To Ban or Not to Ban

Whether a jurisdiction has started talking about a natural gas ban or not, if they’re striving towards a significant reduction in carbon emissions, they’re all going to be faced with the same decision: Are they going to require electrification or not?

The topic of bans is usually one that evokes a fair bit of emotion, especially in the U.S., with our Independence Day and Labor Day celebrations. 

The definition of “ban” is “to prohibit,” which can be viewed as an infringement on personal freedoms. However, a ban usually impacts not just an individual, but also a larger collective group. Banning books has been a way for some entity, group, or government to prohibit certain thoughts and ideas from percolating throughout their society.

Since the pandemic started, we’ve seen countries enact travel bans to stop the spread of a highly contagious virus. There was even a time when a band named Guns N’ Roses was banned from a city for inciting a riot, although that ban was lifted 26 years later.

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The move to ban natural gas in some cities is under way. Now the real questions are “How soon?” and “Who’s first?” Credit: onurdongel/iStock

None of the aforementioned bans had anything to do with the building industry, but we are starting to see a new type of ban that is certainly making its mark on the design and construction of new buildings: a natural gas ban. 

That sounds somewhat Draconian, so perhaps you’re more familiar with the term “electrification.” And in some places, we’re seeing a counter to this movement: a ban on natural gas bans. How did we get here, and where are we going?

The first jurisdiction to enact a natural gas ban on new construction was Berkeley, Calif., but they are no longer alone. Other cities such as San Jose, Oakland, San Francisco, and Seattle, and dozens of other communities have passed similar or partial prohibitions. These measures are being adopted as jurisdictions work to meet their respective climate action plans. Many of these plans have called for a state, city, or county to achieve net-zero carbon emissions by some benchmark year, whether it be 2040, 2045, 2050, etc. 

In the words of one Oakland council member, electrification is the equivalent of low-hanging fruit. “State energy policies and lower prices of renewables mean that substituting natural gas with electricity is one of the quickest, safest, and least expensive pathways to eliminating greenhouse gas emissions from buildings,” Councilman Dan Kalb says. According to a study commissioned by the City of Oakland, 18 percent of the city’s greenhouse gas emissions came from natural gas combustion attributed to buildings. 

In case you were thinking this is mostly a California thing, the mayor of Lincoln, Neb., is leading an effort to reduce the city’s overall carbon emissions by 80 percent by 2050. Among strategies that could be enacted in the next six years: transitioning all homes to electric-only heating and cooking appliances.

Meanwhile, other places are working to preserve the natural gas industry and the jobs associated with it. That list includes such states as Arizona, Texas, Oklahoma, Tennessee, Kansas, Indiana, and Louisiana. Some legislators in these states believe they are keeping construction costs down for new buildings. Others cite the lack of clean energy infrastructure in the near term. However, when offered the possibility to add a provision that would protect homeowners from restrictive, anti-solar covenants from HOAs, one Indiana politician was reluctant because “his constituents have concerns about aesthetics.” 

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Berkeley was the first city in California to ban natural gas in new construction, opening the door for other jurisdictions nationwide. Credit: Thor Swift/Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory

Whether a jurisdiction has started talking about a natural gas ban or not, if they’re striving towards a significant reduction in carbon emissions in the next 10-30 years, they’re all going to be faced with the same decision. Are they going to require electrification or not? Given the type of power that is generated from solar and wind, it seems rather inevitable that natural gas, like coal, is on the way out the door.

Maybe it’s a blessing in disguise that only some cities and states are moving towards electrification. We know we have a labor shortage in the trades right now. If this transition was more widespread, the logistics might not be attainable. Instead, with some locations embracing this move and others…denying it, we’re bound to see a phased approach to implementation. That might also help with the current supply chain issues we’re facing across multiple industries.