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NYC moves to stop new buildings from using natural gas

December 15, 2021 Jennifer Peltz, Associated Press
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New York City is poised to bar most new buildings from using natural gas in six years, after lawmakers voted Wednesday to make the nation’s most populous city a showcase for a climate-change-fighting policy that has been both embraced and blocked elsewhere.

If Democratic Mayor Bill de Blasio signs the measure, as expected, most construction projects submitted for approval after 2027 would have to use something other than gas or oil — such as electricity — for heating, hot water and cooking. Some smaller buildings would have to comply as early as 2024. Hospitals, commercial kitchens and some other facilities would be exempt.

Supporters see the proposal as a substantial and necessary move to combat global warming. Heating, cooling and powering buildings accounts for nearly 70% of emissions of carbon dioxide and other heat-trapping gases.

Although new buildings’ stoves and furnaces would use electricity generated partly from burning natural gas and other fossil fuels, backers say the change still would keep millions of tons of carbon dioxide out of the atmosphere over time and would boost momentum ahead of a statewide requirement to use 70% renewable energy by 2030, up from about 30% now.

“We can’t keep expanding gas if we have any prayer of hitting the state’s climate goals,” said Alex Beauchamp of Food & Water Watch, an environmental group.

“This is a huge, huge step forward,” he said, calling the legislation “a real game-changer on the national scene.”

San Francisco, Seattle and a few dozen other U.S. cities — mainly in California — have moved to end gas hookups for heat, hot water and sometimes cooking in at least some new buildings since Berkeley, California, debuted the idea in 2019. A federal judge rejected a restaurant association’s challenge to the Berkeley law, but the group is appealing.

It’s too early to gauge the impact of California cities’ measures, said Amy Rider of the Building Decarbonization Coalition, which advocates for such laws.

The town of Brookline, Massachusetts, has passed one twice. It was retooled and reapproved this summer after the state attorney general blocked the first version, saying it intruded on state authority. The AG hasn’t taken action against the new effort to date.

At the same time, states including Arizona, Oklahoma and Texas have barred cities from enacting such laws, saying that consumers should have their choice of energy sources. In Texas, the effort began before, but gained all the more steam after, a February storm spawned massive power outages that left many households shivering without electricity, heat or drinkable water for days.

In New York, shifts toward electric vehicles, furnaces and appliances are “expected to create long-term upward pressure” on electricity use, according to the New York Independent System Operator, which oversees the state’s electricity supply.

The organization said in a recent report that it’s still studying how those trends will affect the power system, but it forecasts that electricity demand could start peaking in winter, instead of summer, by about 2040.

The state envisions big increases in wind and solar power, among other approaches to meet its renewable energy targets and growing demand. Some projects are in the works.

Still, some building interests, including a big landlords’ lobbying group called the Real Estate Board of New York, raised concerns at a City Council hearing last month about whether banning new natural gas hookups would strain the electrical grid. It already struggles during heat waves in the city, sometimes resulting in sizeable neighborhood outages.

REBNY President James Whelan said Wednesday the group gets the importance of moving away from fossil fuels, but “these policies must be implemented in a way that ensures that New Yorkers have reliable, affordable, carbon-free electricity.”

Real estate groups also pressed to push back the deadlines for nixing gas, saying that alternative technologies — such as electric heat pumps that transfer heat between indoors and outdoors — need more time to develop, particularly for skyscrapers.

Utilities, meanwhile, said they supported the goal but sounded economic alarms.

“We have real concerns that, as envisioned, these (proposals) may result in increased energy costs for customers,” said Bryan Grimaldi, a vice president of National Grid, which provides power in some parts of the city. Con Edison, which serves much of it, called for making provisions to help poorer renters with what it characterized as increased costs of electric heating.

Con Ed said Wednesday that it supports “an orderly energy transition that prioritizes reliability, affordability and economic development,” and that its power system is ready for the coming demand.

Environmental groups say electric doesn’t necessarily mean more expensive. In fact, they say it’s just the opposite in some new, energy-efficient buildings. They also note that natural gas prices fluctuate, having risen notably this year before recently dropping somewhat.

Considering that residents have been told to forgo plastic bags and straws and take other steps to preserve the planet, it’s time for legislators to look beyond individual behavior to building emissions, legislation sponsor Council Member Alicka Ampry-Samuel told her colleagues Wednesday.

The Democrat, who represents an overwhelmingly Black Brooklyn district, said the legislation also aims to fight air pollution, particularly on behalf of communities of color. Researchers have found that non-white people are exposed to more air pollution than whites across the country.

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