New Buildings in NY to be Electric, But the Job is Not Done
New York's All-Electric Building Act makes it the first state to promote efficient electrification of new construction.
New buildings in New York will soon be on a pathway toward zero carbon emissions, thanks to recent action by lawmakers in the state. The All-Electric Building Act, adopted as part of the Fiscal Year 2024 New York state budget, restricts the inclusion of fossil fuel hookups in new homes and buildings up to 8 stories high starting in 2026. This takes a phased-in approach, with requirements for larger buildings coming into force in 2029. While a number of local municipalities across the country have used their building energy codes to promote efficient electrification of new construction, this marks the first time that a state has tackled this issue through statewide law. We know that constructing our new buildings to be efficient and all-electric from the start is the cheapest, easiest way to enable their decarbonization, as it avoids the need for costly retrofits later while costing less to build and operate today. And while this decisive action by New York lawmakers could set an important precedent for states around the country to follow, there is significant work still to be done in the state to ensure that existing buildings are decarbonized, as well.
Burning fossil fuels in our homes and businesses is one of the biggest sources of climate pollution. In New York State, buildings are the largest source of greenhouse gas emissions, since transportation emissions are lower than average due to New York City’s extensive public transportation system and building density. And nationally, the operational energy used in our buildings is responsible for more than a quarter of greenhouse gas emissions – second only to the transportation sector, with buildings responsible for 74 percent of retail electricity use and 26 percent of overall on-site fossil gas use. We simply cannot achieve the 2050 net-zero carbon goals without addressing the energy efficiency and energy sources of our buildings. While buildings that use fossil fuels for space heating, water heating, cooking, and clothes drying are essentially “locked in” to those emissions for the 10-20 plus year lifetime of the equipment, buildings powered with electricity will emit fewer and fewer emissions as the electric grid is increasingly powered with clean, zero-emissions energy sources.
How New York got here
New York adopted the nation-leading Climate Leadership and Community Protection Act (CLCPA) in 2019, codifying a number of aggressive targets, including greenhouse gas emission reductions for 2030 and a 2050 net zero carbon goal. In addition, the CLCPA set specific electric sector goals: 70% renewable electricity by 2030 and 100% zero-emission electricity by 2040. The CLCPA also incorporates important climate justice and equity components, requiring that 40 percent of benefits of the state’s clean energy programs accrue to disadvantaged communities, establishing a community air monitoring program, and prioritizing reduction of other harmful pollutants in addition to greenhouse gas emissions. To develop the roadmap for achieving these targets, the CLCPA called for the creation of a Climate Action Council, which developed a Scoping Plan, adopted in December 2022. The Scoping Plan, which will guide implementation of the CLCPA, is informed by more than three years of analysis, expert testimony, public hearings, and more than ten thousand comments; and recommends, among many other things, nearly ubiquitous building electrification by 2050, legislation to require all-electric new construction, and a phase out of the methane gas distribution system. This work set a strong foundation for passing the All-Electric Buildings Act.
New York City also helped paved the way in implementation. As a long-time leader on reducing emissions from buildings, the City has its own aggressive climate targets. They took up the all-electric charge first in December 2021 with Local Law 154, effectively disallowing fuel combustion equipment in newly constructed buildings smaller than seven stories starting in 2024, and in larger buildings in mid-2027.
Also recommended in the Scoping Plan, and accomplished in the state’s 2022 legislative session, was to change the language underlying New York’s building energy conservation code development to align with the CLCPA in the Advanced Building Codes, Appliance and Equipment Efficiency Standards Act, which will save New Yorkers billions of dollars over the next several years.
But what about Berkeley?
New York’s actions come on the heels of a decision by the 9th Circuit court overturning Berkeley, California’s first-in-the-nation 2019 ordinance that prohibited natural gas infrastructure in new buildings. However, the wider implications of the 9th Circuit decisions are unclear, as it is likely to be appealed. In addition, the decision itself is not particularly relevant to the law passed in New York, as it only applies to jurisdictions in the 9th Circuit (Alaska, Arizona, California, Hawaii, Idaho, Montana, Nevada, Oregon, Washington, Guam, and the Northern Mariana Islands) and addresses only one of serval pathways for local and state leaders to cut pollution from gas appliances. In fact, the actions in New York should give decision-makers in other jurisdictions confidence that the door is still wide open to address the pollution from our buildings.
Where we still need to go
While the climate impacts of new construction in New York have been addressed with the All-Electric Building Act, the legislature must still act to ensure that the state’s existing Public Service Law is consistent, rather than at odds, with the goals of the CLCPA and that it does not perpetuate, promote, and subsidize fossil gas use in existing buildings. This can be done by passing the New York Home Energy Affordable Transition (NY HEAT) Act this session to ensure a just, well-planned and strategic downsizing of the gas system, avoid wasting billions of customer dollars on new methane gas infrastructure, and burdening vulnerable households with a growing proportion of gas system costs as wealthier households electrify. Modeling done by Synapse Energy Economics shows that the cost to customers of replacing the more than 7,000 miles of old pipe in New York is $150 billion. The strategic transition of the gas system needs to start as soon as possible to manage these long-term cost, affordability, and equity impacts because the more gas infrastructure we build or replace today, the more expensive the gas transition will be. Failing to do so will result in a disorderly transition for gas utilities and workers, as well as skyrocketing bills that disproportionately burden low-income utility customers. NY HEAT will enable and encourage community-scale decarbonization projects, improving affordability, air quality, and comfort of the more than four million homes in New York that use methane gas for heat.
While New York has once again proven itself a leader on tackling climate change, there is still significant work to be done to ensure that existing buildings in the state are not locked in to using expensive, polluting fossil fuel sources in their buildings. Passing the All-Electric Buildings Act was a great start – now lawmakers must finish the job with the NY HEAT Act.