City Planning and Building Director talks Reach Codes

Piedmont may act to decrease natural gas use in buildings by improving insulation, and by switching out natural gas appliances for electric appliances powered by renewable energy.

There have been enough concerns and questions raised about the city’s planned building code changes — both by residents and the two council members who voted against them — that a second reading enacting them has been postponed to conduct more outreach.

The changes, dubbed Reach Codes, are intended to address one of the city’s major sources of greenhouse gas emissions by making homes more energy efficient. With almost no new construction within its borders and little commercial area to address, the new Piedmont codes focus on cutting natural gas consumption in the homes already here.

“If we don’t reduce natural gas use in our existing building stock there is no way we are going to meet our greenhouse gas emission targets.”

Planning and Building Director Kevin Jackson.

“Even if we reduce all our other emissions we will be more than two times above our goal. So it’s critical for us to do that.”

Surveys of residents have consistently shown deep concern about climate change and strong support for taking steps to reduce the city’s emissions that contribute to it. What Piedmont generates is small compared to large cities around it that have freeways and industry, but the idea is to manage the city’s main source of emissions, not to balance it against its neighbors.

“I don’t think anybody in their right mind would think we are trying to do so,” Jackson said. “That’s not it’s intent. Piedmont has goals to reduce the amount of emissions within its boundaries. We don’t have a refinery. Emissions from natural gas in buildings account for about 50 percent of our overall emissions. If we’re going to meet our 2050 reduction goals we have to change that.” The code changes are not arbitrary, are not “boilerplate,” as some online commenters have said, and were compiled after an extensive process, he said.

“We held focus groups,” Jackson said. “We had an online survey up for 30 days. And it was all really fruitful. We got good engagement from property owners and contractors and revised the codes based on that,” with consideration given to what might be encountered.

A survey of 400 voters conducted by FM3 Research showed that two-thirds of respondents strongly support or somewhat support reducing natural gas consumption by revising building codes. The survey followed community meetings with residents and contractors on the requirements formulated by the city and consultants from East Bay Community Energy, the city’s designated power provider. 

“We got a lot of feedback and made modifications in response to concerns we heard,” Jackson said. “After a lot of public engagement we feel these regulations are the right fit at this time. I think the council should have confidence that Reach Codes are supported by Piedmonters.”

Nonetheless, questions and concerns have mounted since the City Council majority approved the first reading on July 20. A portion of the code addresses gas-powered appliances — stoves, furnaces, water heaters — and paving the way for replacing them with electrical appliances, whether now or in the future.

“Nobody is going to be forced to give up their gas range if they really like it,”

Jackson said, noting that there are other, lower cost options that would both increase energy efficiency and bring a remodel or renovation project in compliance. A kitchen or laundry room project of $25,000 or less would be required to have an electrical hookup installed to make it easier for subsequent owners to install an electric appliance.

The $25,000 threshold was chosen because 80 percent of the city’s building permit applications are for jobs costing less than that. One commenter said such a hookup for a kitchen remodel in an older home would require costly rewiring, but Jackson said that would be true even without the Reach Codes because “you would have to bring it up to modern standards anyway.”

Many of the options for meeting the code’s requirements represent relatively low cost aspects of a remodeling project, including a package of attic insulation, air sealing, and duct sealing; floor insulation; a package of low-flow fixtures and water heater and/or water piping insulation; and a package of high-efficiency lighting and controls for internal and external lights. The code requirements “are meant to start when people do work on their homes to make them more energy efficient and more electrified.”

Homeowners who already installed these measures would not necessarily be penalized, Jackson said. “The building code gives the officials authority to waive the requirement if it’s not appropriate,” he said, adding that work already done “would come into play.”

“Every property has something different about it,” Jackson said. “We would look to see if they have done a lot of work already.”

The requirements are greater for major projects such as adding a second story to a home or all new construction such as a detached accessory dwelling unit.

An ADU would be required to include all-electric appliances. A large home addition or other major alteration in roof area would be required to include installation of solar panels (about 15 percent of Piedmont homes already have solar systems, according to the city).

Jackson said that the required changes “are cost-effective in the long run,” and that “Some have their payback really quick.”

He also noted that homes that do choose to go all-electric qualify for a tier with lower monthly rates from East Bay Community Energy, while homes that retain gas service aren’t eligible.

The revised codes are an important step to reducing Piedmont’s overall carbon footprint, which residents have named in surveys as a priority for the city. As for how they will actually work in practice, “The building code is revised every three years, so there is ample opportunity to improve these,” Jackson said.

The city has yet to schedule new outreach efforts and has not set a date for a second reading. In the meantime, many of the concerns are addressed in a an online FAQ the city has compiled at https://piedmont.ca.gov/UserFiles/Servers/Server_13659739/File/Government/Departments/Planning%20Division/Reach_Codes/Reach_Code_FAQ.pdf .

Jackson said the page will be updated next week with additional answers to questions recently raised by the community.

“These are well thought out, moderate code regulations–and without them we will not make our climate action goals,” Jackson said, noting that emissions attributed to natural gas have not decreased since Piedmont began tracking them in 2005.

“Voluntary efforts aren’t making a difference,” he said. “The volume of change is not getting us anywhere.” Climate change is already creating issues and costs for the community, Jackson said.

“If people take in the long picture, the upfront costs pale in comparison to the worst effects that climate change is going to make in the coming decades,” he said. “Even now, we’re getting applications to install electric generators and air conditioning systems. (Generators are powered by natural gas, he noted.) “It’s better to mitigate the effects now than to pay more later.”

11 thoughts on “City Planning and Building Director talks Reach Codes

  1. I would suggest that anyone concerned about the proposed REACH Codes watch the KCOM video of the Sept 3 Town Hall on the subject and read the related materials, which answer virtually every concern raised above and make it very clear that the proposed REACH Codes are very balanced and have very little burden on homeowners. Indeed, options to meet the proposed REACH Codes start at just a few hundred dollars and payback within a few years. Many provisions protect homeowners from any undue burden.

    The future of home energy is distributed and much less dependent on the grid. Solar panels and home batteries radically reduce the burden on the grid, meshing the location of production, storage and use.

    To stop climate change, all greenhouse gas emission will need to cease (or be offset) within decades. The proposed REACH Codes are a start with respect to those things under City control.

  2. The community has a number of questions about the methods and results of the two surveys related to the Reach Codes. There appears to be very limited information on-line regarding these surveys

    I support the City Council making all of the Reach Code Survey information public and available on-line. How can we have community involvement if limited information is shared?

  3. The survey was randomized so as to avoid a biased sample and 400 is more than adequate to represent a community as homogeneous as Piedmont. Watch the FM3 presentation at the July 6 Councul meeting on the city website to learn more about the study methods.

    As to reduced energy usage, there’s nothing wrong with using renewable energy.

    The vast majority of piedmont homes affected by the reach codes will be visibly and structurally unchanged by the reach codes as the energy efficiency measures are all within the building envelope.

  4. This whole REACH code seems absurd to me for three main reasons.

    First, burning natural gas is one of the most efficient ways to heat a house and for cooking. Why should Piedmonter have to suffer with building codes that deprive new buildings of such energy-efficient technologies.

    Second, why does it even matter where natural gas is burnt to generate electricity? Who care where CO2 and H2O are generated, in Piedmont or elsewhere at a PG&E plant? If “greenhouse gases” like CO2 and H2O are generated in Piedmont instead of elsewhere, I say “good.” At least we are not losing energy via transmission losses from PG&E lines.

    Third, the REACH codes generally seem technology phobic and backward looking. Beside the problems with the lack of rigor associated with “greenhouse gas global warming,” lack of a home’s hook-up to a natural gas source deprives the homeowner of new technologies such as fuel cells, which generate electricity from natural gas without having to burn the gas. Surely we should not prohibit new builds in Piedmont from having a back up power supply based on new fuel cell or established generator technologies. Solar does not work at night.

    Thus, I do not think Piedmont should follow the libtarded approach pioneered by Berkeley. I would urge Piedmonters to lobby their City Council to reject the REACH codes to the extent such codes ban new construction in Piedmont from hooking up to natural gas.

  5. We are in the midst of rolling electric blackouts because the State power grid has insufficient capacity and rotating outages are a not uncommon disruption. The ultimate goal of the Reach Codes is to force mandatory 100% electrification of homes. An electric blackout means no cooking, no cooling (or heating in winter), no lights, no charging your Tesla, no internet; those in 100% electric home will be back to the stone age.

    Going to 100% electricity will stress the State grid further. Except for black swan events like PG&E’s 2010 San Bruno explosion, rolling natural gas outages are unknown. There is a glut of natural gas. Forcing 100% electricity on homes is too much both from practical and economic perspectives. Electricity is a much more expensive power source than natural gas. Exacerbating is that Californians pay electric rates 56% higher than the average of other states (source: Center For Jobs and the Economy) on top of our sky high housing costs and nationally second highest gasoline costs. On top of the high costs of the Bay Area, increases are coming as PGE exits from bankruptcy and will sharply increase rates to comply with court orders to secure its power grid from causing future fires.

    The goal of Reach Codes is commonly accepted, of “doing the right thing” by the environment. We all agree with that however, the Reach Codes are a blanket solution that has many pitfalls and should be rejected in favor of an incentive based system in Piedmont.

  6. Another question for author Chris Treadway:

    You write: “A survey of 400 voters conducted by FM3 Research showed that two-thirds of respondents strongly support or somewhat support reducing natural gas consumption by revising building codes.”

    I’m wondering how familiar you are with statistics? Piedmont’s population is over 10,000 (10,000 is just the registered voters). Statistics is a science. I happen to believe in science. The results of a survey of 400 people isn’t representative of the entire population of Piedmont if the survey wasn’t conducted in a way to ensure that population of the “sample” (i.e. the survey respondents) is representative of the entire population (i.e. all residents).

    Professional statisticians make that info available for the surveys they conduct. This survey did not. Furthermore, FM3 acknowledged that the survey was conducted all online…which clearly omits an elder demographic of our city.

    So, scientifically speaking, the survey results in your article can not be viewed as representative of the entire resident population of Piedmont.

  7. A question for the author Chris Treadway:

    You write: “but the idea is to manage the city’s main source of emissions, not to balance it against its neighbors.” Why isn’t the objective to reduce overall energy consumption?

    I’m confident that most Piedmont residents support reducing our energy consumption….and their are a lot of ways to do that the don’t involve eliminating our natural gas appliances.

  8. Mr. Jackson
    I believe all Piedmont residents are for climate change but for climate change when it has an impact from the intended changes.

    I think you need to reconsider your codes as I have serious doubts it will achieve anything substantial for our society. I ask you to read my following bullet points:
    1. The impact to the citizens of Piedmont is far greater than the emission results. To your point – what Piedmont generates is small compared to large cities around us. If what we generate is so small what impact can we really have and are these codes necessary when the results are so minimal to society?
    2. You mention Greenhouse emission targets by 2050 – who established these targets and are they self imposed?
    3. You mention buildings generate 50% of the emissions in Piedmont. Why not go after the largest source of emissions and leave the residents alone?
    4. The $25,000 threshold is meaningless to anyone that has done any remodeling in Piedmont. No kitchen can be done for that amount and there is also mention of seismic upgrades for under that amount. I had a seismic upgrade in 1995 and the cost was in excess of $50,000.
    5. Not every home in Piedmont has perfect roof lines (mine does not), roofs that can be made solar (tile roofs cannot) or have enough sun to substantiate solar roofs. Our community is in the fog belt most days until noon.
    6. The survey of 400 residents is not sufficient for a town the size of Piedmont and, in fact, most of us, including me, didn’t even know there was a survey.
    7. Energy Audit – this is an obstacle to the sale of homes and as I’m sure you know the transfer tax that Piedmont receives from the sale of homes is significant and is in jeopardy with this audit.
    8. Change of character of Piedmont – this has significant ramifications to the value of our homes in Piedmont. If these codes as written are enacted it could change the integrity of older homes when they turnover and the new homeowner decides to remodel. The new remodeled home may not represent what the older one was and may not be appropriate to Piedmont character and therefore, reduce the value of all homes.

    Regardless of whether you agree with points 2. – 8., there is no denying that the benefits to emissions resulting from the codes as written will cause more damage to the citizens than any emission savings that may, and I emphasize may, result.

    Respectfully

    Bill Peterson

    • I hope all (or most) Piedmont residents aren’t “for” climate change, as Mr. Peterson believes, but instead are for action to mitigate climate change. To respond to the individual points:
      1. Like all change, the actions of individuals roll up to larger change. While Piedmont is a small town, and our collective climate impact is therefore proportionately small, our community actually has a disproportionately large climate impact per capita, because we are affluent, have relatively large homes, and consume more goods and services, including energy.
      2. Greenhouse gas reduction targets have been set at the community level (Piedmont’s Climate Action Plan 2.0, adopted by the City Council in 2018), the state level, the national level and the international level (by the UN). We all need to pull oars together, around town, around the state, around the country and around the world, to make urgently needed change.
      3. Our building emissions are the largest source of emissions (50%), with the remaining 50% coming from our cars. So the REACH codes do focus on the single largest category. Staff are also working on programs like the Bike/Pedestrian plan and a public EV charger pilot, to address the transportation piece.
      4. Yes, the $25,000 project level will apply to a variety of projects, as it should to start making change.
      5. The state already has exemptions from the solar requirement based on feasibility and shade. The REACH codes would adopt the same exemption standards.
      6. There were two surveys. One was posted for a month, for anyone to participate in. The other was an intentional random sample of residents.

      Overall, I believe we are much more at risk from “damage” from allowing climate change to continue unabated, rather than the inchoate damage Mr. Peterson is concerned about.

      I hope that most residents, and our City Council members, will not be swayed by alarmist and uninformed opinions, but instead show leadership in helping us all to make the kind of changes to our homes and lives so desperately needed in this historic era.

      Susan Miller-Davis

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