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To fight climate change, and now Russia, too, Zurich turns off natural gas

The city of Zurich, Switzerland, is shutting down the gas supply to some neighborhoods. Originally aimed at fighting climate change and saving money, it's also a step to cut gas imports from Russia.
Edwin Remsburg
VW Pics via Getty Images
The city of Zurich, Switzerland, is shutting down the gas supply to some neighborhoods. Originally aimed at fighting climate change and saving money, it's also a step to cut gas imports from Russia.

European officials are debating whether they can stop buying natural gas imports from Russia. Many say it can't be done. But the biggest city in Switzerland — Zurich — is already taking ambitious steps to wean itself off gas. It's shutting down the flow of gas to whole parts of the city.

Zurich started down this path a decade ago to save money and fight climate change. The plan provoked controversy at first. Today, as the city's residents install alternatives to gas heating, there appears to be broad support for the switch — in part, because of Russia's invasion of Ukraine. About half of Switzerland's natural gas supply comes from Russia.

"Attitudes have changed once again, dramatically," says Rainer Schöne, a spokesman for Energie 360°, Zurich's city-owned gas utility. "Today, it's clear. People want to, and have to, move away from fossil gas."

Zurich's experience may offer lessons to other cities around the world that are encouraging residents to switch away from natural gas appliances but are not, so far, shutting down the infrastructure that delivers it.

A rocky start but then wide acceptance

Zurich's move to abandon gas was driven in part by economics. The city wanted to expand a "district heating" system that uses excess heat from a waste incinerator on the edge of the city, a modern plant outfitted with the latest pollution control technology. The incinerator — supplemented by other facilities that burn wood or gas — heats water, and that hot water or steam circulates through underground pipes to homes and businesses that tap it as a heat source.

It made little sense for the city to maintain both hot water and gas pipelines side by side, says Zurich's energy commissioner, Silvia Banfi Frost. "It's quite clear that we don't want to have parallel networks for supplying heat," she says.

In 2011, city officials announced that they would start shutting down gas service within five years in one part of the city that's well-served by district heating. This area, historically dominated by industry and apartment buildings, is home to 93,000 people. But protests erupted. The plan "was indeed a shock" to many people who relied on gas, says Schöne.

Residents argued that they'd received too little notice and that they were being forced to buy costly replacements for their gas appliances. So officials backed off, promising to compensate people who had to replace gas furnaces that were less than 20 years old. Zurich also delayed the start of the gas shutdown to 2021. Now, however, it's underway.

Some residents of Zurich, especially those in single-family homes, can't easily connect to the district heating system and have to find alternatives. Ernst Danner is a member of Zurich's City Parliament from the centrist Evangelical People's Party. He lives in a single-family home, and he installed an electric heat pump that draws warmth from water circulating through pipes that go deep underground. It cost him just over $40,000 after tax breaks and city subsidies, but it also cut his heating bill in half. Over the lifetime of the system, he says, "I pay a bit more, but it's not that much more, and it's more ecological."

Many of his neighbors, Danner says, have installed less-costly "air-source" heat pumps that draw heat from the air outside. "Those I know are very happy with their heat pumps. It's very good!" he says.

Some complaints linger, but other cities draw lessons

Mohamed Ali, the chef at a Lebanese restaurant called SimSim, isn't quite as pleased. "Actually, gas is nice," he says. "You know, to cook, to feel, to give power."

Ali is replacing his stoves with electric induction versions. Unlike old-style electric stoves, induction allows precise control of cooking, similar to gas. These stoves work fine, Ali says, but they cost $40,000, and for him, few city subsidies were available. "I was so angry, because you have to pay a lot of money, and the city is not helping," he says.

Last year, when the appointed time arrived to shut down gas service to the first neighborhood, city officials had to delay it for several months because a few people weren't yet ready. One landlord, in particular, simply refused to replace his gas furnace with new equipment to provide heat to his tenants. "He just didn't want to take care of the problem," Schöne says. "We had to visit the landlord himself, in his workplace, and tell him how serious this is."

Year by year, Zurich plans to expand its district heating system and shut down gas service in additional neighborhoods. Within 20 years, according to the long-term plan, the burning of what city officials call "fossil gas" will end. Gas pipelines may remain in the historic city center, Banfi Frost says, but she expects they will carry biogas captured from animal manure or similar sources.

Rainer Schöne, from Energie 360°, says most residents of Zurich now support the switch, mainly because of concerns about the effects of greenhouse emissions from burning fossil fuels. "There is a broad consensus in Zurich that [gas] is not, and cannot, be the future," he says.

Russia's invasion of Ukraine has only strengthened those views. "I think we should stop buying gas from Russia," Danner says. "We would have a supply problem, but we could survive without it."

The trail that Zurich is blazing could become a guide to other cities around the world. Many are encouraging people to switch from gas to electric appliances, but primarily on an individual basis.

"We are very much promoting switching from natural gas," says Kerrie Romanow, director of environmental services for the city of San Jose, Calif. But she says the city is focused on the appliances that consume the most gas. "We're not so worried about your gas cooktop, or your gas clothes dryer, as we are about heating and water heating, because those are much bigger uses," she says.

If San Jose succeeds in this effort, though, it could end up in a situation similar to Zurich's, with an expensive gas system that serves fewer and fewer customers. The financial burden of maintaining that system could fall on low-income residents who are least able to pay for new electric replacements, like heat pumps. In addition, aging pipelines are prone to leaks, releasing methane, a powerful greenhouse gas that is the main ingredient in natural gas, into the air.

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, Ari Vanrenen, declined to say whether the company is thinking about such a possibility. In an email to NPR, he wrote that "a multi-faceted approach is needed to cost-effectively achieve California's greenhouse-gas reduction objectives. This includes both electrification and decarbonizing the gas system with renewable natural gas and hydrogen."

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Dan Charles is NPR's food and agriculture correspondent.