Building out a roasting area has long represented a key milestone for coffee businesses that are ready for vertical integration. You’ve likely seen it dozens of times: a coffee shop finds its feet, looks for ways to take more ownership of the coffee experience, and builds out a roasting space, either in a dedicated facility or a corner of the cafe.
This common progression relies on a single element that, if taken away, will force the coffee industry to re-shift our expectations for what it means to start roasting coffee.
Gas-powered commercial roasters are currently the norm. In the future, they may not be.
To combat the climate crisis and reduce dependency on fossil fuels, 20+ cities across the United States have implemented some type of natural gas ban. And dozens more are coming.
These controversial policies are already forcing coffee businesses to rethink their plans to expand into roasting, so we think it’s important to get serious about how this will impact the greater coffee industry in coming years.
Let’s walk through…
- Why natural gas bans are gaining steam (and here to stay)
- Cities and states that already have all-electric mandates on the policy table
- How the coffee roasting industry can adapt to these policies
At Bellwether Coffee, we believe conversation around creating a more sustainable coffee supply chain must include the carbon emissions created during the roasting stage, and we support the electrification of roasting (and everything!) as a powerful next-step for protecting our planet.
The growing natural gas ban movement offers the perfect opportunity to take an honest look at how the roasting industry can continue to evolve to make coffee more sustainable and healthy for everyone.
Natural Gas Bans Explained
As the United States began phasing out coal production and power plants nearly twenty years ago, natural gas, a “cleaner” fuel, came into the spotlight. It was a move in the right direction, but it’s not a long-time solution.
- Burning natural gas produces heavier methane emissions than initially understood. These emissions collect in the Earth’s atmosphere, trap heat, and play a key role in increasing climate volatility. Representing over 80% of the country’s building emissions, natural gas is the greatest opportunity to reduce emissions across the country.
- Leaking gas diminishes most gains from leaving coal behind. Scientists concluded in a 2012 study that if 3% of extracted natural gas leaked into the atmosphere, it would negate the environmental benefits of switching to gas from coal. Another study from 2018, and several others since, have calculated the gas leakage rate at around 2.3% in the US, eating up most of the gains of switching from coal.
- Natural gas infrastructure is very expensive to maintain. As natural gas pipes and powerplants age, the costs of keeping them running are skyrocketing. New spending on infrastructure tripled from 2009 to 2017, with the costs passed both to private citizens and business owners.
City planners, economists, and politicians trying to plan responsibly for 20-30 years down the road must reckon with the negative impacts of these emissions, and many of them are coming up with the same conclusion: electrification.
With rapidly lowering electricity costs from renewable sources, banning new natural gas hookups, for many cities, appears a meaningful first step policy to reduce harmful carbon emissions and protect residents in the long-term.
Who’s Passing Natural Gas Bans?
Berkeley, California was the first city in the nation to ban natural gas hookups in new buildings and major renovations in July 2019.
Since then, over fifty cities in California and Massachusetts have passed bans or created incentives for non-gas electricity that will come into effect over the next year.
And the electrification movement is quickly picking up speed.
Dozens more cities have gas ban policies on the table. Takoma Park, Maryland is aiming for net-zero carbon emission by 2035, with a natural gas ban playing a key role in achieving that goal. Ann Arbor, Cambridge, San Francisco, New York City, and Seattle are among the many cities considering similar plans.
But it’s not just cities. The state of California’s plan to fully decarbonize by 2045 is only achievable with a complete ban on natural gas use. Other states with ambitious climate goals, including Vermont and New York, also have state-wide gas bans under consideration. Some of these proposed bans are currently focused on residential buildings, but the ultimate goal is to phase out natural gas for commercial use as well.
There are also a number of states that have passed anti-ban laws, prohibiting local governments from implementing natural gas bans. These laws are active in Arizona, Missouri, Minnesota, Oklahoma, Tennessee, and Mississippi. The intention of these laws is to reduce barriers to business growth, but with the rapidly lowering cost of renewable energy—already less expensive than gas-powered electricity in most areas of the country—the financial advantages of natural gas will be diminished globally within a few years.
What This All Means for Coffee Roasting
Roasting coffee with traditional gas-powered equipment creates a cloud of smoke, particulates, and volatile organic compounds (VOCs) that have harmful health implications for people and contribute to negative environmental impacts.
Sophisticated ventilation can help protect the roasting staff from the VOCs, but many states also require an afterburner to break down the harmful gases further. Afterburners also run on gas—and need a lot of it—which increases gas usage in a single session as much as 300%.
When you add it all up, the roasting stage of the coffee supply chain accounts for a sizable 15% of the coffee’s industry already massive total carbon footprint.
Environmental harm aside, gas lines, ventilation, and permit costs add up quickly for coffee roasters, and are already a huge barrier to entry.
It shouldn’t be a surprise that traditional coffee roasters are in the crosshairs of natural gas bans.
Traditional roasting equipment has worked for our industry for decades, but as the world looks to decarbonize further and further, gas-powered commercial roasters will have a harder time finding their place.
- Traditional roasting methods may not be an option in the future. If you’re looking to expand into roasting in one of the many cities that already have already passed gas bans or have them under consideration, you’ll likely encounter a wall you cannot overcome with a traditional roaster.
- Future gas bans make gas-powered roasters a more risky investment. If you live in a city that’s considering a ban, you likely still have time to install a new gas line. In a few years when you’re looking to expand or move into a new location, the circumstances might be different, and your options may be severely limited.
- Electrification is an inevitable force. While gas bans are still a relatively new policy in the US, Americans feel strongly about moving towards clean energy. It’s only a matter of time before gas bans and building electrification enter the policy-making mainstream and impact more cities and states.
Future-minded business owners—especially those in states already implementing or considering bans—need to carefully consider whether investing in gas-powered equipment is the right move for the business long-term.
A Gas-Free Future for Coffee Roasters Is Already Here
When we first dreamed up the Bellwether Roaster, our all-electric commercial roaster, natural gas bans and energy policy weren’t on our radar. We aimed to enable a new level of consistency and control for roasters, as well as make roasting more approachable and sustainable.
In the process, we built the world’s first zero-emission coffee roaster.
The Bellwether Roaster eliminates the need for expensive ventilation, gas lines, and permits. It plugs in anywhere, so you can start roasting on Day One. But we’re particularly proud of what it means for our industry’s future impact on the planet.
We hired a third-party research team to conduct a study on the environmental impact of using a Bellwether Roaster. They discovered that roasting on a Bellwether for one year is the equivalent of…
- Keeping a car off the road for 60,779 miles
- Sequestering the carbon created from 32 acres of forest
- Saving all the electricity generated by 4.1 homes
Annually, a cafe roasting on a Bellwether can save up to 54,000 pounds of CO2 emissions, making it the most sustainable roaster in the world, both in air quality and energy use.
We know that natural gas bans will create new challenges for the coffee roasting industry, but they’re no longer the existential threat to roasting they once might have been.
We’re proud to help cafes, restaurants, and others roast exceptional coffee in a way that’s policy compliant, good for our planet, and healthy for our communities.
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