No more natural gas in new San Francisco buildings starting next year
When Residential Builders Association President Sean Keighran first heard about San Francisco Supervisor Rafael Mandelman’s proposal to ban natural gas in new construction, he was against it.
The idea of a new building with all-electric heating and cooking appliances seemed far-fetched and costly. Plus it was far from clear that food-centric Bay Area consumers would be willing to give up the fiery satisfaction of a gas range for the cool efficiency of an electric induction stovetop.
But the more he learned about technological advances in both all-electric heating systems and induction stoves — and the more he studied the environmental benefits of turning off the natural gas — he realized his initial reaction was wrong. He said he now believes that the future for residential development is all-electric.
“The world is changing,” Keighran said. “I came to see that buyers will want this. Buyers will expect this. The mind-set of the younger demographic is to want and demand this.
“This is ahead of its time, but not by much,” he said of Mandelman’s legislation. “Very soon the whole world will be following this path.”
On Tuesday, the San Francisco Board of Supervisors voted unanimously to ban natural gas in new buildings. The ordinance will apply to more than 54,000 homes and 32 million square feet of commercial space in the city’s development pipeline. San Francisco News has already banned natural gas for any new city-owned building. Berkeley banned gas in new buildings last year — the California Restaurant Association has sued the city over that ban.
Natural gas accounts for roughly 40% of San Francisco’s overall emissions of greenhouse gases and 80% of building emissions. Requiring cleaner, all-electric buildings in new construction will increase building safety, reduce emissions citywide and improve indoor air quality, Mandelman said. A 2018 executive order from then-Gov. Jerry Brown mandates that the state reach carbon neutrality by 2045 and maintain net negative emissions after that.
The measure will extend to buildings that apply for a building permit after June 30. Planned buildings with retail spaces are exempt from the all-electric transition until Jan. 1, 2022, and after that may apply for a waiver to construct a mixed-fuel building to allow flexibility for restaurants. Existing restaurants will not be required to turn off their gas burners.
In a statement, the Golden Gate Restaurant Association said: “We completely understand the need for a focus on the reduction of greenhouse emissions. However, we have real concerns that a gas ban in new buildings would put additional restrictions on the spaces available for restaurants.”
While the industry group applauded the waiver that would permit gas use, Steven Lee, an entertainment commissioner who is an investor in the historic Sam Wo Chinatown restaurant, said that he understands why apartments should be all-electric but thinks restaurants should be exempt.
“We are all for clean air and everything, but small business gets hit hard with bills like this, especially Chinese and other ethnic restaurants,” he said. “There are not a lot of opportunities for mom-and-pop entrepreneurs. What if they want to go into a new building at the Chase Center or Pier 70 or Candlestick when they build that? They won’t be able to — no way in hell you are going to put a wok on an electric stove.”
Developer Eric Tao of L37 Partners, which is building a mixed-use project with hotel and condos at 950 Market St., said that the exemption and waiver process for restaurant spaces provides enough flexibility that he supported the legislation. He said developers rarely know before a building is near completion if a retail space will be filled by a restaurant or another use. Allowing gas lines for that one space would enable developers to keep their options open.
“If we were prevented from running gas lines, the restaurants would never come,” Tao said. “We need to be able to put in the gas line, grease traps and exhaust shafts in upfront. It would be cost prohibitive to do it after the building is completed.”
Chris Naso of the San Francisco Climate Emergency Coalition praised the legislation.
“With respect to global warming, the federal and state governments have utterly failed us, but local governments are now leading the way towards equitable and rapid decarbonization,” Naso said.
Like Keighran, housing advocates said it took a while to convince them the legislation would not make their job harder.
Todd David, executive director of the Housing Action Coalition, which advocates for residential development, said his organization supported the gas ban once determining that it would not make it more expensive to produce housing.
“We wanted to make sure sure it was not going to add costs,” he said. “In the end, we were satisfied that it is at worst cost neutral, and there are some indications that it could save money.”
A San Francisco Department of the Environment analysis found that all-electric construction is 13 cents per square foot less expensive for a mid-rise building and $1.18 per square foot less for a three-story multifamily building than buildings that use natural gas.
The ordinance did face pushback from the plumbers and pipe fitters who will lose work when there are no longer gas pipes running through buildings. So Mandelman agreed to introduce water-recycling legislation that would “result in good union jobs.”
He said that while compromises on the restaurant exemption and some labor issues helped smooth over opposition, the effects of climate change — something all too obvious over the past few wildfire seasons — made a compelling case.
Mandelman called his ordinance “an incremental but important move to help save our planet.”
“Whatever reservations people had as developers or human beings,” said Mandelman, “they are living on a planet that appears to be changing in frightening ways.”