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Should natural gas be a required secondary fuel source?

Tuesday, April 23, 2019 by Jessi Devenyns

Even as the city strives to reach net-zero community-wide greenhouse gas emissions by 2050, the Energy Code for Austin still, with some exceptions, requires the use of natural gas for water heating when a residential building is constructed adjacent to natural gas service.

Recognizing this inconsistency with the city’s goals, the Resource Management Commission unanimously passed a resolution to recommend that City Council initiate a code amendment update process to make hooking up to a natural gas line a choice, not a requirement.

Commissioner Kaiba White, who sponsored the resolution, noted at the commission’s April 16 meeting that in the field, hot water heaters are the appliance causing the most hiccups, as they are specifically called out and limited in the code. The issue is that once one appliance runs off natural gas, it’s easy to install others that tap into this energy source as well. “If the building connects to natural gas, it’s very likely to connect to these other natural gas appliances,” she said.

Paul Robbins, a local consumer advocate, told the commissioners that even though their resolution was well-intended, they needed to take a closer look at the economic costs of removing natural gas hookups from homes. According to the rationale for the commission’s resolution, the “Office of Sustainability analysis shows that a home using all electric appliances is both the most affordable option and results in lower greenhouse gas emissions over a 15-year period compared to using natural gas for some or all appliances.”

In a presentation, he explained that the average cost for a tankless water heater, which can be run on both electric and gas lines depending on the model, is $3,800 or $2,400 more than a conventional water heater. “This is about 10 times the premium estimated in the Austin analysis,” he said. Encouraging the use of these more expensive appliances, he said, would exacerbate inequality and make basic appliances more difficult for low-income residents to afford.

Several of the commissioners who had personal experience purchasing all-electric appliances said that the numbers cited in the Office of Sustainability analysis looked “suspicious.”

Commissioner Smitty Smith noted that the Crestview neighborhood in North Central Austin was a prime case study for the consequences of having only one energy source powering a home. The neighborhood, he said, never had a natural gas line infrastructure installed, and as a result, the electric bills are some of the highest in Austin.

At the same time, he explained that “the other thing that’s missing in this dialogue is the question of how fast storage is coming on in this play.” The existing electrical system is heavily reliant on natural gas as backup fuel; however, as more reliable electric storage comes online, “I see a significant shift in that,” Smith said.

While many appliances can run on both electricity and natural gas, Chair Leo Dielmann brought the commission back to its microfocus: water heaters.

“This is a very specific issue we know needs to be addressed,” Commissioner Cyrus Reed agreed.

The commission voted unanimously to recommend that Council open a discussion to consider rewording the language or removing the code section pertaining to water heaters, in order to make it clear that natural gas is not the only option for alternative energy.

Commissioner Scott Kohan was absent from the meeting.

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