Do you want to visit Disneyland’s Tomorrowland without the expense and trouble of an airplane flight? Then visit Sunnyvale’s new City Hall.
I was privileged to be invited to the initial pre-opening ceremony. The expansive entrance patio is composed of interlocking tiles of multiple colors. A raised garden area is fenced in with a granite wall, which also serves as a bench. The building is a magnificent 120,000 square-foot, four-story windowed structure. I feel the entrance is every bit as impressive as the one at the Getty Museum. The new Sunnyvale logo is etched into the glass doors at the entrance. The rooftop solar panels can be seen from the patio. Much of the indoor heating comes from passive sunlight as the double pane windows have an internal shade that automatically opens and closes depending on temperature and available sunlight.
So why am I talking about architecture? Because the heating and cooling of water and air cause as much greenhouse gas emissions as all transportation—cars, trucks, buses and more. Designing buildings to be emission-free is essential. If a building also uses natural gas, then the combustion of that gas and the leakage of that gas in reaching the building should all be attributed as the greenhouse gas emissions from that building.
Sunnyvale City Hall is the first building in the country that is net-zero and Platinum Certified LEED, the highest rating. LEED ratings indicate greenhouse gas emissions associated with the construction of a building. Net-zero simply means the output from the building’s 1,600 solar panels will equal or exceed the electricity provided by an external source when averaged over a full year. In this case, the external source is Silicon Valley Clean Energy, which is providing nearly 100% carbon-free electricity.
The panels are expected to sell energy during the summer months, while energy will be needed from the grid during the winter. The output from the solar panels, along with the natural heating, will eliminate most of the energy cost, which had been associated with the old building—$467,000 annually. Silicon Valley Clean Energy has provided a grant of $1 million to provide batteries that will provide electricity when the sun is shaded. Also, the grant included diesel generators for emergencies.
Although the net-zero construction is something to be proud of, the essential achievement is that the building is fully electric. There’s no natural gas hookup. As this building and others demonstrate, there is no need for a natural gas hookup.
Residential and commercial buildings account for about 31% of national carbon dioxide emissions. While national and local attention is primarily focused on transportation emissions, eliminating emissions from buildings is equally essential.
Building emissions are comprised of the carbon dioxide emitted by the electricity generated for the buildings and the combustion of natural gas for heating water and air. Over the last decade or so, scientists have had an opportunity to measure the leakage of natural gas from its extraction at a well, to the processing and transportation to the user. These leaks emit methane, a powerful greenhouse gas. Methane has a warming potential 86 times greater than carbon dioxide over 20 years. The leaked gas causes heating several times that from just the carbon dioxide emitted from the combustion.
There are many efforts to facilitate electrification. Stanford University maintains a website to make available case studies and other learning materials. The federal Department of Energy also provides information and educational material on decarbonization of buildings. The National Renewable Energy Department has a site to encourage electrification.
Perhaps the most important reason to abandon natural gas is that reducing or eliminating natural gas emissions will result in lowering atmospheric heating faster than a comparable reduction in carbon dioxide emissions. Natural gas actually breaks down exceptionally rapidly—10 years—in the atmosphere. So if it is not replaced, the atmospheric concentration will decline. Think of it like a bathtub with the faucet adding water and the drain emptying water at the same rate. If the faucet flow is stopped or reduced, the water level will recede. Carbon dioxide remains in the atmosphere for centuries, so restraining the inflow won’t be effective for centuries.
So, let’s talk about your home. If you bought a newly constructed home located in many regions of the Bay Area, it was built in accordance to recently revised building codes that strongly dictated an electrified home. In most cases a new home built under these codes costs less because the expense of providing a gas main line was eliminated. The challenge to eliminate natural gas use in existing homes and other buildings requires retrofitting. Because buildings last on the order of a century or more, we cannot wait for them to be replaced. They must be retrofitted for electrification if we want to transition from fossil fuels to renewables and stop global warming. I noticed the house in Los Angeles where I was born 78 years ago is still standing.
So how are we going to electrify the existing housing stock? The common gas appliances such as stovetops, space heaters and water heaters all have electric alternatives. The cost of replacement is really an individual assessment. Replacing a gas water heater with an electric heat-pump water heater is usually the easiest and cheapest to accomplish. If you are remodeling your kitchen, then that is a good time to replace the gas stovetop with an induction electric stovetop. Replacing a gas space heater with an electric alternative is usually costly. Heat-pump space heaters have models that double as air conditioners in the summer.
As you consider reducing your own emissions, please seriously consider replacing natural gas appliances. Electric appliances don’t pollute the air.
Gary Latshaw is the founder of securethefuture2100.org and a volunteer with the Climate Realty Project, Sierra Club and other climate action groups.
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