The Mountain View City Council's ban on natural gas is heavy-handed and a distraction from the real climate change issues facing the planet. To take real action on climate change, we need to stop getting distracted by low-impact fads like banning plastic straws and natural gas in the home, as two recent examples of policies that address far less than 1% of emissions. I work in renewable energy, and as one who devotes his career to the cause, I suggest that we think and plan strategically to work toward making meaningful solutions realizable, rather than adopting a patchwork of unscientific, ineffectual and costly tactics.
The meaningful steps that consumers can take to reduce emissions include flying less; driving less or in more efficient cars; eating less meat; using greener energy sources; and living in higher density areas (15% less energy use per capita results from each doubling of city size). The City Council has taken real steps along some of these vectors, for example delivering renewable energy through the Silicon Valley Clean Energy program. If the city wants to move more aggressively, I would suggest considering variants on these policies to incentivize greener behavior: more bike lanes; more electric vehicle charging stations; higher gas taxes; improved mass transit (for example, putting Wi-Fi on board may be the most cost effective step to increase rider satisfaction)' and increasing housing density, especially around transit hubs.
A San Bruno fire was caused by an explosion in a natural gas pipeline, but more numerous and deadly fires have been produced by electric transmission lines. Adopting electric boilers and stoves will place increased load on those electric lines, and during power shutdowns, residents under this ban will add cooked food and hot water to the list of luxuries they cannot have several times per year.
Banning natural gas raises the cost of living in an already very high cost of living area. Taking my home as an example, replacing gas with electricity generated from solar panels would cost about $16,000 in up-front cost for the solar panels, which would take over 65 years to pay back given the current cost of natural gas, even assuming zero cost of capital and that the solar panels would last 65 years — both of which assumptions are badly incorrect. Raising the cost of living in Mountain View will continue to push people to live farther away, therefore burning more gas in cars and increasing traffic.
Most serious home chefs prefer cooking with gas stoves; those who prioritize having home-cooked meals should be allowed to do so. Some critics of natural gas cooking contend that natural gas stoves release toxic fumes in the kitchen. Regarding indoor particulates that can be damaging to lungs, particulates are attributed more to cleaning products, toasters and the foods themselves than burning gas. Regarding vapors, research on whether there are measurable harmful effects from indoor gas emissions is still being conducted (see the HOMEChem project for example) and shows thus far that gas concentrations during cooking are below EPA limits. If future studies show that indoor cooking poses a health risk, then homeowners and developers are free to elect electric stoves without a gas ban. For those concerned about unsubstantiated health effects of indoor cooking, a proportionate response would be to ensure your kitchen has good ventilation.
If the above arguments are not persuasive, then I suggest that increasing the price of natural gas would have been a way to encourage less natural gas use at the margin — for new and existing homes — while allowing those who want to cook with gas to continue to do so and raising city revenue at the same time.
In summary, banning natural gas in residences is more about optics than sound policy. It gives council members a way to burnish their green credentials without inconveniencing many current voters. However, it is not the sort of thoughtful and meaningful approach that tackling climate change requires.
Tim Holme is a Mountain View resident.