South San Francisco officials started examining ways to limit the city’s dependency on natural gas by discussing a new policy mandating all new residential construction to be powered solely by electricity.
The South San Francisco Planning Commission studied Thursday, May 6, establishing reach codes which would ban natural gas hookups to future residential developments, continuing a trend of similar discussions throughout the Peninsula .
While most were generally supportive of the proposal, there was some sensitivity around the implementation of the plan which officials carefully crafted to assure that the new standards do not stunt future growth.
To that end, officials noted that the potential ban would only be applied to future construction and that existing buildings would be allowed to keep their natural gas connections. Additionally, they limited the requirement to residential construction, due to reservations raised by members of the local commercial sector who preferred natural gas power.
Carefully attempting to balance the issue, Economic and Community Development Director Alex Greenwood assured all community members that their perspective would be considered on the matter.
“It’s a complicated give and take,” he said.
No decision was made on the issue at the meeting, and ultimately a forthcoming vote on banning natural gas will be left to the South San Francisco City Council. But councilmembers in January signaled they favored the shift, and called for initiating the process.
As it relates to residential developments, officials examined the types of ways that a shift to all-electric construction would require diversion from the industry standard. Most home builders, particularly those specializing in apartment construction, have already started relying solely on electricity to power buildings, said an expert with Peninsula Clean Energy.
While most building infrastructure can be converted to electricity relatively easily, officials recognized that water heating technology for large developments is still most efficient when powered by natural gas.
As they looked to apply the natural gas ban to development standards for apartment buildings, officials also weighed an opportunity to increase the amount of electric vehicle charging stations required with new construction.
To further limit the local dependence on fossil fuels, the move to reach codes is often paired with an increased investment in electric vehicle infrastructure built into new residential developments.
Commissioner JulieAnn Murphy noted though that residential developers are frequently seeking reductions in the amount of parking spaces they are required to build, and that interest must be considered alongside the city’s effort to ramp up access to electric vehicle charging stations.
Additionally, Commissioner Alex Tzang noted that the switch to electric appliances instead of natural gas burners will not work for Chinese residents or those who use a traditional rounded wok while cooking.
“It will drive away the wok user,” he said.
Those familiar with the shift noted advancements in induction cookware, which most home chefs find a suitable replacement for traditional stovetop materials designed for a natural gas burner. But commercial options for restaurants lag behind the residential innovation, which is one reason why businesses and the food industry is exempted from the ban.
Additionally, companies in the city’s biotech sector said the natural gas ban would hamper operations, further motivating officials to limit the restriction to only new residential development.
As South San Francisco advances through the process of establishing the ban, the city stands to be the most recent in a series of other Peninsula communities where natural gas connections have been shut off or constricted.
Berkeley became the first city in the country to ban natural gas in new construction in July. There are close to 35 local cities which have explored of approved reach codes of various kinds, including San Mateo, Redwood City and unincorporated segments of San Mateo County. Because local officials can propose ordinances more stringent than the state’s Energy and Green Building codes, the policies are dubbed “reach codes.”
While commissioners spent much of their conversation addressing specifics of the code, community members universally favored the transition as an indication of the city’s commitment to progressive environmental policy.
“We cannot put off action any longer,” said Diane Bailey, executive director of environmental policy nonprofit Menlo Spark.