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A plan to phase out use of fossil fuels in NY homes is nearing approval. Here's what that means

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Clinton Used Appliances

George Brown helps move a stove through the front door at Clinton Used Appliances in Buffalo. A climate plan would phase out the use of natural gas appliances in New York.

Sweeping proposals to change how New York residents heat their homes and operate appliances are nearing the finish line.

The Climate Action Council is scheduled to meet Dec. 19 to approve the final version of a plan to meet the state's ambitious climate goals over the next two decades. The 22-member council will then forward its recommendations to Gov. Kathy Hochul and the state Legislature.

The recommendations include phasing out the use of natural gas in homes and commercial buildings across New York to promote energy efficiency and cleaner air. The state is aiming to cut greenhouse gas emissions by 40% by 2030, and 85% by 2050.

• Starting in 2025, newly built homes in the state would not be allowed to install equipment powered by oil, natural gas or propane for heating, cooling and hot water.

The plan instead would require homes to install a zero-emission system like a heat pump, which is more energy efficient, but costs more than a conventional heating system. The target date was initially the start of 2024 but was pushed back by one year.

• From 2030 onward, once owners of existing homes reach the point where they need to replace their fossil fuel-powered systems and appliances, they would need to install a zero-emission system instead.

The proposed changes would radically alter the way New Yorkers heat their homes, cook their meals and wash their clothes. In many cases, meeting the new rules would require costly and extensive upgrades to heating systems and duct work.

And skeptics also question whether the state will be able to increase its electricity supply fast enough to meet the steep new demands that the rules would impose on the power grid.

Plans call for regulations stemming from the Climate Action Council's draft recommendations to be implemented by the start of 2024. Hochul, state lawmakers and state agencies will be involved in that process next year.

"This is ultimately going to impact every New York household and business, I think in a positive way," said Conor Bambrick, director of climate policy for Environmental Advocates NY. "It's not going to all going happen immediately. It's going to happen over time."

But business groups and utility officials question where all the additional power will come from, and how those investments will be paid for.

"There are aspirational goals, and then there's the practical realities of delivering energy to everybody that needs it reliably and affordably," said Donna DeCarolis, president of National Fuel's utility business and a Climate Action Council member. "That's what we're going to have to work through."

As the recommendations move toward the next step, debate continues about the impact of the plan on homeowners, businesses, the power grid and the economy.

Conversion requirement

Homeowners and businesses that rely on natural gas or oil would have to switch to zero-emission appliances like furnaces, stoves, dryers and hot water heaters, beginning in the not-too-distant future.

They wouldn't be mandated to change over all of those appliances in 2030. Rather, the conversion would happen as each fossil fuel-powered appliance reaches the end of its lifespan and is replaced, starting in 2030.

"It's not that they immediately have to replace all their appliances," Bambrick said. "As the gas appliances age out, they will look to adopt newer, zero-emitting appliances."

Michelle Hook, executive director of New Yorkers for Affordable Energy, acknowledged that all of those appliances won't have to be replaced at once. But she said the cost of making those conversions – along with installing support systems in a home – will add up over time.

"That's still a huge chunk of change if it's spread out over five or seven years or so," she said.

Whether homeowners will have access to incentives or grants to help cover the cost of those conversions to zero-emission appliances is not yet clear. 

"The importance of having this plan in place is it allows us to map things out and look into the future to see what programs, what incentives have to be in place to allow households to make these transitions," Bambrick said.

There's also debate over the operating cost of using electricity instead of natural gas to power appliances, especially in a colder part of the state like upstate.

About 90% of the homes in the Buffalo Niagara region are heated by natural gas – a fuel source that despite the steep price increase in heating costs this winter is generally much less expensive to heat with than today's conventional electric heating systems.

Allison Considine, senior representative for the Sierra Club's Beyond Coal campaign in New York state, said advocates are focusing first on the opportunity to electrify all-new buildings, "where cost savings are greatest."

"For existing buildings and homes, grants and incentives can help ensure that over the next 10 years, people have access to funding to replace their existing, failing gas appliances with a new, all-electric option, when they would need to be replacing that appliance anyways," she said.

Clinton Used Appliances

Ilija Karanovic, owner of Clinton Used Appliances in Buffalo, moves some stoves onto a truck Friday, Dec. 2, 2022.

Powering up

Utilities such as National Fuel have raised concerns about the state's ability to generate enough electricity to meet the increased demand.

National Fuel – whose natural gas utility business would be threatened by the proposed changes – has called for the state to embrace an alternative strategy that includes a mix of renewables and natural gas, rather than completely phasing out natural gas. Thus far, that idea has not caught hold.

DeCarolis argues the state should also take into account the variations across regions.

"You might need different solutions to work in a colder climate like we have (in Western New York), and one where we have a greater usage of natural gas and the gas system than other parts of the state," she said.

Under the Climate Action Council's plan, the state will need to generate a much larger supply of electricity than is available today, in order to power homes, buildings and vehicles.

The New York Independent System Operator, which manages the state's power grid, said in a recent report that by 2030, about 20 gigawatts of additional renewable power generation – a 54% increase from the state's current generating capacity – must be in service to support the state's energy policy target of 70% renewable generation.

And by 2040, between 111 gigawatts and 124 gigawatts of total generating capacity will be needed to support the climate law's mandate of an emissions-free grid, roughly three times the current capacity of 37 gigawatts, according to the New York ISO.

"The New York ISO remains committed to maintaining reliability as our grid transitions to a clean energy future," said Rich Dewey, president and CEO. "The scale of new resource development needed to satisfy system reliability and policy requirements within the next 20 years is unprecedented."

DeCarolis said the gap between current capacity and future demand must be addressed. 

"We have to make sure the resources for electrifying at the wholesale grid level and the local level are there before we would be requiring somebody to electrify their heat," she said. 

Dottie Gallagher, president and CEO of the Buffalo Niagara Partnership, said the business group does not dispute that climate change is real. Rather, she said, the question is how to generate enough additional electricity and the cost of those investments.

"We are 100% in favor of advancing clean energy and pro-climate legislation," Gallagher said. "That is not the issue here. The question is about how we could go about it, and it's realistic, and that we can continue to operate and not put New York at a disadvantage competitively and create chaos and uncertainty for every business owner in the state."

Bambrick said the plan sets the targets and allows sufficient time to meet the need for additional power generation.

"It's not like we're flipping a switch," he said. "We're developing a plan. It's going to be put in action over years, to ensure we do it successfully and ensure we protect the reliability and affordability."

Considine said the plan shifts the focus to generating additional power to renewable energy and away from fossil fuels.

"We're looking at this over a 10-, 20, 30-year time horizon," she said. "We're seeing a ton of renewable energy that's in the pipeline right now."

In an appearance at the Partnership in October, Hochul was asked about the state's ability to ramp up electricity generation.

"Our team's very smart," she said. "They're not going to go forward without knowing that we have a real plan – not just pie in the sky, but a real plan how to deliver the energy that is required to take us to our energy and emission goals."

Hochul's office in a statement on Friday said: "Governor Hochul recognizes all of the hard and diligent work of the Climate Action Council and looks forward to reviewing the final scoping plan."

Economic impact

Business advocates say switching to all-electric power will cause manufacturers' operating expenses to rise.

The Partnership estimates it's three times more expensive for manufacturers to run their operations on electricity than natural gas. And the business group notes that natural gas is an abundant resource commonly used in upstate New York.

Hochul acknowledged that industrial customers will be impacted by the transition, but emphasized the effect won't be instantaneous.

"It's about a smooth transition, not an abrupt one," she said.

Environmental groups say the plan will help kick-start more renewable energy business activity in the state, while also creating better air quality and health for residents.

"Our entire economy is based on the use of fossil fuels," Bambrick said. "We are now transitioning to a zero-emission-based economy, and that's going to create a number of opportunities for new jobs, new industries here in the state, with New York sort of leading the way in building out the model here."

Public awareness

The Climate Action Council held a number of public hearings around the state, both in person and virtually, over the past year. But business groups say they believe most residents aren't aware of the changes that are coming.

“One of the things we’ve learned as we start to engage with our key stakeholders and our legislators is, even many them don’t understand the size and scope of what they’re asking businesses and residents to do between now and 2050," said Bryan Grimaldi, vice president of corporate affairs at National Grid.

New Yorkers for Affordable Energy, a coalition of utilities, businesses and unions, plans to conduct polling about the recommendations in January.

"We're really trying to make sure we sit down with as many legislators as possible so they have a full picture, so they can't say, 'I didn't know, nobody told me that,' " Hook said.

Hook noted the plan doesn't call for regulations to be implemented until the start of 2024, "so they do have a year to really dig in on this and see which pieces are most plausible."

Presidents Joe Biden and Emmanuel Macron sat down Thursday for the centerpiece talks of a pomp-filled French state visit, with the two leaders eager to talk through the war in Ukraine, concerns about China's increasing assertiveness in the Indo-Pacific and European dismay over aspects of Biden's signature climate law. Biden is honoring Macron with the first state dinner of his presidency on Thursday evening, but first the two leaders met in the Oval Office to discuss difficult issues that they confront.


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Related to this story

While the plan lays out the projected benefits – making steep cuts in harmful emissions and protecting public health – there are potentially significant costs that come with achieving those ambitious goals, for homeowners, businesses and the state's power grid.

Big changes are looming for how WNY residents heat their homes and operate their appliances. A new statewide energy plan being debated would gradually phase out the use of natural gas in homes and buildings, in favor of greater reliance on electricity.

The drafters of a new “scoping plan” that will guide how New York State reduces carbon emissions over the next three decades heard Wednesday from area environmental groups who urged them to act quickly, and from labor, utility companies and business groups who warned them against proceeding too fast.

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