NYC is Adopting a Fair-Weather Natural Gas Ban
New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio recently announced that the city will ban new, large building construction from installing natural gas hookups starting in 2030. The proposed rule is following an electrification trend from California, and much like California, such a policy will leave New Yorkers out in the cold.
New York State of Mind
New York City’s proposed plan to limit natural gas use for new construction was adopted from cities in California who’ve pursued similar action. The radical difference is that days after Bill de Blasio called for a ban on new natural gas hookups, New York City is seeing its ninth heaviest snowfall since 1869, while California cities like Berkley and Los Altos are experiencing balmy, 68-degree days.
Despite the city’s steady progress in reducing residential emissions through natural gas use and improved building efficiency since 2010, Mayor de Blasio decided to remove a viable, low-carbon energy source from development in New York City. New York City’s Energy and Water Use 2017 Report found the incorporation of natural gas to have reduced carbon emissions in the city’s largest buildings by 14 percent, decreased their overall energy use by 10 percent, and, in nearly the same timeframe, reduced soot levels by 18 percent and winter sulfur dioxide levels by 84 percent. The report adds:
“The risks that poor air quality pose to public health have been well documented and the fuel switching program has made tremendous progress toward making New York City air healthier and safer to breathe.”
Reductions at this scale have been praised by former Mayor Bloomberg after evaluating a study that more natural gas is critical for New York City’s sustainable future:
“Natural gas is a low-cost, low-emissions fuel that makes good economic and environmental sense. This study confirms its importance to New York City’s reliable, clean energy future and demonstrates that with responsible, well-regulated development, we can make the investments that both improve our air quality and save lives.”
According to the authors, large buildings were acting as a driving force in the city’s goal to reduce greenhouse gas emissions 80 percent from 2005 levels by 2050.
But any cost savings that residents saw from increased efficiency would evaporate with the proposed electrification mandate. Natural gas accounts for over a third of the city’s utility bills and will soar if replaced with electricity. In 2016, electricity was five times as expensive as natural gas for the equivalent heating energy and space heating.
While this doesn’t affect the affluent few who flock to new buildings, it does create a barrier to entry to lower-income individuals. The energy premium would block access to newer, more efficient buildings for those that can’t pay the premium.
The premium is exacerbated by what will be a shift in work patterns that affect residential electricity consumption and increased vehicle electrification. New York has seen a modest increase in residential energy needs during the COVID pandemic with apartments consuming 23 percent more electricity on average during quarantine. As the city looks to electrify transportation, the peak prices for energy in these less efficient homes can be devastating, as they often pay more to heat a substandard home and meet overall their energy needs. Factoring the high cost of electricity, the prospect of burdening those already suffering high energy burden with the prospect of increased energy costs should force city officials to reconsider forcing a switch.
Keep It In the Ground Policies
Mayor Bill de Blasio is adding building electrification to his long line of “Keep it in the Ground” policies, but as outgoing mayor, he won’t have to see the impacts on the city or experience them like his residents will.
His support to block much-needed energy infrastructure in the state, forced a gas moratorium that left New Yorkers out in the cold, not to mention jeopardizing energy security each winter. The additional infrastructure would have ensured pipeline capacity to the city to serve its existing and future customers. Even factoring in incremental energy efficiency and electrification, National Grid, New York City’s largest utility, sees a widening gap between growing demand and their current supply capacity.
And after damming the city’s natural gas infrastructure, his rush to electrification will endanger the electric system in the city. Mark Chambers, director of sustainability for New York City, explained the threat to the electric system without proper preparation:
“As we start to electrify, we start to get same if not larger winter peaks than we would see in the summertime. That reduces the ability for the kind of maintenance and operational upkeep that would typically happen in a lot of the grid-related systems. It changes the entire paradigm of what is possible, given systems [in] a city like ours are extremely antiquated as they are.”
New York City is older and colder than the cities it is modeling its electrification policies after. New Yorkers deserve an emissions reduction solution that works for them, not the other way around. The city was charting a successful path toward emissions reductions with the combination of natural gas and energy efficiency – NYC should stay the course. A switch to higher priced electricity for home heating will freeze homes and pocketbooks.