As part of the Wisconsin Global Warming Task Force, Bruce Nilles advised homeowners to buy water heaters that burn natural gas to reduce the demand for electricity from coal and keep carbon dioxide out of the atmosphere.
Fast forward 11 years and Nilles is doing the exact opposite. He’s now touting the use of electricity, that is instead increasingly being generated from wind, solar and other renewable sources.
“In the past, we thought there was a world where you could still burn modest amounts of fossil fuels,” said Nilles, now with the Boulder, Colorado-based think tank Rocky Mountain Institute. “Boy, how the world has changed in the decade.”
Nilles’ shift is part of a movement to “electrify everything” — from school buses to barbecue grills — that’s gaining adherents across the country as the share of power from renewable sources grows. A major focus is limiting the use of natural gas in buildings, which in a typical city can account for half of the greenhouse gas emissions, according to environmental backers.
Presidential candidate Bernie Sanders recently unveiled a plan to spend $1 billion for electrification and mandates to ensure that all new buildings and existing “big business commercial buildings and wealthy homeowners” electrify.
Berkeley, California, in July became the first city to require new buildings to be all-electric, starting Jan. 1. Other jurisdictions in the state are taking similar steps: San Jose is poised to become the largest city in nation to bar natural gas in new homes after the city council recently approved a proposal to create an ordinance to do so.
San Luis Obispo also passed a measure to deter the use of gas in new buildings, and Los Angeles and San Francisco are considering doing so as well, said Amanda Myers a policy analyst with the think tank Energy Innovation.
Measures are also being considered in Seattle and Massachusetts and approximately 50 other localities, she said.
“We are just getting started on this,” Nilles, managing director of the Rocky Mountain Institute’s building electrification program, said in an interview. “It’s a big piece of the carbon puzzle and its something you can solve at every level of government.”
The movement isn’t just limited to buildings. Utilities that have been suffering for years with flat electricity demand envision a future where farm equipment, cranes and school buses are powered by electricity.