Home » Elias: Forcing Appliance Electrification May Cause California Backlash

Elias: Forcing Appliance Electrification May Cause California Backlash

Whether that happens depends on how policy is enacted; mandates during home sales all but guarantee it.

There’s been copious news coverage of attempts by state government to force dense new housing construction on cities around California. Much less is said about attempts to compel Californians to switch almost every type of domestic appliance or machine from running on natural gas to electricity.

Also at the same time, little note has been taken of power blackouts — sometimes lasting a week or more — that accompanied myriad storms last winter, which set records for snowpack in the Sierra Nevada and other California mountain ranges.

Despite those events, much more in-home electrification will likely be forced on the state’s homeowners in the near future. It’s just possible that after the huge natural gas bills handed to most Californians early this year, some home and condominium owners feel full electrification can’t come soon enough.

Seemingly getting set for this, a movement among cities and counties over the last three years now sees builders installing electric appliances in most new housing throughout the state. At the same time, pressure will soon start building on owners of existing homes to electrify almost everything whenever they undertake significant additions or remodeling.

Some cities are even adopting ordinances to force such conversions as part of all home sales after 2028 or 2030, though there may be delays in that requirement because a federal appeals court ruled this spring that Berkeley cannot enforce its new law requiring conversions in short order.

These coming policies stem from conventional wisdom among officials that says using natural gas, like other fossil fuels, furthers climate change. People holding this view often also insist California must lead in mitigating that as much as possible.

Many local government staffers are also convinced that gas appliances emit toxic fumes like oxides of nitrogen, a major component of smog. They urge anyone using gas stoves to run every available ventilator while cooking.

So water heaters (even tankless ones), stoves and stovetops, ovens, clothes dryers, central heaters — virtually any appliance a homeowner may use — could become electric, rather than gas-fired, within a decade or so.

This would be much like the 1970s-era water device conversions to low-flow use, from bathroom and kitchen faucets to washing machines and shower heads. As with those changes and the thousands of switches from green lawns to drought-resistant plants, many cities and counties will likely subsidize folks who get on board.

This movement is strongest now in Northern California, where cities like San Mateo and Piedmont require homeowners to install new outlets for electric appliances during all kitchen and laundry room renovations. They also require installing high-capacity electric circuit panels whenever existing panels are altered or upgraded.

Some cities encourage these changes when construction is happening anyway, making the changeovers cheaper than if they were separate projects. Other cities have also begun mandating heat pumps when heaters are replaced but are not yet forcing homeowners to dump natural gas space heaters.

That will likely come within the next 10 to 20 years, but probably not until the state’s electric grid grows considerably, as must happen anyhow for the state to reach its stated goal of ending sales of strictly gasoline-powered cars by 2035.

The real shock, though, will come when and if cities adopt and enforce almost complete electrification at the time of sale. That could cut home sellers’ profits by thousands of dollars on almost every transaction.

This putative requirement will surely meet heavy resistance among homeowners, who have lived with gas appliances for many decades without apparent harm, at the same time enjoying more reliability than electricity offers in an era of frequent blackouts.

Their likely resistance is bound to produce a series of local ballot measures seeking to maintain the status quo, in which homeowners and apartment landlords can freely choose whatever appliances they like.

Of course, just as with housing policy, state government lurks in the background. If the California Legislature passes new laws mandating mass electrification no matter the cost, some local governments will surely mount legal challenges, egged on by change-resistant homeowners.

Then, as with today’s housing issues, it will be up to the courts to decide whether charter cities, normally free to make local laws that diverge from state rules, can also decide this issue on their own.