SLO is pushing all-electric homes. That won’t cut greenhouse gas emissions

Should San Luis Obispo require most new houses be all-electric?

SLO’s rationale: Fossil fuels cause global warming. Monterey Bay Community Power (MBCP) supplies us “carbon-free” electricity. The state requires residential solar panels. It’s time to get rid of natural gas and save the Earth.

But the devil’s in the details:

  • Two-thirds of MBCP’s power is old Northwest hydro. Most has been around for decades. Putting our name on it does nothing to lessen global warming.
  • We don’t get, or use, MBCP’s “clean” power. There’s no direct line to get it to us.
  • Power we do get and use is the “California mix,” about 40% fossil fueled.
  • Converting fossil energy to electricity is enormously inefficient. Typical gas plants’ electricity contains about one-third the fossil energy going into the plant. About two-thirds is wasted.
  • On-site burning of gas to heat buildings can be highly efficient, and uses far less gas than burning gas to make electricity to convert back to household heat.

The upshot: All-electric houses using today’s California mix will increase, not decrease, greenhouse gas emissions.

Those state-mandated residential photovoltaic systems are sized for dual-fuel gas/electric houses, and are too small for all-electric bragging rights.

Incredibly, SLO plans to exempt from all-electric rules “more than 1,500” unbuilt homes. That’s about 8% of the city’s current housing supply.

SLO is amending its building code to include the all-electric mandate. Lay people must understand building codes define the worst, not best, building that’s legal — in this case, the least energy-efficient legal house.

And “worst building” is what SLO seeks in its all-electric houses, which must merely meet the code’s lowest energy standard.

A dual-fuel house, on the other hand, must be at least 15% more efficient and pay a pollution fee. This is the superior building, yet the builder gets “punished” with $10,000-$15,000 in extra costs for the building’s better energy performance.

We need better buildings. We have become blasé about the profligate energy demands of buildings, which nationally approach 50% of total energy usage. We must use less energy in buildings, not just change fuels on wasteful buildings and claim the battle’s won.

SLO has not even begun to consider such issues, which have been on the menu elsewhere since the 1980s.

We can design buildings that employ nature’s free energy to heat, cool, ventilate and light themselves. This is nothing new. A young bride, Xenophon tells us, was thrilled her new house had “living rooms … that are cool in summer and warm in winter,” and Aeschylus called such homes “modern” and “civilized,” unlike those of “primitives” and “barbarians.” That’s in the 5th Century B.C.

In the 20th century, we forgot what we knew about natural energy as it became cheap and easy to flip a switch for instant light, ventilation, and comfort control, plus plenty of nifty new things to do with energy, and that’s why we’re where we are today.

We are “barbarians.” Nearly new houses along Prado Road ignore every measure needed to capture natural energy for thermal comfort. Why?

Our existential environmental crisis goes deeper than popular global warming hysteria takes us. Our earth provides the resources and services necessary for life. We unawarely demand too much of both. One service is processing waste. Nature can process carbon dumped into the atmosphere, but we dump so much so fast nature cannot keep up. Thus global warming.

That’s only one of hundreds of fundamental ways we overwhelm our earth. Today’s human demands on the Earth would require 1.7 earths if they continue. If everyone lived like Americans — and do we have a right to say they can’t? — we’d need almost four earths.

This is unsustainable. What cannot go on forever doesn’t. We can wind it down, or we can let nature take her revenge.

We need meaningful actions, not noise, to avert environmental catastrophe. Given our human nature, to wallow in the familiar and comfortable, this is not going to be easy. The task will be made more difficult by noisy political “solutions” that aren’t solutions.

As for touting electric conversion as the rosy solution for energy-guzzling buildings, my Latin teacher had an appropriately memorable saying: “The road to hell is paved with good intentions.”

Richard Schmidt is an architect who taught energy-conscious design in the Cal Poly architecture department. He served on many San Luis Obispo advisory committees, including the San Luis Obispo Planning Commission.

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