‘We need to act fast’: Berkeley residents discuss electrification

photo of electric car being charged
Paul Krueger/Courtesy
During a community meeting Thursday, Berkeley residents discussed the city's plans to convert from gas appliances to electric alternatives. (Photo by PaulKrueger under CC BY-SA 2.0.)

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Berkeley residents voiced their opinions and concerns about the city’s plans to transition all buildings in Berkeley away from natural gas appliances to electric alternatives during a community meeting Tuesday.

The meeting began with a presentation outlining the various benefits of electrification, as well as an overview of the city’s recently released Draft Berkeley Existing Buildings Electrification Strategy. The strategy proposes a three-phased approach aiming to electrify buildings as soon as possible and no later than 2027 to 2045.

Building electrification would usually require switching out four main gas-powered appliances for electric alternatives: gas furnaces with air-source heat pumps, gas water heaters with heat pump water heaters, gas stovetops with induction ranges and gas clothes dryers with either electric resistance or heat pump clothes dryers.

“Electrification is decarbonization, said Amy Kiser, a co-chair of the Berkeley Climate Action Coalition’s electrification working group, during the meeting. “By switching from natural gas to clean electricity from solar and wind, we’re getting carbon and greenhouse gas emissions out of our buildings.”

According to Kiser, when burned, natural gas releases carbon monoxide and nitrogen oxide, increasing the risk of asthma and other health problems. She cited a study that found that children in homes with gas stoves have a 42% higher chance of developing asthma. Without proper ventilation, Kiser added, carbon monoxide can even have deadly consequences.

Kiser noted that electrification is also a step toward tackling climate change, which directly impacts communities of color — communities most affected by asthma hospitalizations in the city.

“We know there’s an ongoing housing and affordability and gentrification crisis in Berkeley,” said Denaya Shorter, the community engagement program director at the Ecology Center in Berkeley, during the meeting.

Shorter, who helped develop Berkeley’s electrification strategy, said the team took into account Berkeley’s historically discriminatory housing policies that affect low-income families of color and intentionally solicited feedback from marginalized communities.

Shorter’s team found that upfront and long-term costs are a significant concern for members of these communities and responded by developing four draft “equity guardrails” meant to ensure electrification policies would only advance if they could be implemented equitably, she added.

“We need to act fast to reduce greenhouse gas emissions,” Kiser said during the meeting. “Right now, gas is cheaper than electricity. But that’s not going to last for very long at all, because as more buildings electrify, there’ll be fewer customers to pay for the gas infrastructure.”

Katie Van Dyke, city climate action program manager, noted the importance of having a clear strategic approach to decommissioning natural gas infrastructure on a neighborhood scale.

She said it would both send a market signal and prevent the city from being left with infrastructure that is no longer valuable, also known as stranded assets. Electrifying homes “here and there” still means the utility will need to continue to serve the entire neighborhood, Van Dyke added.

Anna Kom, a Berkeley resident, said she was excited about not contributing to global warming but also concerned about public safety power shut-offs.

Deborah Moore, a city resident, said she felt the electrification process was “very piecemeal,” adding that without outside help, it was difficult to figure out what steps to take.

“It’s pretty horrifying that this report and discussion can consume so much time and treasure and not even identify the scope of the problem, or how gas network pruning is supposed to be planned,” said city resident Thomas Lord in the Zoom chat. “The city of Berkeley is asleep at the wheel.”

Contact Iris Kwok at [email protected] and follow her on Twitter at @iriskkwok.