Ambitious effort launched to cut California building emissions

Source: Anne C. Mulkern, E&E News reporter • Posted: Thursday, January 31, 2019

California is about to launch a landmark effort to cut greenhouse gases from buildings, with an aim of getting them as close to zero as possible.

The California Public Utility Commission (CPUC) will begin Thursday to implement S.B. 1477, a law enacted last year requiring natural gas utilities to provide $200 million for technologies to cut building emissions. About one-third of the money will go to low-income communities.

“By implementing a robust series of actions in California to support building electrification, we can slash emissions at the least cost to consumers,” Panama Bartholomy, director of the Building Decarbonization Coalition, said in a statement.

The coalition includes utilities, Community Choice Aggregation groups that buy power in many cities, green groups, water heater makers and other energy companies. The coalition released a series of reports today to outline how the CPUC can make the effort most effective.

Cutting emissions from buildings is needed, the reports said, because they release the second highest amount of greenhouse gas pollution in the state, behind the transportation sector. Building emissions come from using natural gas and propane for space and water heating, cooking, and clothes drying. The reports suggest switching homes to all-electricity from natural gas.

“Electricity is the cleanest space and water heating fuel that is currently available in California,” one of the reports said. “Therefore, today, electrification is a primary low-cost strategy for significantly reducing fossil fuel use in these end uses.”

Even though the state does use natural gas to generate electricity, a large amount of solar is used to make power during the day, said Alejandra Mejia Cunningham, principal at Transcendent Energy, a consultant to the Building Decarbonization Coalition. As well, S.B. 100, which was enacted last year, requires the state’s electricity to hit 100 percent “zero-carbon” by 2045.

“To hit our climate goals, 50 percent of new space and water heating in California’s buildings must be electrified by 2030, moving to 100 percent by 2045,” Bartholomy said. “We need a long-term strategy across regulatory bodies in California to drive down costs and quickly grow consumer experience with low-emission technologies.”

The $200 million required by S.B. 1477 can go to two programs. The first, the Building Initiative for Low-Emissions Development (BUILD) Program, targets near-zero emissions technology in new construction.

That can include any technology that significantly reduces demands on the gas or electricity systems, resulting in large cuts to greenhouse gas emissions from buildings, Cunningham said. That could include heat pumps, advanced energy efficiency and solar paired with storage.

The second source of funding is called the Technology and Equipment for Clean Heating (TECH) Initiative. It’s focused on space and water heating technology and is not limited to new construction. It’s up to the CPUC to decide how to divide the funds.

The CPUC could offer rebates to cut costs. That could work better if they’re provided to the manufacturers, so the products are cheaper in the stores, Cunningham said.

A CPUC proposal offers a four-step plan: implementing the BUILD and TECH programs, considering a pilot program to push electrification for homes rebuilt in areas hit by wildfires, coordinating with the California Energy Commission on future building code and appliance standards, and establish a building decarbonization framework going forward.