How electric appliances can help SF reach its climate goals

San Francisco hopes to reach net-zero greenhouse gas emissions by 2050. To help get there, The City is looking to...

San Francisco hopes to reach net-zero greenhouse gas emissions by 2050. To help get there, The City is looking to reduce natural gas emissions inside of homes.

As usual, the key issues involve time and money.

There are about 240,231 households in San Francisco with appliances that run on gas, including stoves, water heaters, laundry machines, and furnaces. They contribute about 41 percent of The City’s greenhouse gas emissions, second only to transportation.

To convert them each to homes running on electricity could cost anywhere from $3.5 billion to $5.9 billion, according to a report from the Budget and Legislative Analyst issued in April. That could mean up to $34,800 per household, which could place a large financial burden on property owners. Gas is also currently cheaper than electricity, though that could change as electrification increases.

So, San Francisco faces a significant time deadline and a financial obstacle. Not only does The City have to meet its own net-zero ambitions, state law requires a 40 percent reduction in greenhouse gas emissions by 2030 and carbon-neutral economy by 2045.

“We are in a climate emergency that will only get worse and there’s no path forward to meeting our climate goals with electrifying our buildings,” said Supervisor Gordon Mar at a Land Use and Transportation Committee meeting on Monday. “We can go big and we can go bold and, frankly, we can’t afford not to.”

In November, the Board of Supervisors unanimously passed legislation to ban natural gas in new residential and commercial buildings, expected to impact about 53,000 units in the pipeline. It was met with resistance, particularly from restaurants, which will have another year to comply, The Examiner previously reported. There is the added impact on cultures that cook traditional food using open flames that bears discussion, Supervisor Myrna Melgar noted Monday.

“Most Asian cultures, Latin American cultures, the shift from flames to electric can be tough,” Melgar said. “I want us to address it intentionally and respectfully.”

Other approaches to tackling the retrofit include requiring the conversion for buildings that are sold, or when appliances need to be replaced at the end of their lifespan, ideas which the Supervisors endorsed on Monday. However, waiting years for those opportunities will make for a slow transition.

Incentivizing homeowners would speed up the process but will be a larger, more resource-intensive endeavor. That could mean a bond, rebates, or charging certain property owners according to carbon use like New York City.

The San Francisco Public Utilities Commission will soon enact a program to train contractors to swap water heaters for Clean Power SF customers who use renewable energy through The City. It may ramp up as more state funding becomes available. However, accessing PG&E’s grid for energy efficiency projects has often led to delays and cost increases that are expected to continue, said SFPUC Deputy Manager Catherine Spaulding.

Another program, known as BayREN, is expected to increase $1,000 rebates for heat pump water heaters and $300 rebates to install induction stovetops.

But The City is still in the planning stages to turn it into broad action. Mar indicated next steps would be to form a working group or task force to craft the policies with key stakeholders to ensure an equitable transition, such as workforce training.

The longer San Francisco takes to implement the change, however, the more gas appliances will just be replaced with more gas appliances, advocates warned.

“If we want this to be inclusive and benefit low-income communities then the opportunities should flow to them,” said Avni Jamdar, director of national nonprofit Emerald Cities Collaborative lobbying for a sustainable economy. “Absolutely crucial to build that.”

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