If San Diego chooses the most ambitious plan to electrify buildings in the name of climate action, thousands of specialized natural gas workers could be out of work.
That’s according to a recent analysis of how transitioning buildings off natural gas might affect the local workforce. Affected workers represent at least 30 percent of the people who currently work on gas plants, in pipe- and steamfitting and laying pipelines.
The city of San Diego would pledge to gut fossil fuels from its economy under a reconfigured Climate Action Plan the City Council has yet to adopt. With a goal of zeroing-out planet-warming emissions by 2035, the city knows 20 percent of local fossil fuels come from natural gas flowing through buildings to power water heaters, furnaces and boilers and flame stove tops.
The city could require all buildings – both new and existing – run on electricity only. That way, if the electric grid is ever powered by 100 percent renewable energy, buildings will be too.
Labor unions representing gas workers have been worried that would mean more work for electricians and less work for the people digging trenches or laying and maintaining gas pipes. There are about 7,000 natural gas jobs in the county, including both union, non-union and utility work, the study shows. The region’s workforce accounts for 2.2 million jobs.
But the state is already trending toward electrification as cities like Encinitas and even California’s Energy Commission recently adopt electrification standards for new buildings.
Union leaders are pressuring cities to start slow with electrification while working to grow other job sectors with similar-enough skillsets to transition natural gas workers.
“My main takeaway is that initially up front we’re going to lose not a significant amount of jobs but as we start to close down natural gas plants that number is going to grow as time goes on,” said Seann Ellis an organizer for San Diego’s Local 230 pipefitters union.
Starting small for San Diego would mean requiring all-electric set-ups in new residential and commercial buildings, and leaving existing buildings alone. Going big would mean requiring retrofits in almost every building in the city so they no longer use gas. The latter is a much heavier and costlier lift, but it eliminates the most planet-warming gases of all the city’s options.
The two think tanks that worked on the analysis – the Building Electrification Institute, which assists governments in transitioning buildings off fossil fuels, and Inclusive Economics, which focuses on climate change policy’s impact on jobs – dug into state jobs data, spoke with labor leaders and San Diego Gas and Electric to figure out which kinds of jobs would be most at risk based on the policy the city picks.
If the city started small, and mandated all-electric new buildings, the natural gas workforce would see 60 to 65 fewer jobs in building construction per year, primarily for plumbers. About 32,000 people are employed in construction countywide, a sector projected to increase in the next decade.
Up to 175 gas utility workers at San Diego Gas and Electric could see a 5 to 10 percent reduction in their hours, and up to 30 workers seeing a 90 percent reduction in hours, the study notes.
SDG&E took issue with that piece of the study.
“While SDG&E supports reach codes requiring electrification for most new construction, we disagree with the report’s conclusion that this type of policy would impact the SDG&E workforce. Our dedicated, high-skilled employees will continue playing a critical role as we work regionally on the clean energy transition,” wrote Anthony Wagner, a spokesman for the utility, in an email.
Nate Fairman, business manager for IBEW Local Union 465, which represents 2,900 SDG&E workers, said the worst of those impacts would likely be felt most by gas construction workers who build new gas pipelines. But workers who lay pipe in the ground can do so for either gas or electric power lines, battery storage facilities and electric vehicle charging stations.
“I believe strongly we’ll be able to transition every single job and leave no worker behind,” Fairman said.
Fairman said he doesn’t expect large impacts until decades from now when the city ramps up retrofitting existing buildings. If the city decided to pass that policy now, “that would be a much different conversation,” Fairman said.
Some 2,700 total gas workers could be out of work if there isn’t other work where their skills can be transferred in the long run if the region begins a broader building decarbonization effort, researchers found.
“The long-term effort to decarbonize buildings could put some of these workers at risk of job loss, particularly if they are too close to retirement to re-train for other work,” the study reads.
Alyssa Muto, the city of San Diego’s director of sustainability and mobility, said the city needs to bring forward new technologies to compensate for lost work.
“What’s great about having these frank conversations about this with labor and trades representatives is that we can be truthful and honest about what the impacts are today but also (be at the front of the line with) federal and state money coming available,” Muto said.
Pipefitters and plumbers, who have translatable skills between gas and water, in San Francisco County struck a deal to push water-recycling requirements in buildings in concert with the electrification of buildings, for instance.
But the authors argued the city shouldn’t wait to start retrofitting buildings because it “has the potential to create thousands of jobs.” They likewise suggested the city start building more shared thermal energy systems, like a large, centralized underground boiler that serves a hospital or university campus instead of individual systems in each building. Those types of projects could generate new pipefitting jobs for former gas workers.
The city wants to compile an inventory of energy systems in existing buildings to map out a retrofit policy, city officials said. San Diego will start with government-owned buildings as part of the city’s Municipal Energy Strategy.Ellis, of Local 230, is hopeful so-called green hydrogen projects will proliferate, a theoretically carbon-free fuel that can be mixed with natural gas. Sempra Energy, owner of SDG&E, proposed the nation’s largest green hydrogen infrastructure system earlier this year. But many environmental groups think hydrogen is being used to prolong the life of natural gas fossil fuels. Retrofitting natural gas power plants to accommodate hydrogen would mean jobs for sectors subject to losses identified in the study, Ellis has argued.
“There isn’t a just transition for natural gas workers. It doesn’t exist,” Ellis said. “As we move forward into the next decade we should be talking about converting these natural gas plants to hydrogen systems.”