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Commentary & Opinion

An electric idea in Governor Hochul's State of the State

As with all State of the State addresses, Governor Hochul’s covered a wide range of issues, large and small, having both regional as well as statewide appeal. Her speech understandably focused on the pandemic and health care, followed by her plans to curb gun violence, help stimulate economic development, increase the state’s housing stock, and tackle the threat posed by a rapidly heating planet.

Her plans offered new ideas in each of those areas, but one was particularly innovative. Among the governor’s plans was a proposal to ensure that within a few years all new buildings in New York would be powered by electricity, not rely on fossil fuels. If enacted, it would result in a first-of-its-kind statewide ban on natural gas hookups in all new buildings. In effect, the plan means that new buildings could have not oil or gas burners for heat or hot water, nor could they have gas stoves.

Why focus on buildings?

Emissions associated with electricity, heating, and cooling for residential and commercial buildings account for a large portion of climate emissions. According to a UN study, the building sector was responsible for 38% of carbon emissions globally in 2019 – by comparison, the transportation sector accounted for 24% of global emissions.

This trend can also be seen in the United States and in New York. According to the Center for Climate and Energy Solutions, fossil fuel combustion attributed to residential and commercial buildings accounts for nearly 30% of total U.S. greenhouse gas emissions. The number is even more stark in New York: According to the state’s energy research agency (NYSERDA), 60% of New York’s greenhouse gas emissions are from heating, cooling, and electricity for buildings; in New York City buildings account for a whopping 71% of emissions.

As part of her climate proposals, the governor pointed out that only about 20,000 New York homes install modern electric heat pumps for heating and cooling each year. Instead, she committed the state to a minimum one million electrified homes and up to another one million electrification-ready homes by 2030.

The governor’s proposal comes on the heels of New York City becoming the largest locality in the United States to ban gas hookups in new buildings.

Of course, the fossil fuel industry opposes anything that limits the use of oil and gas. Their arguments are self-serving and forestall action to combat climate change. That’s to be expected and rejected. But another argument that has been used is one of cost.

Yet, the evidence undermines that concern. Installing heat pumps in new buildings now costs about the same as new gas infrastructure. A wide variety of fossil free buildings are already built or under construction in New York. Everything from deeply affordable housing to skyscrapers are being built to operate fossil free. As reported in The Wall Street Journal, "New all-electric homes are cost-competitive with those that use gas in many parts of the country."

Thus, building clean currently costs effectively the same as building dirty. And it is that persuasive argument that led New York City, San Jose, Seattle, Oakland, San Francisco, and Sacramento to enact bans on new gas hook ups.

Although the governor’s proposal would be trailblazing at the state level, it wouldn’t take effect for five years, in 2027. New York City also set 2027 as the deadline for large buildings, but buildings shorter than seven stories will have to stop being built with gas burners and stoves by 2024.

As the governor’s plan works its way through the legislative process, ensuring that the program kicks in as soon as possible will be critical. When it comes to climate changes driven by global warming, there is no time to waste.

Blair Horner is executive director of the New York Public Interest Research Group.

The views expressed by commentators are solely those of the authors. They do not necessarily reflect the views of this station or its management.

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