Restaurants fear huge costs in retrofitting from natural gas to electric

Proposed municipal bylaws requiring all-electric fixtures would cost average restaurant in B.C. $800,000, study says

By Gordon McIntyre, Vancouver Sun, May 30, 2024

To convert a restaurant from natural gas to electricity for cooking and patio heating would cost an average B.C. restaurant $800,000, according to a study released on Wednesday.

The study was commissioned after several municipalities, including Vancouver, Burnaby, New Westminster, Victoria and Nanaimo, have introduced bylaws banning natural gas in newly constructed buildings ahead of a zero-carbon provincial mandate that takes effect in 2030.

Phasing out natural gas in B.C. does not apply to existing buildings, but the B.C. Restaurant and Foodservices Association and the B.C. Coalition of Affordable Dependable Energy are worried the municipal moves are a foot in the door toward just that.

“It’s a huge fear, everything is going electric,” said Kelly Gordon, owner of burger-bar chain Romer’s and a member of the B.C. Restaurant Hall of Fame.

“For any potential business initiatives coming down the road, everybody’s going to say should we reinvest in the (required) capital now with these potential risks ahead of us going down the road?

“That’s a big ask for the industry. At what point does the straw break the camel’s back?”

The study, carried out by consulting firm Pacific Solutions Contracting, was based on a 3,500-squarefoot restaurant. The cost of converting it from natural gas to electricity included $450,000 for renovations and new equipment, plus $340,000 for ongoing costs such as insurance, taxes, internet, loss of business for about a month, and food wastage.

“There are multiple problems,” said Bill Tieleman, director of the B.C. Coalition for Affordable Dependable Energy.

His list began with B.C. Hydro having to import fossil fuel-powered energy last year because of drought, and the low snow pack this winter probably means more imports of dirty electricity this year and down the road.

“In the meantime, we’ve got municipalities that don’t have the resources of the Energy Ministry or the B.C. Utilities Commission making decisions that are basically permanent, because if you build a house or apartment building or a new industrial building and you don’t put in natural gas fittings, you can’t retrofit it later.

Cities not paying directly for ‘green’ policies

“So it’s going 100 per cent electrical, that just seems to us to be very premature and potentially very expensive. I think municipalities see this as a free throw. They can say, `We’re going green and moving away from all these other sources of power,’ and it doesn’t cost the city directly.”

And while restaurants are exempt, “It’s a very daunting prospect. I just don’t know what’s going to happen with this.”

Since COVID, the restaurant industry has been reeling, said Ian Tostenson, president and CEO of the B.C. Restaurant and Foodservices Association.

“Restaurants in B.C. just can’t possibly afford an $800,000 bill simply to remove perfectly functioning natural gas and renewable natural gas equipment and replace it all with electrical equipment,” he said. “We all want a cleaner environment and are doing all we can, but this would instantly put many of our members right out of business.”

The study also raises troubling questions about B.C. Hydro’s grids being able to handle a significant increase in power in restaurants, especially in areas with dense restaurant clusters.

“It’s fine to say, `Let’s go electric,’ until you take a serious look at exactly how that would work and how expensive it would be,” he said. “That’s why we had this study done, with very concerning results.

“We can’t just impose regulations like some municipalities are now doing without considering the economic impact on restaurants or the feasibility of multiple restaurants in a municipality having to convert to electricity.”

Study hopes to dissuade cities from demanding huge, unnecessary costs

The study is a proactive measure to keep the toothpaste in the tube, in other words. The building code “does not say they ‘ll restrict gas in restaurants … but you have municipalities saying they’re going to ban natural gas well ahead of 2030 in new buildings now. What we’re seeing is a glimpse into the future.

“They ‘re saying no natural gas in new builds only. What that means immediately … you will not see any restaurants in any new multi-use commercial developments because cooking with electricity right now is really underdeveloped.

“I can’t foresee a world that goes, `Oh yeah, we’re going electric, but don’t worry about restaurants.’ That just doesn’t seem real to us.”

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