Starting next year, new buildings in Oak Park must be all-electric
For the first time in the Midwest, a town has passed an ordinance requiring new buildings to be all-electric.
Oak Park's electrification ordinance, which will go into effect January 2024, bans fossil fuels like natural gas from use in newly built homes and commercial buildings.
The village board voted June 20 in favor of the all-electric construction ordinance as part of the Oak Park building code. There are a few exceptions: Energy from fossil fuels can be provided for commercial kitchens and for generators as a source of emergency backup power.
While Oak Park is the first city in the state and the Midwest to pass such an ordinance, the practice is becoming more and more common in cities from states like Washington, Massachusetts and California, including Los Angeles, and New York is poised to become the first state to ban new natural gas hookups following New York City's similar legislation that passed in 2021.
Nationally, buildings contribute about 13% of greenhouse gas emissions. In Oak Park, buildings are the largest contributor -- 70% -- of the village's emissions. Chief sustainability officer Marcella Bondie Keenan said reducing that number will be critical in reaching the village's climate targets.
Bondie Keenan added that the path to approving the ordinance was a long one, informed by the village's Climate Ready Oak Park plan, community engagement meetings and conversations with electricity provider ComEd.
"Reducing (fossil fuels), especially natural gas, used by buildings is going to be one of the key strategies to help us get to our climate goals," she said. "We want to get to net-zero carbon emissions by 2050, but we also really want to slash our emissions by 60% by 2030."
Much of the emissions from buildings come from on-site fuel combustion, like gas used for cooking, water heating or space heating.
Space heating is a large chunk of residential emissions, accounting for 51% of Illinois households' energy usage in 2009, according to the federal Energy Information Administration. In that same year, the administration recorded that more than 80% of Illinois households used natural gas as their main space heating fuel.
Emissions can also come from refrigerant leaks or unclean electricity, such as power produced by coal or gas plants.
"Electricity is becoming cleaner as we get more solar panels and wind turbines and other kinds of renewable energy into our grid locally. That means that buildings using electricity will be creating fewer and fewer carbon emissions," Bondie Keenan said. "That only works for electrical equipment. You can't run gas-powered equipment on these clean energy sources. We're moving toward a future where electricity is entirely clean, and the buildings are ready to use entirely clean energy, as opposed to using gas, which will always have some amount of carbon emissions associated with it."
Illinois currently has one of the cleanest grids in the country. Illinois generates more electricity from nuclear power plants, which don't produce greenhouse gasses, than any other state, accounting for 54% of our electricity generation in 2019.
For Tom Bassett-Dilley, an architect based in Oak Park, the village's new ordinance isn't a big change: Bassett-Dilley has been designing all-electric buildings since he started his firm in 2006.
"It doesn't really change a lot what I do, but I think there are a lot of people who have been used to this way for many years and so in architecture it will take design of different systems and in construction as well," he said. "Electric systems have been used alongside gas for years and years, but gas is more common for heating, especially big boilers. We'll see a bit of a shift in the way technology is deployed."
Bassett-Dilley said he designs for sustainability by implementing electric appliances like heat pumps and induction stove tops, utilizing solar panel arrays and reducing the embodied carbon footprint of a residence by using low-carbon materials like wood and cellulose insulation.
"Nature to me has always been a source of beauty and fascination and a model of how things should be," he said. "All architects want to design good things, beautiful things, but to me that must involve responsibility toward the climate. When I was motivated to start my firm, it wasn't just about crusading to save BTUs -- it was about making buildings that are more in harmony with nature."
In addition to the new building code, Oak Park also approved a stronger energy code to go into effect in January 2024 that will enforce stricter energy efficiency building standards. The village is one of the few municipalities allowed to adopt energy codes stronger than the state code: Cities can do so if they have a population larger than 1 million or they had a local energy code before 2006.
While most municipalities have to follow the statewide energy code at minimum, Illinois is currently operating on a 2018 code and is in the process of adopting the 2021 Energy Conservation Code -- which includes an appendix on how to implement electrification. While municipalities could create their own ordinance much like Oak Park did, these guidelines would create a standardized path to electrification.
"You don't necessarily want municipalities to be doing it a bunch of different ways because builders are building in more than one municipality, and it becomes confusing," said Alison Lindburg, the buildings director for the Midwest Energy Efficiency Alliance. "The more consistency the better. If municipalities are interested, and they feel like they don't know where to start, they could wait for that electrification appendix to come out."
Lindburg added that while electrification is one step communities can take toward becoming more climate-ready, it's currently not a one-size-fits-all solution.
"Electrification is one path to decarbonization, but it's not the only path, and I don't think that every community is going to choose that path, at least in the short term," she said. "I think a lot of communities are still wrestling with understanding the potential equity impacts, and then also the impacts to a changing building industry and available materials and resources. I know that there's more conversations about it than ever, but I do think that it's not necessarily the solution for everyone."
• Jenny Whidden is a climate change and environment writer working with the Daily Herald through a partnership with Report For America supported by The Nature Conservancy. To help support her work with a tax-deductible donation, see dailyherald.com/rfa.