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As Europe debates banning natural gas from Russia, Zurich, Switzerland, is already shutting off some gas to curb climate change. Dan Charles reports.
DAN CHARLES, BYLINE: Officials in Zurich announced just over 10 years ago that they wanted to decommission gas pipelines in a chunk of the city with close to 100,000 people. Rainer Schone from the city's gas company says many people weren't quite ready for it.
RAINER SCHONE: (Non-English language spoken).
CHARLES: "It was a shock," he says. But officials wanted to promote a different source of energy - extra heat from a waste incinerator on the edge of the city. It's a modern plant with all the latest pollution controls. And it also heats water, which then circulates through underground pipes to homes and businesses. This is called district heating. And Zurich's energy commissioner, Silvia Banfi Frost, says it made no sense to run hot water and gas pipelines side by side.
SILVIA BANFI FROST: (Through interpreter) It's quite clear that we don't want to have parallel networks for supplying heat.
CHARLES: Some city residents protested because the switch from gas could be expensive. So officials promised to compensate anybody who had to discard a new gas furnace, and they delayed the shutdown by five years. But now it's happening. Connecting to the district heating system isn't possible for some people, though, especially those who live in single-family homes, like Ernst Danner, a member of Zurich's City Parliament. He and his neighbors have switched to electric heat pumps, basically reverse air conditioners delivering heat, not just cooling.
ERNST DANNER: Those I know are very happy with their heat pump. It's - yes, it's very good.
CHARLES: Mohamed Ali, a chef at a Lebanese restaurant called SimSim, is less pleased. He's been cooking with gas.
MOHAMED ALI: Actually, gas, it's nice, you know, to cook, to feel, to give power.
CHARLES: He's installing electric induction stoves in his restaurant. Unlike old-style electric stoves, with these, you can turn the heat up and down instantly, more like gas. They work fine, he says, but they cost $40,000. And for him, there were few subsidies.
ALI: I just was so angry because you have to pay a lot of money, and the city not helping, you know.
CHARLES: Year by year, gas will disappear from more neighborhoods. The plan is, by 2040, nobody in Zurich will be burning what city officials call fossil gas. And Rainer Schone from the gas company says most people in Zurich are now on board with this to fight climate change and also to stop buying gas from Russia.
SCHONE: (Through interpreter) Attitudes have changed once again dramatically. Today, it's clear. People have to and want to get away from fossil gas.
CHARLES: Zurich is blazing a trail that other cities around the world may follow. Many, like San Jose, Calif., are encouraging individual households to switch from gas to electric appliances. Kerrie Romanow, director of environmental services for San Jose, says they're focused on the equipment that burns the most gas.
KERRIE ROMANOW: We're not so worried about your gas cooktop - right? - or your gas clothes dryer as we are about heating and water heating because those are much bigger uses.
CHARLES: If they succeed, though, they could end up in a situation similar to Zurich's, with an expensive gas system that serves fewer and fewer customers. And that could mean a heavier financial burden on people who can least afford the new electric alternatives. Romanow says it would be up to the gas company, in this case Pacific Gas and Electric, to decide when shutting down gas pipelines makes economic sense. A spokesperson for PG&E declined to say whether the company is thinking about this possibility. For NPR News, I'm Dan Charles.
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