Building sector must transition to clean energy

View of Los Angeles with solar panels in the foreground. (Photo: Zhu Difeng, via Shutterstock)

When snowboarders Chloe Kim and Shaun White return home to California after dazzling on the halfpipe to win gold at the Olympic Winter Games, there won’t be much snow to greet them. The snowpack in the Sierra Mountains is 80% below normal, an ominous harbinger of more drought for a state already reeling from record wildfires, and a stark reminder that the most important challenge of all – the race against climate change – remains to be won.

For years, California has set the pace on climate action by promoting electric vehicles, energy efficient appliances, and renewable energy via performance standards that are faster, higher, and stronger than nearly every other jurisdiction. But in one marquee event, transitioning the building sector from polluting fossil fuels to clean energy, California is still a far cry from the podium.

AB 3232 will help jumpstart the market for clean heating systems and provide the signals that businesses, local governments, and investors need to push toward the zero-emissions finish line.

In fact, heating California’s homes and buildings with natural gas emits as much climate-disrupting pollution as all in-state power plants. And that’s before accounting for pervasive leaks throughout the gas supply chain that release large quantities of methane, a greenhouse gas that pound for pound is far more potent at trapping heat in the atmosphere than carbon dioxide. Burning natural gas also emits pollutants that foul the air in our homes and communities.

We can do better. Three years ago, Governor Jerry Brown made cleaner heating fuels a pillar of his administration’s climate action plan, but a lack of agency coordination and focused leadership is keeping California out of medal contention.

This year, however, a few lawmakers are going for the gold. Assemblymember Rob Bonta (D-Oakland) introduced AB 3001 to align the state’s building energy policies with its long-term climate goals. Currently, the building energy code ignores greenhouse gas emissions in setting efficiency levels, which gives fossil natural gas an undue advantage over clean electricity, and utilities are handcuffed from offering incentives to replace polluting gas equipment with electric alternatives. Trying to achieve our climate and air quality goals with those built-in advantages for natural gas is like racing down a mountain on two skis pointing in different directions. By updating rules to reflect our increasingly clean electric grid, AB 3001 will prevent the building sector from getting stuck mid-slope.

Even with our skis aligned, we need long-term direction to guide our progress. Enter AB 3232 by Assemblymember Laura Friedman (D-Glendale), which aims to cut climate pollution from the building sector in half by 2030, and to require all new buildings to zero out their carbon emissions by 2030, meaning they would generate enough solar power to offset their annual energy-related emissions. The bill also would empower policymakers to track utilities’ progress by creating a reporting system for building-sector emissions akin to the state’s Power Content Label, which displays the generation mix for each electricity service provider. By setting a bold vision for cutting building pollution, AB 3232 will help jumpstart the market for clean heating systems and provide the signals that businesses, local governments, and investors need to push toward the zero-emissions finish line.

Champions like Assemblymembers Bonta and Friedman are carrying the torch for the next leg in the Golden State’s race to stabilize the climate and provide pollution relief to millions of Californians. While entrenched interests will oppose transitioning off fossil natural gas for space and water heating as their current business model depends on it, the future belongs to electric alternatives that are safer, healthier, more reliable and more efficient.

For all the kids dreaming of future Olympic glory in the halfpipe, these bills need our support to ensure there’s still snow on which to compete – and cleaner air to breathe.

Ed’s Note: Pierre Delforge is a senior scientist for building decarbonization at the Natural Resources Defense Council. Andrew Brooks is director of West Coast operations for the Association for Energy Affordability.

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