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To Reach Climate Goals, N.Y. May Need to Electrify Buildings

Advocates claim that, to reach New York’s goal of a zero-emission electricity grid by 2040, there must be a push to electrify all new buildings across the state starting in 2024.

(TNS) — For New York to meet ambitious climate goals enacted three years ago, it will have to zero in on one of the top culprits in carbon emissions and begin regulating the state's monolithic construction and utility industries.

That's the line climate and environmental advocates are taking as they push for passage of two key energy regulation policies ahead of the upcoming legislative session. They say those policies are key to fulfilling a 2-year-old climate law that requires New York's transition to an electricity grid that produces zero emissions by 2040.

Democratic legislators and climate activists are renewing a push to electrify every new building constructed across the state, likely beginning in 2024, which they say would eliminate the need for a power supply reliant on what they contend are expensive and unstable fossil fuels. A separate but closely aligned bill would require gas utilities to plan for the eventual tapering off of natural gas usage — and repeal the "100-foot rule," which utility companies use to heavily subsidize new hookups to the gas grid for new residential customers within 100 feet of a gas line.

Both policies will be a major focus for the state's environmental contingent, which will converge at the Capitol next year seeking to persuade Gov. Kathy Hochul that those policies are in the state's best interest and should be included in her budget.

Buildings account for about one-third of New York's greenhouse gas emissions. To tamp down that percentage, advocates say that every new building over seven stories must be fully electrified, from its heating and cooling system to its appliances — a policy that New York City has adopted.

But given that they would likely overhaul the oil and gas industry, lobbying efforts around the bill have been intense. Last year, the first time the electrification and the gas transition bill were introduced, lobbyists for both energy providers and environmental organizations flooded the Capitol. The same legislation failed last year, which proponents chalked up to concerted spending from groups like the American Petroleum Institute.

Michelle Hook, executive director of a coalition called New Yorkers for Affordable Energy that has opposed the proposals, said that players in the energy industry, are not anti-climate change. But they are concerned about the reliability of a future power grid built on purely renewable sources, as well as affordability for the average New Yorker, she said.

"There seems to be an undertone of a desire to just completely flip a switch and eradicate natural gas immediately," Hook said. "When it makes up 60-70 percent of our energy source, it's just not possible."

Patrick Stella, a spokesman for National Grid, which services around 20 million people, mostly in upstate New York and Massachusetts, pointed to an April memo that promises the company will fully eliminate fossil fuels in its gas and electric systems by 2050. National Grid is calling for hybrid solutions that still involve some supply of natural gas.

Rich Schrader, an environmental strategist for the National Resources Defense Council, disputed the notion of an overnight solution.

"It's not going to happen tomorrow, and no one's suggesting it will," Schrader said. But to move the needle in combating the often dire effects of climate change, the policies need legislative teeth, Schrader said.

Electrification will also need to appeal to cash-strapped customers, though advocates argue that is already the case. There are a host of governmental programs that aim to subsidize electrification costs for the average resident, said Alex Beauchamp with Food and Water Watch.

"At the end of the day, people's main interest is affordability," said Assemblyman Kenny Burgos, a Democrat who represents the Bronx. "So when their wallets and the goals of climate change line up, that's the best path forward."

Upstate New York's Electrification Experiment

David Bruns bills his Schenectady apartment complex, netZero Village, as New York's first net-zero apartment complex. The complex offsets its annual energy needs with renewable production — a strong selling point for his residents, Bruns said.

Since 2013, his development company has built around 400 all-electric apartment units. The units have standard offerings: one- to two-bedroom apartments with modern appliances. But it also allows residents the opportunity to feel like their housing does not contribute to their individual carbon footprint.

Solar panels are installed on the property, which is also equipped with charging stations for electric vehicles. And to heat and cool apartments, he uses heat pumps, which essentially transfer air from inside to outside and vice versa.

His complexes defy traditional thinking that electrification is impractical in upstate's blustery climate, Bruns said.

"This is totally doable in upstate New York," Bruns said. "It really doesn't take anything exotic or extraordinary. You just have to put some thought into it."

To build energy-efficient new construction is a "no-brainer," Bruns continued. His complexes had higher upfront costs, but he said they are overwhelmingly more energy efficient and insulated from spikes in home-heating prices. Monthly rental rates for his units start at $1,375.

In a relatively traditional industry, the only way to achieve mass building electrification is to legislate it, Bruns said.

Capital Region resident Richard Rodriguez also extolled the virtues of a heat pump, which he discovered after buying his first home two years ago. Built in 1939, the house had an oil-burning furnace. Rodriguez and his wife made $100 payments in the fall, then watched as those bills jumped to $400 and $500 once winter arrived.

When he secured an apprenticeship as a home performance contractor, he learned of a novel solution: go electric. Rodriguez said he took advantage of a state rebate program and was able to cover most of the cost of retrofitting his house with a heat pump.

"It's a heck of a lot easier to build it efficient than it is to make it efficient after the fact," Rodriguez said. "I'm not a fan of saying we should force people in any one direction. ... But this changed my life."

(c)2022 the Times Union (Albany, N.Y.) Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.
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