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San Diego looks for new strategies to electrify buildings after court ruling

San Diego has adopted a goal of achieving net zero greenhouse gas emissions by 2035, largely by phasing out the use of natural gas. But a recent court ruling throws a wrench into the city's plans for building electrification.

City officials had hoped to update the city's building code to require all new buildings be fully electric. A report from the city's Independent Budget Analyst found such a code update would have the biggest impact on emissions reductions out of all its climate strategies.

But in April, a three-judge panel of the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals ruled a similar ordinance in Berkeley was preempted by federal law, and that cities do not have the authority to ban natural gas hookups.


The nonprofit watchdog group Climate Action Campaign released a report last week with recommendations on how the city should proceed. It acknowledges the court decision will make building electrification harder, but argues that there are other paths to achieving the same outcome.

"We need to see our jurisdictions tackling all of these challenges using as many tools and strategies as they can," said Serena Pelka, policy advocate for Climate Action Campaign. "We want them to be creative, we want them to be innovative, and ultimately that's what we're going to need to reach zero carbon and have the quality of life and future that we all deserve."

In 2021 natural gas surpassed electricity generation to become the second largest source of greenhouse gas emissions in San Diego, second only to transportation. Gas accounted for 21% of emissions that year, the most recent for which data is available.

Pelka said despite the Berkeley ruling, San Diego can still require building electrification to receive city subsidies for affordable housing projects or streamlined permitting for housing built near public transit.

Pelka added the city can work with other government agencies, such as school districts, to support the city's climate goals. In April, the San Diego Unified School District pledged to gradually replace gas appliances in schools and administrative buildings with electric ones.


The San Diego County Air Pollution Control District also has the authority to ban natural gas appliances such as stoves, furnaces and water heaters, because they are sources of indoor air pollution. Recent studies have found pollutants released by gas stoves can increase the risk of childhood asthma.

"Building electrification is one of those strategies that can have multiple benefits beyond just emissions reductions," Pelka said. "It improves air quality … and really helps protect public health across the region."

The Ninth Circuit ruling may not be the final word on the authority of cities to ban natural gas in new buildings. Berkeley is seeking a rehearing of its case from a larger panel of the court's judges. Another loss there could also be appealed to the Supreme Court.

Alyssa Muto, director of sustainability and mobility for the city of San Diego, said in a statement that the city was watching the case closely and exploring alternative policies that would still achieve building electrification.

"In the meantime, we are working with partners on drafting a decarbonization roadmap for existing buildings … as well as other incentive and appliance replacement programs," Muto said. "The city of San Diego’s Climate Action Plan goals remain unchanged."

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