Zimmerman: San Jose takes an electrifying step forward
An aerial view of downtown San Jose is pictured in this file photo.

    Last month, the San Jose City Council voted to adopt the Framework for Existing Building Electrification as a step toward reducing the climate-destabilizing use of “natural” gas. All councilmembers joined Mayor Sam Liccardo in approving the framework, except Councilmember Dev Davis, who voted against it, and Councilmember Maya Esparza who was absent.

    The framework lays the foundation for retrofitting existing buildings for electrification, an essential step for San Jose to reach its pledge of carbon neutrality by 2030. Currently, 34% of the city’s greenhouse gas emissions come from existing buildings, mostly from natural gas used for space and water heating.

    “(The framework) looks into what needs to be done to make electrification more affordable, more equitable and easier to find a contractor who is able and willing to do the work,” said Susan Butler-Graham, team coordinator of Mothers Out Front Silicon Valley, a grassroots climate organization that supported the plan.

    The plan accelerates the necessary transition from powering appliances with climate-destabilizing fossil gas to clean electricity from renewable sources. It does not include a mandate to replace gas appliances with electric alternatives. San Jose has already adopted codes which limit the use of fossil gas in new buildings.

    “The framework is very good in the sense that it gets the ball rolling, and it doesn’t take mandates to move forward,” said Glen Garfunkel, co-founder of San Jose Community Energy Advocates. “There needs to be workforce development, streamlining of permitting, guidance on what retrofits make sense. All this can be done in advance and this sort of infrastructure takes time.”

    Electrification improves health and safety

    More importantly, notes Acterra E-Mobility and Advocacy Senior Manager Linda Hutchins-Knowles, “The government’s role is to protect its residents, and this is a key protection that is needed for health, for safety, and for climate security.”

    Hutchins-Knowles, who is also the co-founder of Mothers Out Front Silicon Valley, is referring to both the health and safety consequences of climate change, as well as the recent studies linking the use of gas appliances, especially for cooking, with an increase in respiratory and other illnesses. Children living in a home with a gas stove have a 42% increased risk of developing symptoms of asthma.

    San Jose Councilmember David Cohen believes the transition from fossil gas to electricity is inevitable.

    “San Jose is preparing for this transition so that our residents are prepared,” he said. “Not only is it the right thing to do, but if we don’t start the process of doing the transition it may catch people by surprise.”

    For instance, the Bay Area Air Quality Management District is already considering a ban on the sales of fossil gas appliances starting as soon as 2027.

    Cost versus consequences

    Not everyone is happy with the move toward electrification.

    “One of the key areas for opposition is cost, and some of that is misperceived higher cost compared to gas appliances,” said Karen Nelson from the Climate Reality Project: Silicon Valley. “The belief is that electric products are more expensive to install when in reality, many of them, especially heat pumps, are becoming very cost competitive.”

    Garfunkel agrees on the cost factor.

    “For some households (especially those with older gas systems) the operating costs may come down,” he said. “If inflation rates for gas rise more than for electricity, as some speculate, electrification will provide further operating cost savings.”

    San Jose is seeking to expand incentives to support home electrification upgrades. The city’s Environmental Service Department requested, and was granted, additional budget for staffing.

    “One way they are going to deploy this staff is to seek federal, state and other grants for electrification,” said Hutchins-Knowles.

    The framework also highlights equity and how the electrification process is bringing to the forefront the concerns and priorities of historically marginalized communities. Nelson applauds this emphasis, and said the plan also addresses the job market.

    “It acknowledges that addressing our climate issues can also address the opportunity for people to move into more stable income levels,” she said. “If we took this on in a substantial way this could really stimulate San Jose’s economy while shifting marginalized people into a better lifestyle.”

    San José Spotlight columnist Erin Zimmerman is a climate reality leader with the Climate Reality Project’s Silicon Valley chapter. Erin, a long-time environmental and political activist, holds a PhD in political science. Her column appears every third Wednesday of the month. Contact Erin at [email protected].

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