“Decarbonization,” a word so new my computer keeps trying to spell check it to something else, defines what some have called the next frontier in California’s fight against the climate crisis. The focus for reducing greenhouse gas emissions has been largely dominated by discussions over policies to either reduce fossil-fuel use in the transportation system through increases in mpg for cars and building more electric cars or increasing the percentage of electricity provided to the grid by renewable sources such as solar and wind.

No one is declaring victory on either of these, but those who think deeply about the climate crisis and how to avoid or minimize its most severe adverse effects down the road are highlighting energy use in buildings as another key challenge. According to one such thinker, Panama Batholomy of the Building Decarbonization Coalition, “Building emissions spiked 10 percent nationally in 2018, driving one of the largest national emissions increases in decades. Yet even here in California, the nation’s climate leader, there is no plan in place to address these emissions, the source of 25 percent of our climate pollution.”

At least there wasn’t until the Building Decarbonization Coalition recently released “A Roadmap to Decarbonizing California’s Buildings,” a plan to cut building emissions 20 percent by 2025 and 40 percent by 2030 through the enactment of several policies, including “zero emission” building codes for both homes and businesses.

There are a lot more homes than businesses, so residential buildings are responsible for about two-thirds of building emissions. About 50 percent of total emissions from residential and commercial buildings combined come from electricity use and the other 50 percent from gas used for heating.

California has been systematically requiring utilities to produce more and more of their electricity from renewable sources, as well as requiring increased efficiency in electrical appliances. As far back as 2002, the state established a Renewable Portfolio Standard, requiring utilities to provide 20 percent of its electricity from renewable sources by 2017. This was accelerated in 2006 to 20 percent by 2010 and the bar was raised again in 2011 to set the RPS at 33 percent by 2020. In 2015, the RPS was increased again to 50 percent by 2030. Most recently, in 2018, effective Jan. 1 of this year, the RPS was set at 60 percent by 2030 and this legislation made one very critical change; it also required that 100 percent of electricity provided by the state’s utilities be from “carbon-free” sources by 2045.

Prior requirements were based on a definition of “renewable” that did not include electricity produced from large-scale hydroelectric sources or from nuclear power plants. So, by 2045, combining the minimum 60 percent from renewables with the remainder coming from hydro, nuclear and any other non-carbon producing source means all our electricity will be from nongreenhouse gas producing sources.

This will, of course, also apply to electricity used to charge electric vehicles and as such will have an impact on the transportation sector.

Awareness of this rather stark fact, the transition to fossil-free electricity, is what is driving the new interest in building decarbonization.

The Building Decarbonization Coalition’s “roadmap” proposes that California basically requires all-electric construction for new homes and businesses, the assumption being that gas will play an increasingly smaller role in home and business energy use, so we should avoid building new infrastructure that will be out of date and obsolete in the near future. They, along with state agencies, are looking to avoid the costs associated with bringing gas to every home and business. High-efficiency heat pumps can take over for space heating and water heating.

“What about gas for cooking?” I can hear you ask. At least it was a question that came quickly to my mind. When we moved into our house in 1986, a few of the first changes we made were to install a whole house fan to reduce our need for air-conditioning, place a wood-burning stove in the fireplace to minimize having to use the house’s heating system, and swap out the electric cooking stove for a gas stove, this last because cooking with gas was much preferable to cooking with electricity.

Recently, we have seen the introduction into the marketplace of highly efficient induction stoves that use electricity to produce heat in the pot or pan with about 90 percent of the heat made by induction actually reaching the food, as opposed to only 65-70 percent for an electric range or 40-55 percent for a gas stove. And, controlling the heat, always a problem with slow-to-get-hot or cool-down electric stoves, is reportedly faster and more accurate with induction stoves than even gas stoves.

Electrifying new homes and businesses is easy compared to decarbonizing existing structures, and the costs avoided by not having to pipe gas to a house results in savings that can pay for electric systems and appliances. One development soon to be built in Davis, Creekside Housing, is reportedly planning to be all-electric (more about that in a future column).

It’s a harder problem to pay for retrofitting the millions of homes and businesses built in years past. Looking across the river to our east, the Sacramento Municipal Utility District offers rebates up to $13,500 for comprehensive energy efficiency upgrades that include conversion to all-electric power.

— John Mott-Smith is a resident of Davis. This column appears the first and third Wednesday of each month. Please send comments to johnmottsmith@comcast.net.

Crossposted from the Davis Enterprise

Published online on June 5, 2019 | Printed in the June 05, 2019 edition on page A6