New York lawmakers are considering the first nationwide ban on natural gas connections in new buildings after dozens of local governments passed similar guidelines in the past two years.
But while New York and other states are considering ways to limit natural gas and the greenhouse gas emissions it produces, 20 mostly Republican states have passed laws preventing cities and counties from blocking gas plugs.
“The rising demand for natural gas is exactly what the world doesn’t need right now,” said New York State Senator Brian Kavanagh, the Democrat who supported the natural gas phase-out legislation. “When you build buildings that rely on fossil fuels, you bake a very long-term need.”
The burning of fossil fuels in buildings, primarily for heating, is responsible for about 13% of greenhouse gas emissions in the United States in 2019, according to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency.
The Kavanagh bill would make all-electric buildings mandatory after 2023 unless local licensing authorities determine that this is not feasible, which may depend on the availability of equipment and labor. His efforts were supported late last month when councilors in New York City voted to pass a similar ban by 2027, albeit on a slower schedule meeting.
The vote in New York City in December was by far the biggest victory for proponents of natural gas bans. They say it is a necessary step to curb future demand for fossil fuels and limit the growth in carbon emissions caused by climate change.
Gas industry leaders and their political allies say the bans will increase construction costs and utility bills while doing little to halt climate change.
“It’s not really an air conditioning solution,” said Daniel Lapato, senior director of state affairs at the American Gas Association, a natural gas industry advocate. “As you begin to eliminate these options, you need to consider the cost implications for the homeowner.”
Lapato pointed to the efforts of gas companies to produce more renewable natural gas, which is methane extracted from landfills, farms, and other sources. Laws enforcing electrification could stifle industry efforts to expand this more climate-friendly option, he said.
Phasing out natural gas also requires increasing electricity generation and transmission as buildings use more electricity for their heating systems. Unless the electricity is generated from clean sources, gas bans will only shift emissions instead of reducing them. Most of the country’s electricity is still derived from fossil fuels, although the use of coal – which has some of the highest emissions – is falling rapidly and now produces less electricity than renewables. According to the US Energy Information Administration, carbon-free electricity from wind, solar, hydropower, and nuclear projects now makes up about 40% of the country’s electricity supply.
Legislators pushing the bans say their plans will gradually be rolled out to allow energy companies to meet the additional demand with electricity from renewable sources.
Natural gas bans have also drawn the ire of some groups in the restaurant industry who say chefs rely on flame cooking and temperature control that cannot be easily replicated from electrical sources. Some laws have explicitly excluded gas stoves, which cause minimal emissions compared to building and water heating.
New York City’s decision to ban natural gas connections in new buildings was significant not only because the city is the largest in the United States, but also because it is a cold-weather city that relies heavily on natural gas for heating. Many of the cities that have passed similar bans are on the west coast – starting with Berkeley, California in 2019 – with warmer climates and less intense gas usage.
“New York City is a city with four seasons. We have very cold winters and hot summers and we say all electric is possible, ”said Annie Carforo, organizer of WE ACT for environmental justice, a Manhattan-based community organization that supported the ban. “The number one polluter in New York is tall buildings and has a heavy reliance on natural gas.”
The law stipulates that newly approved buildings with fewer than seven floors will be fully electric by 2024, with taller buildings to follow in 2027. The ban applies to heaters and tumble dryers, with the exception of currently water heaters, which will eventually be added.
Councilor James Gennaro, chairman of the council’s environment committee, said he had consulted the construction industry and electricity suppliers in drawing up his proposal.
“We’re going in slowly. We’re not making a cannonball, but we’re sending a clear signal that it will, ”he said. “We’re giving technologies the ability to mature and meet the challenge, and for the grid to expand capacity and become fully renewable. But we can’t stay here forever in a fossil fuel world. “
Seattle leaders took similar measures last year by tightening existing restrictions on natural gas in new commercial and apartment buildings. The city now bans the use of natural gas for heating and limits gas-powered hot water generation to certain types of buildings.
Duane Jonlin, the city’s energy code and energy conservation advisor, said about a third of Seattle’s carbon dioxide emissions come from the use of natural gas in buildings.
“If you are trying to reduce your carbon footprint, you have to stop burning inside buildings,” he said. “This should now be considered caveman technology.”
Washington State is also considering nationwide action on this issue. Governor Jay Inslee, a Democrat, has proposed a measure by which new buildings constructed after 2034 would require an 80% reduction in energy use intensity. While not a total ban on natural gas, the move would “require a significant move to zero-emission technologies,” said Anna Lising, Senior Energy Advisor at Inslee.
Still, proponents of gas expect lawmakers to continue pushing for a ban in the 2022 session.
“I think the move in the legislature will be to ban or remove natural gas as a source of heat in new house construction,” said Jan Himebaugh, director of government affairs for the Building Industry Association of Washington. “These policies are having a huge impact on housing costs in Washington and will drive up the cost of new homes.”
But even while states like New York and Washington are considering laws to phase out natural gas, conservative states have acted quickly to protect it. As of 2020, a total of 20 states have passed laws to prevent local governments from banning the fuel.
Steve Handy, a Republican from the US state of Utah, said state utility Dominion Energy had asked him to propose a “ban on bans” in his state. Handy, a former city council member, said it was a “tricky place” to forestall local governments but wanted to preserve consumer choice.
“Dictating that to consumers and businesses – I wasn’t happy with that,” he said. “I thought we should put a pause button on and let the market go.”
The gas industry argues that the fuel ban will increase construction costs and drive up electricity prices in areas where electrification is required.
Climate protectors counter that electrically operated heat pumps are becoming more and more affordable. RMI, the Colorado-based clean energy nonprofit, released an analysis in 2018 that found that heat pumps – which both heat and cool – are less expensive than the combined price of natural gas heating systems and air conditioning. Proponents of electrification also point to projections that show that the price of natural gas will rise over the next ten years.
“When people say it’ll increase costs, that’s scare tactics,” said Russell Unger, co-head of RMI’s Building Electrification Initiative. “In most parts of the country, the cost of all-electric buildings is lower.”
Jonlin, the Seattle official, said installing heat pumps in new buildings without air conditioning is a little more expensive, but not enough to affect the city’s hardware store. The electricity bills are about the same, he said, but should favor electrical buildings in the long term.
“Over time, it becomes more economical to heat with a heat pump,” he says. “And it’s dramatically cheaper to build new buildings the way we need them now to meet environmental goals, rather than building them incorrectly and taking on the cost of remodeling in a future decade.”
Another point of contention is the increase in the generation and transmission of electricity that will be required to heat homes from the grid rather than natural gas pipelines.
“The power grid as it is currently being built cannot handle this additional demand,” said Jake Rubin, a spokesman for the American Gas Association. “It will cost billions of dollars to expand our electrical system to serve these new customers.”
Climate proponents say demand will gradually increase while utilities are already making plans to expand their renewable energy generation. They recognize that a natural gas ban will only be an effective climate policy if it is fueled by ramping up electricity production from clean sources.
“We can’t wait to convert buildings until there is enough power generation, transmission and storage infrastructure to meet demand, and we cannot convert all buildings without upgrading that infrastructure,” said Kavanagh, the New York City legislature. “You have to go together.”
Gas defenders also say electrified buildings will result in people being unable to heat their homes during prolonged blackouts. But even a few gas-powered buildings can operate under these conditions, said Andrew McAllister, a commissioner for California’s Energy Commission.
“It’s a red herring,” he said. “Most stoves won’t work without electricity. They have a fan, they have controls. “
Buildings are responsible for about a quarter of California’s emissions, McAllister said, with half of that coming from on-site combustion like natural gas heating. The other half comes from the energy used to generate electricity to power these buildings. His authority has issued building regulations that provide new buildings with an “energy budget” that is difficult to meet with natural gas, and is pushing for heat pumps.
“The device managers and the workforce think they’re up to the job,” he said. “If it is in the building regulations, the marketplace will open quickly.”
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