This article is part two of two in a series about San Jose as an emerging leader in green building policy. Read the first article.
In 2019, the San Jose City Council took a giant step in making the city’s homes more efficient and affordable, as well as meeting the city’s climate commitments, in Climate Smart San Jose. The climate plan, which sets a goal to have 100 percent of new homes achieve zero net energy by 2020, recognizes that zero net energy homes optimize building performance, lower energy loads and reduce energy bills, while providing more affordable housing in a city with rising housing prices and a growing population.
In September, the City Council unanimously approved a new reach building code aimed at electrifying buildings and transportation. A reach code, or stretch code, is a local building code or alternative compliance path that is more aggressive, or “reaches” beyond, the state-mandated code. Such a code results in buildings that achieve higher energy savings and incorporate the newest advances in technology and design practices. In San Jose’s new reach code, all appliances in new homes and multifamily buildings—such as heaters, stoves and furnaces—are required to be powered by San Jose’s clean electricity rather than natural gas.
Electrification will significantly contribute to meeting San Jose’s climate goals, because household use of natural gas in heating and cooking creates emissions in the city. However, electrifying buildings may also lower both first construction costs and operating costs, a significant benefit for residents in a city facing a housing affordability crisis and steadily increasing gas prices. The city found that all-electric single-family homes are cheaper to build per square foot than mixed-use fuel homes, with cost savings resulting from not needing to build in natural gas infrastructure (e.g., service line and appurtenances). These savings could also offset the potential higher costs of electric appliances.
Although the new ordinance only applies to new single family homes and multifamily buildings, the city’s Electrify San Jose program provides rebates for owners of existing homes and commercial construction to construct or switch from fossil-fuel based energy sources or to electricity. The new code allows flexibility for these larger buildings to use gas, but any building constructed to use gas will be required to meet higher efficiency requirements and provide the necessary infrastructure for later switching to electric appliances.
While at least eight other California cities have already taken action on their climate commitments by electrifying buildings, San Jose, as the nation’s 10th largest city, is by far the largest. San Jose Mayor Sam Liccardo said, “We are providing an example of the kind of concrete action that we can take today to confront a climate emergency and send a clear signal about our commitment to preserving our planet.”
San Jose’s new green building policies can be powerful signals to other large cities that it is possible to take aggressive action locally to meet climate commitments while creating a healthier and more affordable future.