San Francisco bans gas furnaces, gas stove pollution still a risk
The electrification movement gains momentum with a new regional ban on gas appliances, but toxic gas stove pollution remains a health and climate hazard.
The shift to building electrification in the U.S. is picking up pace with the passage of several recent high-profile restrictions on gas appliances, some of which stop short of totally eliminating gas stove pollution. At the same time, new incentives for zero-emissions appliances will increasingly tip the balance in favour of all-electric buildings.
On March 15, the Bay Area Air Quality Management District (BAAQMD) approved new rules that will phase out and eventually ban the sale of gas water heaters and furnaces. BAAQMD is a regulatory body that encompasses San Francisco as well as nine counties in the surrounding Bay Area. Roughly two-thirds of all residents in the region use gas appliances.
The rules did not cover gas stoves, the subject of intense media attention in recent months over gas stove pollution, instead focusing on the much larger sources of air pollution that comes from furnaces and water heaters.
“The 1.8 million water heaters and furnaces in the Bay Area significantly impact our air quality, resulting in dozens of early deaths and a wide range of health impacts, particularly in communities of color,” said Dr. Philip Fine, executive officer of the Air District. “This groundbreaking regulation will phase out the most polluting appliances in homes and businesses to protect Bay Area residents from the harmful air pollution they cause.”
One of the main motivations to phase out gas appliances was to minimize health impacts from the combustion of gas. Of particular concern is the release of NOx emissions, which contributes to smog formation and is linked to respiratory ailments. When burned, gas also emits particulate matter (PM2.5), which also exacerbates respiratory problems and is linked to neurological diseases, heart attacks, strokes, and lung cancer.
Gas stove pollution
The indoor air pollutants emitted from gas appliances, particularly gas stoves, have garnered a stunning amount of attention in recent months. As Gas Outlook previously reported, gas stoves emit hazardous air pollutants, including when they are turned off.
But the pollution does not remain in the home. In fact, gas appliances installed in buildings contribute to a staggering amount of outdoor air pollution. Gas water heaters and furnaces alone contribute to more NOx pollution in the Bay Area than all passenger vehicles combined. And statewide, NOx emissions from gas appliances, including stoves, are four times higher than all of the gas-fired power plants in California.
Beginning in 2027, the region will no longer allow the sale of appliances that give off NOx emissions, effectively banning gas water heaters. The restrictions on residential gas furnaces would begin in 2029, and polluting commercial water heaters would be off limits beginning in 2031. The rules apply only to new appliances, not to existing ones. The rules do not cover gas stoves.
The new rules are expected to cut NOx pollution by nearly 90 percent by 2046. Regulators estimate that the rules will avoid up to $890 million per year in health impacts from exposure to air pollution, while also preventing an estimated 15,000 asthma symptom incidents and 85 premature deaths annually.
There is a growing recognition within medical professions that sources of pollution and the global climate emergency pose threats to human health, says Dr. Robert Gould, president of Physicians for Social Responsibility San Francisco. That’s different from decades past, when the medical field focused narrowly on treating illnesses, and considered environmental policy questions outside of their purview.
Over his 30-year career as a pathologist, Dr. Gould said he has seen in his patients “what the consequences of living in our industrial society are.” He pointed to the resolution adopted by the American Medical Association in June 2022, declaring climate change a “public health crisis.”
Dr. Gould testified in favour of the new Bay Area rules phasing out gas appliances.
“You really have to be addressing the various environments that the patients and their families are within if you’re really going to be tackling disease in the way we would want to do,” he said in an interview with Gas Outlook.
The San Francisco Bay Area is not the only major jurisdiction imposing restrictions on gas appliances.
On March 16, Boston Mayor Michelle Wu filed an ordinance with the city council that would require all new buildings that plan on using fossil fuels to also install solar panels and come equipped with wiring that would enable their eventual switch to electrification. The ordinance stops short of banning outright gas connections in new buildings.
More significantly, the state legislature in New York is on the verge of passing a statewide ban on gas heating and appliances in new buildings. Two versions of the bill are currently on the table, so specifics of the ban are in flux, but New York Governor Kathy Hochul, as well as the Democratic leadership in both chambers support the general concept.
There are now an estimated 105 local jurisdictions — cities, counties, and states — that have implemented some version of a ban on gas connections in new buildings.
At the same time that gas is facing new restrictions, electric appliances are gaining in popularity. For every month of 2022, sales of electric appliances exceeded their gas counterparts, according to data from the Air-Conditioning, Heating, and Refrigeration Institute. Gas appliance sales routinely outpaced electric sales in years past.
The switch to electric is becoming easier and less costly. Both the federal government and California offer subsidies for electric heat pumps and other electric appliances. An analysis from the San Francisco Bay Area Planning and Urban Research Association (SPUR), an NGO supporting electrification, finds that households can save thousands of dollars by switching to electric appliances, with benefits disproportionately benefitting low-income households.
“Low-income households can actually save money by choosing pollution-free heat pumps over fossil fuel appliances, when taking advantage of all state and federal subsidies. That’s exactly the kind of support households need, and it should be maintained for the next decade, as the Bay Area’s new appliance standard goes into effect,” Laura Feinstein, Sustainability and Resilience Policy Director for SPUR, said in a statement.
The move to phase out gas appliances in the Bay Area comes as the state of California voted last year to phase out the sale of gas furnaces and water heaters by 2030. The state views restrictions on gas appliances as necessary to meet federal rules on ozone limits, which many parts of California chronically exceed. According to the California Air Resources Board, buildings account for 5 percent of the state’s entire NOx pollution, 90 percent of which come from gas space and water heaters.
Dr. Gould of Physicians for Social Responsibility said he hopes the focus on human health can help break through some of the culture wars and political battles over the future of gas and how to cut pollution.
“One thing we hope to argue and demonstrate with our own work is to try to detach it from that sort of political environment. To really focus on health first,” he said. “And I hope that could be an inspiration nationwide as well as to help propel [the California Air Resources Board] and other agencies and the legislature to be much more proactive about eliminating the sources of pollution and to do it as quickly as possible to protect patients and communities.”
“It can’t happen too fast,” he added.