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Carbon-Cutting Cities Plug In to ‘Electrify Everything’ Movement

Ari Natter

(Bloomberg) -- As part of the Wisconsin Global Warming Task Force, Bruce Nilles advised homeowners to buy water heaters that burn natural gas to reduce the demand for electricity from coal and keep carbon dioxide out of the atmosphere.

Fast forward 11 years and Nilles is doing the exact opposite. He’s now touting the use of electricity, that is instead increasingly being generated from wind, solar and other renewable sources.

“In the past we thought there was a world where you could still burn modest amounts of fossil fuels,” said Nilles, now with the Boulder, Colorado-based think tank Rocky Mountain Institute. “Boy how the world has changed in the decade.”

Nilles’ shift is part of a movement to “electrify everything” -- from school buses to barbecue grills -- that’s gaining adherents across the country as the share of power from renewable sources grows. A major focus is limiting the use of natural gas in buildings, which in a typical city can account for half of the greenhouse gas emissions, according to environmental backers.

Presidential candidate Bernie Sanders recently unveiled a plan to spend $1 billion for electrification and mandates to ensure that all new buildings and existing “big business commercial buildings and wealthy homeowners” electrify.

Berkeley, California, in July became the first city to require new buildings to be all electric, starting Jan. 1. Other jurisdictions in the state are taking similar steps: San Jose is poised to become the largest city in nation to bar natural gas in new homes after the city council recently approved a proposal to create an ordinance to do so.

San Luis Obispo also passed a measure to deter the use of gas in new buildings, and Los Angeles and San Francisco are considering doing so as well, said Amanda Myers a policy analyst with the think tank Energy Innovation.

Measures are also being considered in Seattle and Massachusetts and approximately 50 other localities, she said.

“We are just getting started on this,” Nilles, managing director of the Rocky Mountain Institute’s building electrification program, said in an interview. “It’s a big piece of the carbon puzzle and its something you can solve at every level of government.”

The movement isn’t just limited to buildings. Utilities that have been suffering for years with flat electricity demand envision a future where farm equipment, cranes and school buses are powered by electricity.

‘Endless Possibilities’

“Now you have a situation where it might actually be good to encourage people to use electricity,” said Keith Dennis, a senior director for the National Rural Electric Cooperative Association. “There are endless possibilities of what you can electrify.”

Natural gas, which releases about half the greenhouse-gases of coal, was embraced by environmentalists for years as a bridge to a zero-emissions future. Now they say that time has come for electrification as zero-carbon renewable electricity increases and improvements are made in energy efficiency and grid storage. Concerns about fracking, and the leaks of methane -- a powerful greenhouse gas -- associated with natural gas are also factors in the fuel being persona non grata among greens.

“We need to significantly move away from gas,” said Sheryl Carter, an official with the Natural Resources Defense Council. “As states are and cities have made climate commitments, electrification becomes an obvious choice.”

The movement is being met with alarm from natural gas suppliers and others in the sector. They say scaling back gas will increase costs while doing little for the environment.

“Unfortunately, across the country, there is a growing effort to move communities to a single source all-electric model, eliminating clean, resilient natural gas,” Bert Kalisch, president of the American Public Gas Association, said in a statement. “These ‘all eggs in one basket’ policy proposals are shortsighted, untested and eliminate the ability for consumers to decide what is best for their families.”

Natural gas suppliers and utilities are fighting back with cost analysis, ad campaigns, and at least one consumer front group.

A report on residential electrification commissioned last year by the American Gas Association, which represents gas distributors such as NiSource Inc. and CMS Energy Corp., would only reduce greenhouse gas emissions by around 1% while increasing household energy costs by over $900 a year in some scenarios.

The American Public Gas Association, which represents municipally owned natural gas local distribution companies, has launched an ad campaign touting the benefits of natural gas, with images of hot showers, gas stove cooking and firepits, said spokesman Dave Schryver.

Sempra Energy, the owner of SoCalGas, the largest gas utility in the U.S., has fought against the efforts to eliminate gas through the group Californians for Balanced Energy Solutions, drawing a rebuke from the California Public Advocates Office.

“There are powerful organizations that are working to take away your right to choose affordable natural and renewable gas,” the group said on its website. “For them, it’s electricity or nothing!”

--With assistance from Mark Chediak.

To contact the reporter on this story: Ari Natter in Washington at anatter5@bloomberg.net

To contact the editors responsible for this story: Jon Morgan at jmorgan97@bloomberg.net, Elizabeth Wasserman

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