Incentives, not a ban on natural gas hook-ups, are a better way to make Chicago buildings all-electric

A gas meter sits covered in snow outside a home. A proposed Chicago ordinance would ban natural gas hook-ups in new construction.

Sun-Times file

The planet is overheating, and a significant factor is the burning of natural gas in city buildings for heating and appliances.

Because switching to electricity from renewable sources is a huge task, it requires broad support. Unfortunately, as many cities have started to take steps, such as banning gas lines connecting to new construction, opposition has taken root.

Instead, lawmakers should look for ways to persuade people the switch is in their own interest.

Last week, an ordinance backed by Mayor Brandon Johnson was introduced that, in effect, would say no to natural gas hook-ups in new buildings and in additions of more than 10,000 square feet. Exceptions include backup power generators, hospitals, research labs and commercial cooking equipment. The ordinance, called the Clean and Affordable Buildings Ordinance, was referred to the Rules Committee.

Around the country, more than 50 cities, including Los Angeles, New York and San Francisco, have enacted bans on new natural gas hookups. In June, Oak Park adopted an ordinance requiring new buildings to be fully electric.

Meanwhile, at least 24 states have passed so-called “energy choice” laws banning cities from taking such actions.

Editorial

Editorial

This kind of conflict is not going to save the Earth.

On Jan. 2, a federal court rejected a natural gas hook-up ban in Berkeley, California, which was the first in the country. That puts similar bans elsewhere in doubt. Last month, Seattle tried a different approach by requiring existing commercial and multifamily buildings larger than 20,000 square feet to reach net-zero carbon emissions by 2050, which essentially would require those buildings to go electric.

Similar to Seattle, Chicago has designed its ordinance in a way that environmentalists hope will not run afoul of the court rulings. A number of leaders in the Chicago building industry say they are already transitioning to electric, and in September, more than 150 architects, building professionals and other business leaders sent a letter to Johnson supporting decarbonization efforts, partly because nearly 70% of Chicago’s climate emissions come from buildings.

Even so, Ald. Gilbert Villegas (36th) and nine other alderpersons opposed the ordinance.

Can we find a way forward that keeps us from getting locked in a pitched battle while harmful heat-inducing carbon dioxide gathers overhead?

Quick action, broad support

The long-term economics favor electricity. Sarah Moskowitz, executive director of the Citizens Utility Board, told us homeowners could save between $11,000 and $24,000 over 20 years by going electric. But builders look for upfront savings, as do people buying buildings. They tend not to look at the savings over the long term.

The problem with that thinking is the planet is at DEFCON 1, as climate change causes numerous catastrophes. Last year was the hottest year on record, by a significant margin, and while average temperatures have gone up and down in the past, it never has happened this quickly.

Backers of switching to electricity across the country need to find an approach that will work as quickly as possible with support as broad as possible. They should look for carrots — inducements to encourage people to make the change on their own — and not rely solely on sticks.

The Inflation Reduction Act of 2022 and the Bipartisan Infrastructure Law are good examples. Laden with as many carrots as Mr. McGregor’s garden, the IRA allows states to apply for funds the states can then pass on in the form of credits to residents for things like heat pumps and such electric appliances as cooktops, ranges, stoves and wall ovens. Illinois is expected to make those carrots available later this year.

The opposition is quickly conflating a lot of issues in an inaccurate way. Those supporting a reduction in the burning of fossil fuels should respond by rolling out education programs to build support by pointing out, for example, the risks, including health risks, of burning natural gas in homes.

The 2022 Chicago Climate Action Plan sets a goal of reducing carbon emissions by 62%. Illinois wants to move to 100% carbon-free power by 2045.

To reach those goals, or surpass them, lawmakers should look for policies that have widespread support and educate people about their necessity.

Climate change is coming for all of us if we don’t act quickly and effectively. Getting the job done means finding ways to build broad support for a big reduction in the burning of fossil fuels.

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