers committed to a national plan towards zero-carbon buildings for Australia. The measures included ‘energy smart’ buildings with on-site renewable energy generation and storage and, eventually, green hydrogen to replace gas.

The plan also involved better disclosure of a building’s energy performance. To date, Australia’s states and territories have largely focused on voluntary green energy rating tools, such as the National Australian Built Environment Rating System. This measures factors such as energy efficiency, water usage and waste management in existing buildings.

But in 2020, just 2 per cent of buildings in Australia achieved the highest six-star rating. Clearly, the voluntary system has done little to encourage the switch to clean energy.

The National Construction Code requires mandatory compliance with energy efficiency standards for new buildings. However, the code takes a technology neutral approach and does not require buildings to install zero-carbon energy “in the absence of an explicit energy policy commitment by governments regarding the future use of gas”.

An economically sensible move

An estimated 200,000 new homes are built in Australia each year. This represents an opportunity for states and territories to create mandatory clean energy requirements while reaching their respective net-zero emissions climate targets.

Under a gas ban, the use of zero-carbon energy sources in buildings would increase, similar to San Francisco. This has been recognised by Environment Victoria, which notes

A simple first step […] to start reducing Victoria’s dependence on gas is banning gas connections for new homes.

Creating incentives for alternatives to gas may be another approach, such as offering rebates for homes that switch to electrical appliances. The ACT is actively encouraging consumers to transition from gas.

Banning gas in buildings could be an economically sensible move. As the Grattan Report found, “households that move into a new all-electric house with efficient appliances will save money compared to an equivalent dual-fuel house”.

Meanwhile, ARENA confirmed electricity from solar and wind provide the lowest levelised cost of electricity, due to the increasing cost of east coast gas in Australia.

Future-proofing new buildings will require extensive work, let alone replacing exiting gas inputs and fixtures in existing buildings. Yet efficient electric appliances can save the average NSW homeowner around $400 a year.

Learning to live sustainability, and becoming resilient in the face of climate change, is well worth the cost and effort.

Should we be cooking with gas?

Recently, a suite of our major gas importers – China, South Korea and Japan – all pledged to reach net-zero emissions by either 2050 or 2060. This will leave our export-focused gas industry possibly turning to the domestic market for new gas hook-ups.

But continuing Australia’s gas production will increase greenhouse gas emissions, and few Australians support an economic recovery pinned on gas.

The window to address dangerous climate change is fast closing. We must urgently seek alternatives to burning fossil fuels, and there’s no better place to start that change than in our own homes.

The Conversation


Madeline Taylor, Lecturer, University of Sydney and Susan M Park, Professor of Global Governance, University of Sydney

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons licence. Read the original article.

Should Australia follow San Francisco’s lead and ban gas in new buildings?

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Written by The Conversation

14 Comments

Total Comments: 14
  1. 2
    3

    Why does our N.S.W. Government want gas fracking to take place,it is so bloody stupid .It is a easy choice do you want gas or water and our so called leaders just can’t make the right choice any fool will know you can’t have both.

  2. 2
    1

    Paul you can make clean power at home for free you can’t make gas.

    • 1
      0

      Floss, yes, you can make your own gas at home. A natural waste digester can amd in many places around the world does produce methane from what is otherwise flushed away.
      I can recall the home kits that claimed that the normal wastes from a family of four could generate sufficient methane to meet all of their cooking requirements. Certainly potentially more reliable than either solar or wind.

  3. 1
    3

    After petroleum fuels and coal, natural gas is our worst climate change pollutant. Why base our emerging economy on it as the LNP is doing? Why ruin any more productive farmland with dirty irreversible fracking contaminants? These are very sound reasons to enact building codes banning the use of natural gas. After all, we have in Aus plenty of examples of carbon neutral buildings to study and improve on. Good on California for leading the charge to ban natural gas.

    • 3
      1

      Buggsie, natural gas is “natural” and is an easily harvested and reliable and clean source of energy. If it wasn’t clean, why has South Australia pinned a significant proportion of their energy supplies on gas fired power stations?
      Exactly what and how much land has been “ruined” by natural gas harvesting?
      Fracking is not dirty. In the Australian context there are no substantiated instances of ground water being contaminated by NG harvesting.
      The so called fracking contaminants don’t exist. What is feared is chemicals that you already have in your bathroom and kitchen. They are the same as contained in shampoos, conditioners and washing up detergents.

  4. 7
    1

    “Should Australia follow San Francisco’s lead and ban gas in new buildings?”

    Absolutely not. California is driven by people who want to go completely renewable but we don’t at this stage have the capabilities to do that. Australia is blessed with lots of sunlight and wind but we don’t have any power generated by wind and solar when the sun doesn’t shine or the wind either doesn’t blow or blows too fast. Nobody has yet invented a battery that can store enough power to run the average size home, let alone industry, should there be no wind or sun so we need back up coal or gas fired power stations to keep the lights on. Solar photovoltaic (rooftop) power is not cost-competitive with conventional electricity, and cannot survive without massive subsidies and wind generators are costly to build and do not supply enough energy to cover the energy needed to build and subsequently dismantle them. I doubt that any of us can afford electricity if we have to rely on renewables and subsidies are withdrawn.

  5. 1
    1

    Every home chef knows that cooking with gas does a much better job than electricity, is more controllable, efficient and economical. Besides, Australia has heaps of the stuff. What about the old saying: “Now you’re cooking with gas!” applied to efficient action with anything?

  6. 1
    1

    Don’t like gas, had problems with it a few times. When we built we went solar in 2011, it paid itself off 3 years ago and now in credit by $3500 and free power. Now we have no power, water or gas bills. Gas is dirty and gives me headaches.

  7. 5
    1

    In a eartquake zone like San Francisco gas is quite dangerous, you wouldn’t want pipes rupturing and fires starting. Electricity for cooking and heating is far less efficient than gas. In relationto the suggestion that they should change for environmental reasons, there a number of factors to consider. Where is the electricity coming from, when many placescannot supply the demand, and demand increasing dramatically due to the use of more electronic devices and controls.
    We a number of currently used so called renewable sources,which are wind, solar, wave, tidal, hydro, nuclear, battery, hydrogen, and a combination of all. Costwise most of these can only compete currently compete with fossil fuels with subsidies of various types, however it is claimed that are much more environmentally friendly. This is true of their operation, however we need also to look both at the look term environmental and ecomonic costs of all. Fossil fuel and nuclear costs, benefits, and impacts are all well known. What is lesser known or covered up are the longterm problem and costs with solar, wind turbines and batteries. With solar they suffer a progressive degradation of their efficiency over their lifetime of 10 to 15 years. At that point they must be replaced,and the majority cannot be recycled and go into landfill,. There is some limited work to try to partially recover some materials, howver the silicone that is released is a major health issue, and the costs to contain it are extreme. With wind turbines the amount of energy to manufacture both the towers and the blades is a large proportion of the energy generated over the life of the turbine,then there is the problem that the blades are currently not recycleable at the end of their useful life and must go to landfill. With batteries for storage which use lithium to gain any sort of efficiency had a limited life, and the lithium is difficult to recover, it is a scarce resource throughout the world, as well as the process being highly volatile. We need to have answers to these problems and improve techniques an processes for all methods of generation before rushing blindly into change for what some people see only what they want to see, not the whole picture, before throwing out the baby with the bathwater. Unfortunately the debate on energy generation has been highjacked worldwide by extremist views at both ends of the spectrum, and by those with vested interests. We need sensible, relational, consider discussion and evaluation to solve all issues, which are essentially brought about by having fat too many people contributing co2to the atmosphere. Maybe we need to be looking at ways to absorb carbon dioxide and other “greenhouse gases” into inert products that can be utilised?

    • 5
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      45er, you raise points that are going to be ignored by too many people.
      To date, after more than 50 years of trials and $millions of Government research grants, nowhere have wave and tidal been able to progress beyond “proof of concept” trials.
      The old Soviet Union spent billions of Rubles all around the world demonizing nuclear power over 30 years. The ingrained unrealistic fear resulting from this will not go away unless a similar campaign is put in place to show how nuclear can be the cleanest and safest form of power generation. It has already proven to be the safest across the board.
      At the end of contracts, most wind farms must have all of their turbines decommissioned, deconstructed and the sites remediated to before initiation condition. This means that in less than 20 years, there are going to be tens of thousands of wind turbine blades being buried as land fill. Even the recovery of the rare earths used in the generator pods may not be viable as their density in many cases is less than the original ore deposits.
      With regard to the CO2 “problem”, within the Australian context, natural processes already absorb more than is produced in our energy sectors. The natural flora occurring along the Australian east absorbs more in a year than is generated. As does the phytoplanckton in the EEZ surrounding the country.
      The high limestone content soils both in western Victoria, across much of southern SA and in inland north Queensland also sequesters volumes that have been estimated to also approximate the amounts generated within this country.
      What I haven’t mentioned is the tens of thousands of solar panels that by age 35 years are no longer economically viable, are not suitable for recycling and must also be discarded via even more landfill.

  8. 0
    0

    Well for the past 27 years I have lived in apartments with no gas. In my current apartment there is no gas to the building never mind the individual units. New build? Nope! Built in 1967!

  9. 3
    0

    The Conversation is not exactly a reliable and unbiased source of information on climate change.
    There need be no fear about climate change as none of the extreme adverse changes forecast over the past 50 years have eventuated and no more likely to occur from this point on as previously predicted.
    Quoting California as an example of any thing to follow shows an ignorance of history.
    There are thousands of abandoned wind turbines that have fallen into decay after their Government funded subsidies ended, proving that without having their hands in the Government pocket, they are not viable.
    California has also made a grave mistake in phasing out their nuclear power stations, so their clean energy future is not assured.
    Fortunately they have neighbouring States who continue to generate power using coal and natural gas, so apart from the rolling blackouts that all Californians have been advised to get used to, some shortfall will be compensated for with spare capacity from across the borders.

  10. 1
    3

    Considering that a lot of our East Coast gas is being obtained by fracking, let alone the Carson dioxide emissions it is time for Australia to move on from gas (and coal). And then there is the matter of gas and coal energy stations being unviable as renewables undercut these considerably.


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