The effort to electrify buildings is getting a new boost — this time, at the state level.
While a bill in the City Council that would effectively ban gas hook-ups for new construction is stalled in negotiations, state lawmakers are pushing a more sweeping measure that would require new buildings across the state to be all-electric by 2024. And by 2023, an all-electric building would not be able to convert to using fossil fuels.
The landmark bill, introduced in May by Sen. Brian Kavanagh (D-Manhattan, Brooklyn) and Assemblymember Emily Gallagher (D-Brooklyn), was amended in late October to accelerate timelines.
“We cannot allow any new fossil fuel infrastructure and still reduce emissions enough to avert climate catastrophe,” Gallagher said on Monday as President Joe Biden assured world leaders at the United Nations climate conference in Glasgow that the U.S. would meet its climate goals.
Kavanagh said he’s optimistic the state measure has the support needed to pass. If it does, New York would be the first state in the nation to mandate all-electric buildings. More than 50 municipalities in California have all-electric building codes, and other cities, including Seattle and Ithaca, are advancing electrification in new buildings.
New York real estate leaders say the bill expects too much, too soon. Technology isn’t quite ready for gas-free buildings, opponents say, noting that all-electric structures would largely rely on energy generated by fossil fuel-powered plants.
But Kavanagh and Gallagher, who rallied near City Hall on Monday with local environmental advocates, said their measure lays the groundwork to meet ambitious goals to eliminate dependence on fossil fuels and reduce carbon emissions.
“We are here to take one of the largest sources of carbon emissions and take away the excuse that the for-profit utility companies use to build dangerous pipelines and dirty energy plants,” Gallagher said.
Gallagher’s district, which includes Greenpoint, is a battleground in the fight environmentalists and community groups are waging against National Grid’s proposal to upgrade its facility in the neighborhood and extend a natural gas pipeline there — both projects the company says are necessary to ensure service reliability.
Last week, THE CITY reported, the federal Environmental Protection Agency opened a civil rights investigation into the state Department of Environmental Conservation’s role in reviewing environmental impacts of the proposed project.
VP Harris Weighs In
As activists rallied at City Hall and Biden spoke in Glasgow, Vice President Kamala Harris and Energy Secretary Jennifer Granholm appeared at Kennedy Airport in Queens to pitch key climate initiatives, including some that are part of the president’s Build Back Better proposal.
Among the plans: creating a public-private partnership to accelerate the development of affordable, electric heat pumps for residential buildings in cold-weather climates.
“This will not only cut down on emissions — it will help families save on their monthly energy bills,” Harris said.
Today in New York I said we have an opportunity to create millions of jobs and improve communities through our Build Back Better Framework and Bipartisan Infrastructure Deal with historic investments in clean energy, manufacturing, and electric vehicles. pic.twitter.com/YQPtxpxlms— Vice President Kamala Harris (@VP) November 1, 2021
On the local level, Councilmember Alicka Ampry-Samuel (D-Brooklyn) is pushing a bill that would ban in new construction or renovations the use of fuels that emit carbon over a certain threshold. The effective prohibition on fossil fuels would hit two years after the bill’s passage.
Amrpy-Samuel told THE CITY Monday that Councilmember James Gennaro (D-Queens), who chairs the environmental protection committee, has committed to holding a hearing for the bill, tied up since May, this month. A spokesperson for Gennaro confirmed a hearing will be set soon.
For now, Ampry-Samuel said she’s glad to see a renewed push for the electric buildings bill in the state Senate.
“To protect the lives of our future generations, this moment in time requires an all-hands-on-deck approach from all levels of government,” she said.
In the meantime, the de Blasio administration is negotiating the terms of Ampry-Samuel’s bill with the Council.
“New York City is committed to the fight against climate change and accelerating the shift to electric buildings would mark an important step forward,” said Ben Furnas, director of the Mayor’s Office of Climate and Sustainability.
‘It Has to Happen’
A focus on electrifying buildings is a key part of the city and state’s efforts to slash planet-warming greenhouse gas emissions in order to mitigate the effects of climate change.
“The fact is, we are going to shift to all-electric buildings. It has to happen. There’s no way to achieve our carbon-reduction goals without doing it,” said Amy Turner, senior fellow at the Sabin Center for Climate Change Law at Columbia Law School.
Buildings are the largest source of greenhouse gas emissions in New York City. Across the state, buildings account for a third of emissions, the second-largest source behind transportation, according to the New York State Energy Research and Development Authority.
Environmental groups have pushed replacing gas furnaces, water heaters and stoves to reduce pollution, improve health outcomes and spark job growth, especially in disenfranchised communities.
A number of groups — including the Alliance for a Green Economy, Food and Water Watch and the New York League of Conservation Voters — hammered that message home during Monday’s event near City Hall.
“The faster we can get this through, the faster we can actually be the actors and not just the people talking who are over in Glasgow,” said Sane Energy Director Kim Fraczek.
Today @EmilyAssembly & I were joined by enviro orgs & advocates to talk about leg we sponsor to stop gas infrastructure from being built in NY. The bill requires that buildings constructed after 2023 be exclusively electric—a vital step forward in NY’s commitment to climate. https://t.co/bSVbnfspbR pic.twitter.com/8X74943ezX— NYS Senator Brian Kavanagh 卡范納 (@BrianKavanaghNY) November 1, 2021
Starting in 2024, existing buildings over 25,000 square feet in New York City must slash their emissions in accordance with the city’s Local Law 97, which imposes caps on greenhouse gas emissions and fines buildings that can’t meet those limits.
Mayor Bill de Blasio in January vowed to ban gas hook-ups in new buildings by 2030, which is in line with recommendations by the state’s Climate Action Council, the group charged with figuring out how to achieve the goals under the Climate Leadership and Community Protection Act. The Council also supported a gas ban in new single-family homes by 2025.
The act mandates a 85% cut in greenhouse gas emissions by 2050, electricity generated from zero-emissions sources by 2040 and reductions in carbon through electrification in order to mitigate climate change.
‘Limits to Technology’
The state all-electric buildings bill — which the sponsors said would add teeth to the Climate Leadership Act — will likely face pushback from the same players who have supported the decarbonization goals of the city’s version of the bill, while objecting to the timeline.
In a statement, James Whelan, president of the Real Estate Board of New York, raised concerns about the “limits to technology and equipment and the complete lack of reliable carbon-free electricity in New York City.”
A spokesperson for the American Council of Engineering Companies of New York, which represents almost 300 consulting and engineering firms, also expressed concern about the timeline of the city’s legislation, which it said doesn’t account for various types of building stock.
‘We have to figure out a way to move forward.’
Technical hurdles are real, said Gina Bocra, chief sustainability officer at the city’s Department of Buildings, who provided the example of new hospital buildings being harder to electrify than, say, multi-family buildings.
“These are different animals when it comes to their energy consumption and the types of resiliency and redundancy that is needed,” she said. “But there are far fewer limitations than there is opportunity, and we have to figure out a way to move forward.”
Real estate and infrastructure developers have also questioned whether electrification efforts are happening in tandem with greening the electric grid, which is still mainly powered by fossil fuels.
Utilities Set Goals
An August report by researchers from Harvard’s T.H. Chan School of Public Health and elsewhere found that decarbonizing the grid and electrifying buildings must go hand in- hand to be effective, noting the city’s electricity is “emissions-intensive,” even more so than on-site combustion of fossil fuels like gas.
Con Ed, which provides electricity and natural gas to customers in New York City, is “working with customers to consider cleaner alternatives to natural gas for their heating needs and will continue to reduce the carbon footprint of the gas system,” according to spokesperson Jamie McShane.
The utility is also monitoring and investing in the grid to accommodate increased electricity use as transportation and buildings come off gas, McShane added.
Karen Young, a spokesperson for National Grid pointed to the company’s commitment to becoming net-zero by 2050, a goal that refers to when the amount of greenhouse gases produced equals what the company offsets or removes from the atmosphere.
Young emphasized that “low and zero carbon fuel technology coupled with aggressive energy efficiency and demand response programs to help customers reduce natural gas usage” will help the city and state reach their climate goals.