Activists want Chicago to rule out natural gas in new buildings newstrendslive

Environmentalists, activists and consumer advocates are calling on Chicago politicians to pass a clean buildings ordinance that would effectively rule out the use of natural gas in most new buildings.

Speaking at a news conference Wednesday morning at City Hall, the Sierra Club’s Illinois chapter director, Jack Darin, called such an ordinance “the next bold step for climate action.”

Speakers pointed to a growing number of scientific studies linking nitrogen dioxide emitted by gas stoves to childhood asthma. And Citizens Utility Board Executive Director David Kolata said that even before winter began, 20% of Peoples Gas customers were more than 30 days past due on their bills, and they owed an average of over $600.

“Natural gas has thrown Chicago residents into a deep hole and it’s only getting deeper,” said Pastor Scott Onque’, policy director at Faith in Place, an environmental justice nonprofit. “We need to start planning now for cheaper, cleaner ways to heat our homes. We need to start for the sake of our planet, our kids, our health, and our bottom lines.”

Advocates want Chicago to join New York, Los Angeles and Boston in effectively banning the use of natural gas in most new construction. In Chicago, gas is often used to provide residential heat and hot water, and to power stoves and laundry dryers — all of which can now be done with electricity.

The news conference was in support of a “Clean Buildings, Clean Air” ordinance that organizers said was being drafted by Mayor Lori Lightfoot’s office, with their input. The clean buildings ordinance is not yet public, according to Kolata, but he expects it to be made available soon.

Lightfoot’s office did not comment on whether it was working on an ordinance but released a statement from the mayor commending the work of the clean energy groups.

“This topic is critically important, and that’s why I commissioned the Chicago Building Decarbonization Working Group in 2021 to better understand how we can move to decarbonize buildings and alleviate the energy burden for Chicagoans struggling to pay their utility bills,” Lightfoot said in the statement.

Kolata said the expected ordinance is not technically a ban on natural gas in new construction. Instead, advocates want Chicago to follow New York’s lead, and establish emissions standards for new buildings that are so high they basically rule out fossil fuels.

In New York, that approach has been widely referred to as a ban on natural gas in new construction.

Peoples Gas provided a written statement noting that the company has been serving Chicago for 170 years and called the reasoning behind the proposed clean buildings ordinance “flawed and unrealistic.”

“Electric heat pumps may help keep Chicago warm in the future, but they cannot be relied upon today,” the statement said. “Not only do they struggle to work in cold climates, but it costs up to $60,000 to convert a single home to an electric heat pump. Further, Chicago’s electric system will be powered by natural gas for years to come, which shows that these activists’ thinking is flawed and unrealistic.”

A Consumer Reports survey found that members paid a median price of $7,791 to purchase and install a heat pump, versus $6,870 for a gas furnace. Whole-house heat pumps for cold climates can easily cost more than $10,000, Consumer Reports noted, but that’s for both heating and cooling — heat pumps provide air conditioning. With state subsidies, heat pumps can cost less than gas furnaces, according to Consumer Reports.

The federal government’s Inflation Reduction Act provides a 30% tax credit of up to $2,000 for heat pumps and ComEd offers rebates.

There’s some debate over whether high-efficiency electric heat pump heating systems can stand up to subzero temperatures in regions such as Chicago, but some local early adopters recently told the Tribune that their homes stayed warm and comfortable, in some cases with the aid of automatic backup systems intended for the very coldest days.

In Maine, which has set a goal of installing 100,000 heat pumps by 2025, a small pilot study found participants were staying warm in winter.

Home energy use accounts for about 20% of greenhouse gas emissions in the U.S., according to a 2020 article in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.

Those emissions can be reduced by switching from gas to electricity. And as electricity becomes cleaner, due to increased reliance on sources such as solar energy and wind, emissions will fall further.

Every U.S. residence combined currently creates more greenhouse gas emissions than all but five entire countries, or about as much emissions as Brazil and more than Germany, according to the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences article.

Wayne Beals prepares breakfast on his electric induction cooktop at his all-electric new construction home in Riverside on Jan. 18, 2023. Beals thinks this is the wave of the future, saying "eventually everybody’s going to make the switch."

In recent years, the link between gas stoves and childhood asthma has been of particular concern, with a growing number of scientific studies finding a link.

Gas cooking in the home was linked to a 42% higher risk that children would have asthma, in a 2013 study published in the International Journal of Epidemiology. The study, a meta-analysis combining the results of 41 previous studies, also suggested a 24% increase in children’s lifetime risk of asthma.

A subsequent study found that longer use of gas stoves caused higher nitrogen dioxide levels, which in turn were linked to increased nighttime inhaler use in children with asthma.

Homes with gas stoves have nitrogen dioxide concentrations 50% to 400% higher than homes with electric stoves, according to a report by the clean energy nonprofit RMI.

At the news conference, Adella Bass, the lead health equity organizer for the Altgeld Gardens nonprofit People for Community Recovery, said that her entire family suffers from breathing issues. She cited problems such as toxic pollution from industry, as well as gas stoves.

“We deserve to breathe,” said Bass. “We deserve to feel safe in our homes and neighborhoods. Clean air shouldn’t be a luxury that only the wealthiest neighborhoods can access.”

If Chicago moves to effectively ban gas in new construction, it would join dozens of cities and counties that have taken similarly strong measures, many of them in California, where Berkeley instated the first ban in 2019.

There’s pushback against gas bans as well. At least 20 states have passed laws prohibiting local governments from banning natural gas, according to S&P Global Market Intelligence.

States that have banned natural gas bans include Iowa, Indiana, Texas and Missouri.

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