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Santa Rosa moves forward on plan to ban natural gas in new homes

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Starting in early 2020, plans for most new Santa Rosa homes likely won’t include natural gas stoves, fireplaces, furnaces and water heaters.

The Santa Rosa City Council on Tuesday voted 6-0 to require the exclusive use of electric appliances in most new residential construction below four stories. The measure, which will need a second vote of approval and the California Energy Commission’s backing in the coming weeks, will put the city in the company of Windsor, Berkeley and other local governments across California that have passed a type of natural gas ban in the name of curbing climate change.

The council’s vote came after PG&E shut off electricity to prevent wildfires four times in October, plunging thousands of Sonoma County homes into darkness and raising questions about the wisdom of eliminating natural gas from the range of possible home power sources.

But council members, who made confronting global heating a top priority earlier this year, didn’t waver from their pursuit of an all-electric requirement, which is more stringent than state law requires. Their decision was backed by supporters of climate action such as Chris Thompson, vice president of the Oakmont Democratic Club.

“We are in a state of emergency. We are running out of time,” Thompson said. “Electric homes are the future we need for ourselves, and especially for our children and our grandchildren.”

Banning natural gas in new homes is opposed by local builders, said Keith Woods, CEO of the North Coast Builders Exchange, who argued that future homebuyers would not approve of the council’s action.

“This will make you feel good. It sounds good,” Woods said. “But I hope you’ll make fact-based decisions rather than emotion- based decisions.”

The natural gas ban will not apply to existing homes, new residential high-rises, or projects to rebuild homes lost in the October 2017 firestorm, said Jesse Oswald, the city’s chief building official.

Santa Rosa’s ban comes despite a concerted opposition campaign by the propane industry, resulting in a flood of letters sent to the City Council in recent weeks. Several propane advocates urged the City Council on Tuesday to refrain from limiting residents’ energy choices.

“Adopting this plan would willingly create an energy desert for Santa Rosa residents,” said Joy Alafia, president and CEO of the Western Propane Gas Association.

The new requirements would not preclude residents from owning propane-powered grills, nor would it prevent them from using propane- powered generators at home, Oswald said.

California is on track to become carbon- neutral by 2045 under an executive order issued by former Gov. Jerry Brown last year. In Santa Rosa, council members generally supported the ban Tuesday as an important first step toward a cleaner city, state and planet, with many drawing on their personal lives to explain their feelings.

Councilman Ernesto Olivares said he was voting with his grandchildren, ages 4 and 6, in mind, and Councilman Jack Tibbetts acknowledged that addressing climate change required uncomfortable choices, such as his shift toward favoring an electric truck over a diesel- powered pickup. Councilman John Sawyer noted that he was able to “have a reasonably normal existence” during PG&E’s shutoffs because his home has natural gas appliances, appearing conflicted on how to vote before eventually joining his colleagues in support of the ban.

Transportation remained a much larger source of Santa Rosa’s emissions in 2015 than energy use in buildings, according to a study by the Regional Climate Protection Authority of Sonoma County.

City Councilwoman Victoria Fleming disputed the notion that banning natural gas in new homes was too small a step to be worth taking, noting that many steps to cut emissions by small margins could add up quickly.

“We need to go around collecting 1 or 2% in every nook and cranny we can,” she said.

Local governments like Santa Rosa can only pass strict rules like natural gas bans if they can demonstrate cost- effectiveness. The justification for the measure’s cost-effectiveness is a study commissioned by PG&E, which supports local bans on natural gas in new construction as a way to cut the cost of building out its network of gas pipelines.

Santa Rosa was not deterred by a Bay Area attorney’s letter, sent on behalf of prominent Sonoma County developer Bill Gallaher, that raised the prospect of legal action against the city if its elected leaders passed a natural gas ban. A similar letter was sent to Windsor’s town manager, but the council there also went ahead with an all-electric requirement.

Santa Rosa City Attorney Sue Gallagher said her office had reviewed the letter and determined the potential lawsuit would have “no merit.”

“We’re very confident that there are no issues that would lead to any successful litigation,” she said.

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