D.C. moves to ban natural gas in most new buildings, aiming for carbon neutrality Starting in 2026, most new buildings in D.C. will not be able to use natural gas, and will have to produce as much energy as they consume.
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D.C. moves to ban natural gas in most new buildings, aiming for carbon neutrality

Solar panels on the roof of a parking garage at Nationals Park. Andrew Harnik/AP Photo hide caption

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By 2026, all new buildings and substantial renovations in D.C. will have to be net-zero construction, meaning they produce as much energy as they consume, under legislation passed unanimously by the D.C. Council Tuesday. The legislation, which also bans most natural gas use in new buildings, now heads to Mayor Muriel Bowser.

At the same time, the Council passed separate climate legislation committing to making the entire city carbon neutral by 2045.

"Buildings account for close to 75% of the District's emissions," said Councilmember Mary Cheh, who introduced the bills, during discussion of the legislation. "So making our buildings more efficient and ensuring that they use clean energy, is probably one of the most important steps we can take to achieve carbon neutrality."

Building emissions come from the electricity and natural gas used for heating, air conditioning, hot water, cooking, and everything else that requires power. Earlier this year, a study found that ample natural gas leaks around the District are a contributor to climate change.

"The District of Columbia this week has really raised the bar on climate action, not only in the nation's capital, but for the whole country," said Mike Tidwell, executive director of the Chesapeake Climate Action Network, which has pushed D.C. and other local jurisdictions to adopt tougher climate laws. "The District is now ahead of most states and most cities," Tidwell said.

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The clean building legislation, just four pages long, does not itself create the new net-zero building codes, but rather instructs the mayor to do so by no later than Dec. 31, 2026. Buildings will be prohibited from using "on-site fuel combustion" (aka, burning natural gas) for furnaces or water heaters. There is an exemption to the fuel combustion ban for backup power generators in "buildings that are essential to protecting public health and safety."

The net-zero building codes will cover all commercial buildings, condo and apartment buildings, as well as single family homes taller than three stories.

The bill also requires audits every three years, starting in 2029, to report what percentage of new buildings are complying with the net-zero requirements.

Net-zero buildings are achieved through a combination of keeping energy demand low and producing clean energy onsite. These buildings are highly insulated and airtight, which keeps them cool in the summer and warm in the winter, and use efficient electric heating and cooling systems. They produce as much or more energy than they need through renewable means, like solar panels.

The Climate Commitment Act, which also passed unanimously, for the first time codifies in D.C. law the city's greenhouse gas reduction goals. The bill also speeds up the timeframe for ditching fossil fuels, committing to going carbon neutral five years earlier than the previous goal of 2050. Shorter term goals in the legislation include a 60% cut in carbon emissions by 2030, and District government-owned buildings going carbon neutral by 2040.

Even sooner, by 2025, the D.C. government will have to stop installing natural-gas-powered furnaces and water heaters, instead using more efficient electric heat pumps, which can be powered by clean energy. By 2026, the District will have to stop purchasing gas-powered vehicles, instead buying zero-emission ones.

"We're taking a very pragmatic approach," said Cheh. "We aren't requiring the District to tear out old gas boilers or sell off its entire fleet of gas-powered vehicles. We're allowing for it as we go forward, and in cases where there are issues, there will be flexibility."

This story is from DCist.com, the local news site of WAMU.

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