SF passes law to make new government buildings all electric

Eliminating natural gas seen as a key step toward goal of reducing greenhouse gases

San Francisco’s new or renovated government buildings including libraries, community centers and office space will have to go all electric under a new law approved Tuesday to combat climate change.

The legislation, which was unanimously approved by the Board of Supervisors, requires all new construction and renovations of municipal buildings to be all electric.

It is the latest step The City is taking toward going all electric in construction to help reduce greenhouse gas emissions. Supervisor Rafael Mandelman plans to introduce legislation in the spring that would ban natural gas in all construction, but those conversations are ongoing and it’s unclear when it would go into effect.

The requirement approved by the board Tuesday applies to those municipal projects that have yet to obtain a building permit as of Jan. 1. But some public projects are already going all electric, such as the proposed new Mission Branch Library and the Southeast Community Center.

Supervisor Catherine Stefani, who took the lead on the proposal, said that “it is important for The City to lead the way on electrification because it is increasingly necessary that all buildings begin down this path.”

“We can’t ignore that we are seeing the consequences of the climate crisis every day,” Stefani said. “Whether it is the impact of sea level rise on our sea wall or the wildfires that are devastating communities locally and around the globe, we will be paying for the consequences of climate decisions for a very long time.”

Stefani called the requirement an “important first step.”

The City has a goal to reduce greenhouse gas emissions to 80 percent below 1990 levels by 2050. Greenhouse gas emissions from municipal building are due largely to natural gas. Electricty used by city buildings comes from the Hetch Hetchy system, which is emission free.

Cyndy Comerford, climate program manager at the SF Department of the Environment, told a board committee last week that “44 percent of our overall emissions comes from buildings.”

“If we break that down, we can see in our municipal buildings 94 percent of our emissions come from natural gas,” Comerford said. “In our commercial and residential sector it is about 84 percent.”

Comerford said that “natural gas was once seen as a bridge, but as we have moved away from coal, we now need to move away from natural gas.”

“We have gotten so much more research and information in the last five years about the impacts of natural gas and we are seeing that the natural gas industry is just as potent as the coal industry,” she said.

Comerford noted that the main pollutant in natural gas is methane and “methane is known as a super-greenhouse gas.”

“It traps more heat in a faster amount of time than actually carbon dioxide,” she said.

It’s not clear what financial impact the requirement would have on the public projects.

“Construction costs for an all-electric building vary depending on the type of all-electric infrastructure installed, ranging from an estimated increase of $1 per square foot to an estimated decrease of $1 per square foot,” said the budget analyst report. “Construction costs could potentially be lower when compared to the costs of installing natural gas infrastructure.”

The report also said that energy savings are expected that would vary “based on the type of all-electric equipment installed.”

Last week, Mandelman said at the committee hearing that The City will also have to address retrofitting public and private buildings “because over time I think it is going to be unacceptable that we have existing buildings emitting greenhouse gases.”

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