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Natural gas debate isn’t new to Evanston

The natural gas debate has been raging in Evanston for decades, long before a recent study on the impact of gas stoves spurred calls for Chicago to join other major cities and ban them in new construction projects.

The city passed its first Climate Action Plan in 2008 when natural gas made up 25% of the city’s carbon footprint. The City Council is now on the third iteration of the Climate Action and Resilience Plan that passed in 2018, but has still not banned gas connections or appliances in new structures. The overall goal is for the city to be carbon free by 2050.

“What we’re talking about is a ban on natural gas connections in all new construction,” City Council member and member of the Environment Board Jonathan Nieuwsma said. “That would include stoves but it would also include furnaces, boilers and hot water heaters.”

The discussion around the ban began last October when Evanston’s Sustainability and Resilience Coordinator Cara Pratt gave her update on what can be done in the new year to advance the city’s climate goals.

Nieuwsma said that new construction in Evanston often focuses on environmental sustainability and all electric buildings, but the city hopes to codify it into law. The city is moving away from natural gas in its city buildings including the new proposed animal shelter.

If passed, the ordinance will prevent private construction from using natural gas. Some developers, including those working on affordable housing, are already moving away from natural gas.

The biggest challenge will be converting existing residences from natural gas to all electric, a switch that can be prohibitively expensive. Nieuwsma said officials are moving forward with caution because they don’t want to put lower-income residents in an impossible situation.

“We’re well aware of the potential cost impacts of asking existing building to switch away from natural gas,” he said. “That is going to be a challenging discussion when that comes up and we are going to have to find some ways to help fund that.”

The city is on track to reach its 2050 goal but the work so far has been fairly easy and painless financially, according to Nieuwsma. Much of the city’s carbon footprint is from residential gas vehicle transportation, so electric vehicle infrastructure could have a large impact.

The biggest step forward was achieved through municipal electricity aggregation where the city bundles small residential and commercial electric accounts to get proposals for cleaner energy sources. Emissions have dropped over 38% in the city since 2005 and approval for the purchase of six electric vehicles for the city is included in the Jan. 23 City Council meeting agenda.

“I would like to see us (the city) continue in a leadership role, walking the walk, at the same time or even before we ask Evanston residents and Evanston businesses to take additional action,” Nieuwsma said.

He suggests that residents who are remodeling and looking to reduce their carbon footprint consider purchasing all electric options.

“It’s what we need to do here locally and, honestly, it’s what we need to do statewide, it’s what we need to do nationwide and it’s what we need to do around the world to address climate change,” Nieuwsma said. “What’s in front of us now is not in anyway a knee-jerk reaction to the nationwide discussion that’s trending on Twitter.”

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