San Jose considers gas ban for new commercial buildings
A rendering by architecture firm Gensler shows Adobe's planned fourth building in downtown San Jose with a bridge that will connect its existing headquarters campus to its new tower. Image courtesy of Gensler.

    In its next phase toward a gas-free future, San Jose will soon consider whether to require all new commercial buildings to be powered entirely by electricity.

    “We need to move all of our energy to renewable energy,” said Kerrie Romanow, San Jose’s chief sustainability officer. “We want to stop the problem.”

    Expanding the gas prohibition ordinance passed by the City Council last year, San Jose recently hosted a webinar aimed at commercial developers, answering questions about all-electric building architecture and equipment, such as tankless water heaters.

    The gas ban was enacted as part of the city’s new reach code, which introduced a slew of environmentally-friendly reforms.

    Last year’s ordinance requires new residential buildings — primarily single-family homes and low-rise apartments and condos — to be electricity-only. That ordinance, which took effect Jan. 1, does not include office or retail structures.

    The expanded ordinance would include commercial buildings, with exceptions for food establishments, hospitals, industrial buildings and manufacturing facilities. This means entitlements and applications processed after July 31 would need to exclude any natural gas infrastructure “for which an equivalent all-electric system or design is available.”

    Will Smith, business agent for IBEW 332, the local electrical workers union, said he’s excited about the new work opportunities that would follow this policy. The union employs 3,700 people who are based in Santa Clara County, and Smith said the rising number of people pursuing careers in electrical work should be able to meet the increased demand.

    “I honestly could see there being a surge,” Smith said. “There are going to be an influx of people trying to become electricians.”

    However, Smith said the city will need to find ways to increase San Jose’s energy supply and storage capacity to meet the increased energy demand, especially considering the impact of high speed rail, BART and a growing number of electric vehicles.

    “The reality is if tomorrow we wake up and were completely electrified… the PG&E grid couldn’t support that demand,” Smith said. “The grid is going to have to be sufficient to carry that type of load.”

    Kimi Narita, senior strategic advisor at the American Cities Climate Challenge, helped craft the ordinance, which is part of a wave of initiatives aimed at helping San Jose meet its climate goals. San Jose aims to achieve 47% zero net carbon efficiency by 2030, essentially reducing the city’s carbon emissions by half.

    The city received millions of dollars of support from Bloomberg Philanthropies in 2018 to study how to limit natural gas, offset the costs of residential solar systems and reduce costs for new all-electric high-rises.

    “San Jose will have all renewable energy in their electricity supply within a few years,” Narita said. Coupled with all-electric buildings, the city’s carbon emissions should fall significantly over time. “It’s that intersection that makes this incredibly exciting.”

    Narita said the finer details of the expanded ordinance haven’t yet been nailed down, adding that San Jose would be the largest city in the nation to enact such a policy.

    Ken Davies, deputy director of Climate Smart San Jose, said the gas ban’s next phase will allow developers to apply for exemptions for restaurant and food production facilities, as well as certain industrial and manufacturing buildings. Davies said he doesn’t expect too many of these types of applications because the city has worked extensively with developers to provide technical support.

    Davies said the city’s sustainability office reached out to hundreds of developers, builders and other real estate executives to inform and answer questions about the new standard. He said the city aims to ban natural gas from all new buildings — with no exceptions — by Jan. 21, 2023.

    Given that one-third of the city’s greenhouse gas emissions come from natural gas, Davies said eliminating the fuel from new buildings will spare 608,000 tons of carbon dioxide from being spewed into the atmosphere. This assumes the source of electricity is renewable.

    Chief sustainability officer Kerrie Romanow said 98% of San Jose residents are enrolled in San Jose Clean Energy, which offers carbon-free energy sourced from wind, solar and hydroelectric power for a cost comparable to Pacific Gas and Electric.

    However, the power still runs through PG&E’s electricity grid. When asked whether all-electric buildings could make residents more vulnerable to power shutoffs, which have become the utility’s standard practice for lowering wildfire risk, Davies said that was not a large concern, given the shutoffs particularly affect the “hilly fringes” of San Jose and not the downtown core.

    During the webinar, an attendee asked if the city is developing microgrid projects to mitigate the effects of the shutoffs, which have become more frequent following successful lawsuits against PG&E for its role in igniting wildfires across Northern California. Davies said there was no timeline for when such a project would be ready for public review.

    Narita, the climate change advisor, said banning gas from new buildings is just one part of many approaches to reducing San Jose’s carbon emissions while preserving residents’ quality of life.

    “The reach code is a critical piece of the policy… but it’s not enough,” Narita said. “We still need to work on issues like storage and resiliency.”

    The City Council is expected to vote on the expanded gas ban Nov. 17.

    Contact Sonya Herrera at [email protected] or follow @SMHsoftware on Twitter.

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