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New York leads charge on electrification, passing the first statewide ban on gas in new buildings

Updated: May 5

a black and white image of "NEW YORK!" spray painted on the side of a building
Image Credit: ian dooley // Unsplash

Late Tuesday evening, New York lawmakers passed the nation’s first statewide ban on fossil fuel use in new buildings, approving a much-delayed budget deal and setting an all-electric standard for most new buildings.

Governor Kathy Hochul is expected to sign the deal into law soon which states that all new buildings under seven stories made in and after 2026 cannot include stoves, furnaces, or water heaters that burn fossil fuels, and by 2029, larger buildings will have to comply as well.

The pending law would not include existing buildings and includes exceptions for a variety of new buildings, including hospitals, manufacturing facilities, and restaurants. But it does not allow cities or counties to opt-out.

Even with the exemptions, when buildings are built at the rate they are in NYC, the law could make a huge difference in the state’s carbon footprint.

3,225. That’s how many new building permits were filed in 2022, a 60% increase over last year’s tally of 2,017 permits.

28,203. That’s how many homes were completed within these new buildings in New York City in 2021, according to the New York City Department of City Planning. With an about 8,000 increase from 2020, the numbers show New York housing is bouncing back from the pandemic.

That means that if the new law had been active just two years ago, 28,203 stoves, furnaces, and water heaters could have been mandated to be electric in the city alone. When the average stove emits 649 grams of methane (the greenhouse that is 25 times as potent as carbon dioxide) each year, that’s over 40,000 pounds of methane that would be diverted from the atmosphere annually.

As calculated by the Environmental Protection Agency’s greenhouse gas equivalencies calculator, that’s like taking 101 cars off NYC’s crowded streets every year or the equivalent of 88 homes’ annual electricity use.

Plus, if Big Apple construction keeps going at this rate, the amount of emissions reductions only goes up with the new deal. When about a third of New York state’s emissions come from buildings, the implications for this law statewide would be huge.

“Our budget prioritizes nation-leading climate action that meets this moment with ambition and the commitment it demands,” Hochul said Thursday during a budget speech in Albany, New York.

Even with government support, it’s electrification startups that will power regulations like New York’s.

“The people at the top may create these visions, but the engineers on the ground have to do interconnection studies and line servicing and make sure the substations can support the charge and the discharge — that's where it gets challenging,” NineDot Energy CEO and cofounder David Arfin told the publication Greenbiz when talking about policy in the state.

NineDot is a Brooklyn-based startup that aims to enable community-scale clean energy. Last June launched a vehicle-to-grid battery storage project in the city.

“This is why we’ll pick areas based on how hospitable the state policies are, as well as how easy the utility is to work with,” he told Greenbiz. With the new law, New York will be a lot easier for startups like Arfin’s to work with.

Other startups making a difference in building electrification in New York include Brooklyn’s BlocPower, which in March raised $155 million to speed up its all-electric building retrofits, and Buffalo’s Viridi, which on Wednesday announced its first joint pilot site with renewable energy developer Vespene Energy.

Outside of the emissions and opportunities for startups enabling the clean energy transition, the law has positive ramifications for public health too. Remember back in January when the new year was rung in with the great gas stove debate after a member of the U.S. Product and Safety Commission suggested a ban based on asthma rates caused by gas stoves?

While the commission soon clarified that they have no plans to ban gas stoves, there is validity to the argument: A 2023 study led by the sustainability research nonprofit, Rocky Mountain Institute (RMI), and the Sydney School of Public Health found that over 12% of childhood asthma is linked to gas stove use.

The study also looked closely at densely populated states, finding that if gas stoves were banned in New York, the proportion of childhood asthma would decrease by around 20%. The same applies to other states like California and Illinois, and slightly less so in Massachusetts and Pennsylvania.

That’s why in 2019 Berkeley, California became the first city in the United States to adopt a gas ban in new buildings. However, because of its structure, a federal appeals court tossed it out, despite over 100 municipalities and 25 cities already following Berkeley’s model.

Experts say other local governments will not be affected by the ruling, but the political landscape in the country has made it hard for other cities to pass bans in the interest of climate and public health. For example, states like Texas and Arizona have blocked cities from implementing gas bans, citing that consumers should have the right to choose their energy sources.

Twenty GOP-controlled states in total have preemptive laws to prohibit cities from enacting similar laws.

This article by Maria Gallucci at Canary Media does a great job of delving into the political playground around gas bans, why experts say existing local bans are likely safe, and why Berkeley’s landmark law was overturned.

In spite of its overturning, Berkeley set a precedent that later allowed for reverberations across the country leading to New York’s first statewide gas ban. Fortunately, state laws are far harder to strike down than local ordinances and the state has broad political support backing the law, as it was passed by the Democrat-led Senate and Assembly.

“The adoption of the All-Electric Building Act is a historic step forward that will address greenhouse gasses and other harmful emissions from new buildings,” Richard Schrader, the New York legislative and policy director for the Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC) said in a statement.

He added that “the inclusion of $200 million each for utility bill support and the EmPower+ program for efficiency and electrification of low-income homes is a down payment on equitable building transformation,” referring to the section of the law that aims to provide free energy efficiency home upgrades to low-income consumers.

However, environmental groups were quick to note that in spite of the benefits of the law, it did not reach its full potential.

In addition to calling attention to the fact that Governor Hochul pushed back the implementation date from next year to 2026, in response to pressure from the state’s gas utilities and propane and heating oil industries, groups like the NDRC were disappointed that the budget did not include the NY HEAT Act.

According to the council, the NY HEAT Act is essential for the state to achieve its climate goals, because it essentially removes statutory barriers to transitioning existing infrastructure and buildings from gas. Currently, the HEAT Act remains locked up in the Senate Committee.

“The failure to incorporate the NY HEAT Act in the budget is a tremendous blow to the state's clean energy transition and risks New York’s position as a national climate leader. Worse, it keeps the state stuck with a dirty and increasingly expensive fossil gas system,” Schrader said in his statement.

“Without the NY HEAT Act, New Yorkers will pay more than $150 billion for outmoded dirty infrastructure. Governor Hochul needs to lead on getting the NY HEAT Act passed in this session.”

While environmental groups like the NDRC wished the bill would go further, Hochul spokesperson Katy Zielinski said that the building electrification action won’t end with this law.

The budget “will protect our families and our residents, while putting New York on trajectory to a cleaner, healthier future,” she said in a statement, noting that the New York Power Authority is also working on plans to decarbonize 15 state facilities with the most greenhouse gas emissions.

According to Zielinski’s statement the plans “will accelerate our progress towards a cleaner building sector, support the creation of high-quality jobs at future decarbonization projects including thermal energy networks, and move the State closer to reaching our climate goals.”

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