Santa Barbara looks at going all-electric in new construction

Jan 12, 2021

Intending to take action against global warming, 32 California cities have passed bans on natural gas in new buildings. This week city officials in Santa Barbara are looking at passing similar regulations.

It would mean changing local building codes to require all-electric appliances and heating/cooling systems in new commercial and residential buildings.

UC Santa Barbara professor Leah Stokes supports the ban.

“I live in Santa Barbara and I work on climate change and energy policy,” Stokes told KCBX News. “I have long supported the electrification of buildings, because if we want to deal with climate change, we need to get off of fossil gas.”

Stokes says the new citywide code change would only apply to future construction.

“It's becoming increasingly clear that using fossil gas in our homes is actually quite bad for our health as well as for the planet,” Stokes said. “So I support the local gas ban and I'm interested in seeing it pass.”

The California Energy Commission says in March, it will release a draft of the next iteration of statewide building codes. In that draft will be “details on any proposals related to all-electric construction,” said commission spokesperson Lindsay Buckley.

Meanwhile, a bill is being considered by the state Legislature that would have the state pursuing decarbonization in new buildings.

Gas companies and some unions are against any codes or laws that limit natural gas installation and use. SoCalGas points out that a large chunk of California’s electric generation comes from natural gas.

Santa Barbara architect Alex Pugo said he understands why natural gas providers oppose moves towards decarbonization.

"They are protecting their turf, but they should realize that this is like coal—it's just a dying industry, they need to move on," Pugo said. "There are some uses for gas, but they're less and less all the time, and the industry should look at the future, not at the past."

In 2019, the California Restaurant Association sued the city of Berkeley, the first California city to enact buildings codes requiring new buildings to be all-electric. That's because natural gas bans mean commercial restaurant kitchens in the future could look very different.  

"Whether searing steaks, charring vegetables, or stir-frying noodles, chefs and cooks rely on the most important tool in the creation of a dish – fire," said the CRA about the decarbonization movement. Bans on natural gas infrastructure "will exacerbate the already damaging impact of ongoing, planned electricity blackouts meant to prevent wildfires – blackouts that affect the restaurant industry along with everyone else. With California’s energy grid often under tremendous strain, a ban on gas appliances is not responsible, and its impact won’t be limited only to restaurants."

But proponents of natural gas bans say electric appliance technology has considerably evolved.

“Induction stoves use magnet technology,” Stokes said. “You can't really burn yourself as easily because if you put your hand on the element, it doesn't get hot, and it's actually considered a much more precise and better cooking technology than gas.”

At Tuesday’s public hearing, the Santa Barbara city council will decide whether or not to move forward on all-electric regulations. The topic will appear on a future city council agenda.