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San Jose leaders adopt environmental building codes

San Jose leaders on Tuesday voted 10-0 to adopt a new reach code ordinance that mandates all new buildings to become electric, a bold effort many supporters and environmental advocates praised as a response to what the City Council also unanimously declared is a “climate emergency.”

Vice Mayor Chappie Jones did not vote, as he was absent at Tuesday’s meeting.

“A building energy reach code provides an example of the kind of concrete action we can take to confront our climate emergency, and to send a clear market signal supporting decarbonization,” wrote Mayor Sam Liccardo alongside Councilmembers Raul Peralez, Lan Diep, Magdalena Carrasco and Dev Davis in a joint memo.

Earlier in the day, the mayor and his four fellow councilors joined forces with local advocates at a press conference to announce the massive proposal that would require all new construction of buildings in San Jose to be electric.

The move was declared as a direct attack on President Donald Trump who happens to be visiting the Bay Area for a fundraiser. At the press conference Tuesday, the veteran lawmakers sent a clear message to the president — calling their meeting an “antidote” to Trump, and publicly denouncing his leadership as the critical fight against climate change rages.

“This is an antidote to some announcements that are being made today by our Chief Executive wherever he may in the Bay Area. We are showing here how we can confront this climate crisis– a crisis that has been largely ignored with the application of federal responsibility on this issue,” said Liccardo during the press conference. “Our children and grandchildren will not forgive us for merely incremental progress — we need to take bold action to counter this global threat.”

The new reach codes require that all buildings including accessory dwelling units, single-family homes and low-rise and multi-family dwellings be electric by Jan. 1, 2020. The lawmakers also approved that all new multi-family buildings include “70 percent electric vehicle capable spaces, at least 20 percent electric vehicle ready spaces, and at least 10 percent electric vehicle service equipment spaces.”

In addition, the ordinance will cut down the cost of installing solar and battery storage, encourage the construction of electric vehicle infrastructure and electric appliances in new affordable housing projects, prohibit natural gas in all new non residential and commercial construction and offer options for “potential fee and tax reductions for new all-electric high-rise multi-family and commercial building construction.”

As a result, city officials hope that the reach codes will bolster the city’s environmentally-friendly status by significantly reducing green house emissions, aggressively removing fossil fuels from new construction projects, facilitating the transition to electric vehicles, and improving the indoor and outdoor air quality.

In the last few weeks, Liccardo and many of his council colleagues have rolled out a slew of climate reforms as part of the city’s Climate Smart San Jose plan — a strenuous effort to meet the city’s climate goals in reducing green house emissions and transitioning to 100 percent carbon-free base power by 2020.

“Electrification of buildings in San Jose will help us meet our climate goals faster,” said Director of Environmental Services Kerrie Romanow, who oversees the Climate Smart San José plan. “Focusing on new developments provides the opportunity to electrify buildings and transportation at a lower cost than a retrofit and will have a significant reduction in our carbon footprint – a win-win for our community and the environment.”

But at Tuesday’s meeting, some lawmakers raised concerns. Councilmember Johnny Khamis, who could not sign off on the proposal without understanding whether or not the new codes would drive up the cost of housing production, asked staff to circle back with a cost-analysis study. His main worry was that higher costs will lead developers to build elsewhere, exacerbating Silicon Valley’s housing crisis.

“I wanted to get a sense of whether this helps or hurts the problem by creating new regulations and new requirements,” said Khamis, who was especially troubled that the cost of ADU production might increase. “Developing more hurdles to jump through actually makes things more expensive. My whole goal is to not increase the price of housing so people won’t go to other areas and develop there.”

While Councilmember Pam Foley disagreed that the new reach codes would make ADU production more expensive, she did cite concerns over the resiliency of the city’s electrical grid as new housing construction transitions completely away from gas infrastructure.

“Developers already have to make these changes, what we’re asking is to take it a step further. But I am concerned over the resiliency of the electrical grid. We should look at other ways to create a more stable electrical grid for us,” added Foley. “We are the tenth largest city but we are leading the pack in this effort. We set the bar high in the city of San Jose — that’s going to do it for our children.”

More than 45 cities and counties are considering adopting reach codes that require building and transportation electrification. In the Bay Area, San Jose joined 19 other cities such as San Francisco, Oakland and Fremont that have adopted similar ordinances.

City officials will submit the reach code ordinance to the California Energy Commission for review by Sept. 30 and proceed to file with the Building Standards Commission before the end of the year, sometime in December. Staff will report back to the City Council by the spring of 2020 with an update on the city’s Climate Smart plan and options for potential fee and tax reductions for the construction of the new electric residential and commercial units.

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