The San Francisco Giants are in the lead; at least, when it comes to the environment. Their future Mission Rock, mixed-use neighborhood will leverage energy from the San Francisco Bay to heat and cool buildings making it possible to ditch gas boilers and water heaters. Only the development’s future restaurants are permitted to use the fossil fuel.
“It was years of engineering work and persistence at the vision,” Fran Weld, Senior Vice President of Strategy and Development for the San Francisco Giants, told me. “It was quite the process.”
While the Giants achieved their vision largely because of Mission Rock’s unique scale and proximity to the Bay, other projects are ditching gas too. The San Francisco Unified School District, for example, is installing electric heat pumps and water heaters as part of its building modernizations. Because relying on a centralized system like Mission Rock isn’t an option, the District is also upgrading its existing electric service.
But as Weld acknowledged, passing on gas requires persistence. If San Francisco passes a Zero Emission Building Code, it could streamline the process for new buildings. Not only would a local code stop the spread of a flammable fossil fuel that puts our health, safety and environment at risk, but it could also help save developers, residents and businesses money.
Fortunately, there are models San Francisco can follow. In 2016, the city council of Vancouver, British Columbia adopted the first zero-emissions building plan in North America. The phased-approach aims to reduce emissions from new commercial and residential development 70 percent by 2020, 90 percent by 2025 and 100 percent by 2030. Restaurants will be permitted to use gas ranges until 2030.
To achieve its targets, Vancouver requires new buildings to reduce energy demand through high- efficiency standards or connecting to “Neighborhood Renewable Energy Systems.” These shared systems provide energy for multiple buildings from renewable and readily available sources, such as sewer heat. Vancouver officials developed the plan with developers, building operators, utilities and other stakeholders.
“I think it’s important to engage every stakeholder you can think of and be very clear about long-term targets,” Doug Smith, director of the Sustainability Group for the City of Vancouver, told me. “By doing so, we’re ensuring sustainability and affordability go hand-in-hand.” Studies have found that developers, residents and businesses in the San Francisco Bay may also realize economic benefits ditching gas. A 2018 Oakland-focused study by the nonprofit Rocky Mountain Institute determined that heat pumps are universally more cost-effective for newly constructed buildings because they eliminate the need to buy both a furnace and air conditioner.
Similarly, a 2018 report by Synapse Energy Economics found that developers could realize a savings of $1,500 or more by installing electric heating instead of extending and installing gas infrastructure. Residents in new homes equipped with efficient electric heating and solar panels — per the California mandate – could also cut energy bills by several hundred dollars annually.
Although San Francisco households generally pay more than most Americans for electricity, rates are more stable than gas, which are increasing. In 2012, the residential price for gas in California was $9.14 per thousand cubic feet according to the United States Energy Information Administration. By 2017, it had risen to $12.49. Southern California Gas Company projected the need for more than 45 percent higher revenue from ratepayers from 2018-2022 in documents submitted to the California Public Utilities commission.
“Gas prices are very volatile and they’re rising,” Rachel Golden with the Sierra Club told me. “The cost for gas for customers is only going to increase as utilities invest in pipeline safety upgrades for an aging and vulnerable gas system.”
It doesn’t make sense to continue installing gas boilers, water heaters and ranges in new buildings. Not only does our continued reliance on the fossil fuel threaten our planet, expose us to dangerous and deadly explosions and pollute our homes, but gas prices are increasing. If San Francisco adopts a Zero-Emission Building Code like Vancouver’s it will streamline the process for developers and make it easier to ensure sustainability and affordability in The City.
A sorting question from readers
Multiple readers have asked where they should toss their soft plastics – plastic wrap, deflated bubble wrap, plastic bags and any uncoated plastic you can easily squish in your hand. The quick answer is to bundle it all together in a plastic bag and put it in the blue bin. Recology accepts soft plastics and sells it to foreign markets.
The problem is that the market for soft plastics is extremely small. Plastic degrades over time and soft plastics are the lowest quality material.
Recology has said that its foreign purchasers are recycling single-use plastic bags into new single-use plastic bags — an energy-intensive process a company representative admits is unsustainable. Other waste haulers are paying to get rid of soft plastics, according to the nonprofit The Story of Stuff Project. This creates an incentive for foreign entities to accept the plastic and dump or incinerate it.
The takeaway is that we really, really need to stop recycling soft plastics, and start refusing them. Buy dried fruit and nuts in bulk. Store food in reusable containers or wrap it in beeswax. Satisfy your sweet tooth with chocolate packaged in cardboard and foil. Support legislation to reduce single-use plastics, such as Senate Bill 54. We must stop pretending we can recycle our way out of the global plastic mess.
You’ve got sorting questions, I’ve got answers. Email firstname.lastname@example.org.