Electric Beacon

City aims to beat state fossil-fuel timeline

The City of Beacon is setting its sights on energy-efficiency targets more ambitious than those of New York State, which are already considered among the most aggressive in the country.

While the state Climate Action Council released a report in December recommending that legislators ban the use of natural gas and heating oil by 2025 in new residential construction of three stories or fewer, the City Council has begun crafting a law that could beat that timeline by at least a year. 

City Attorney Nick Ward-Willis told council members on Monday (Jan. 9), after more than an hour of discussion, that he would present a draft law at the council’s workshop on Jan. 23. Under one scenario, Ward-Willis said the council could hold public hearings and adopt a law in the first half of 2023, giving developers and contractors six months or more to prepare for an effective date of Jan. 1, 2024. 

The idea was introduced in October by Dan Aymar-Blair, the Ward 4 representative, and at-large member Paloma Wake during a rally held by Beacon Climate Action Now, an activist group, at the city’s riverfront. A week later, the two council members proposed a plan to add emissions limits to the city’s building code, a move that would effectively ban fossil-fuel hookups in new construction. 

There are significant environmental and financial

benefits to the switch. Gas stoves, for example, emit methane and carbon dioxide — the two most abundant greenhouse gases — and nitrogen oxide, which has been shown to increase the risk of cardiovascular problems and respiratory disease. The stoves emit methane even when turned off, researchers have found.

It is also projected that new single-family homes in New York state could save $904 per year by using an electric-powered, air-source heat pump, or nearly $1,200 per year with a ground-source, or geothermal, heat pump.

Enough Juice?

One of the common fears about the large-scale conversion from fossil fuels to electric power is whether the electric grid — the interconnected network of power providers and users — can handle it. 

Generally speaking, the electrical system can handle increased loading, though certain areas may have constraints, said Joe Jenkins, a representative for Central Hudson, the gas and electric utility that serves the Highlands.

Electrical usage peaked in 2005 and has been flat or declining since then, due to increased energy efficiency, as well as the continued proliferation of distributed electric generation across Central Hudson’s service territory. “That, combined with the continued investments we have made in our system, give us sufficient capacity in the short term to absorb additional loads,” Jenkins said. 

However, he also noted that natural gas is three times as energy-dense as electricity. In other words, if more people are powering more buildings with electricity, in time more of it will need to be produced. 

Moving customers away from gas and onto the electrical grid in a more wholesale fashion would require significant investment, planning and buildout of the grid, Jenkins said. From planning to approval, the process for system investments like new transmission lines or a substation in most cases takes five years or more. “In completing this process, we must also take into account the financial impacts a comprehensive system buildout would have on our customers,” he said. 

In addition, more power would need to be generated in New York state to accommodate the transition.

“We support taking meaningful actions aimed at significantly reducing our carbon emissions, including electrification,” Jenkins said. “But it must be done in a pragmatic way that does not compromise the reliability or the affordability of the service we provide.”

The city’s building inspector believes electric-powered household equipment, such as heat pumps and hot water heaters, is reliable and local builders are up to speed with the movement to transition from fossil fuels, Ward-Willis told the council on Monday, noting that “your law might become the model for other municipalities.” 

There seems to be little doubt that the council can adopt legislation that beats the state’s timeline for residential electrification. What would come next isn’t as clear. 

The Climate Action Council recommends that new commercial buildings, as well as residential buildings of four stories or higher, should be all-electric by 2028. It does not offer clear guidance on mixed-use structures, such as ones being built on Main Street in Beacon, with commercial and residential components.

Council Member George Mansfield proposed lumping mixed-use into the residential category, but, depending on the type of commercial use, the technology to go electric may still be developing. When mixed-use projects are approved by the city, “you don’t know if it’s a restaurant or a bank,” Mayor Lee Kyriacou said. Electric technology for the former may not be as far along as for the latter, he said. 

Renovated homes and buildings could present another challenge. Aymar-Blair used the 1 East Main building, which was restored nearly a decade ago, as an example. Should a building like that, essentially a gut-rehab, be required to go all-electric as it’s renovated?

“Why would we want fossil fuels to continue to be burnt in that building but not one with the same exact specs that was built from the ground up?” he asked. 

Aymar-Blair and Kyriacou also disagreed on the timeline for requiring new commercial buildings to pivot from fossil fuels. Aymar-Blair said the city should hold commercial spaces to the same schedule as residential. 

However, “the state has clearly made a distinction for scientific reasons,” Kyriacou argued. “Unless you’ve got science saying, ‘Here’s why you can [make the change],’ you’re basically putting a cost-benefit imposition on people without having any cost-benefit evidence. I don’t see how you can do that unless you’re into imposing whatever you want on people.”

“The climate is changing,” Aymar-Blair responded. “That’s what’s imposing the urgency on all of us.”

Exemptions to a city law, such as for heavy industrial uses that cannot yet convert to electric, would add complexity. (A law adopted in New York City in 2021 limits the emissions allowed in newly constructed buildings, with exceptions for hospitals, laundromats and crematoriums.) 

At 5 square miles, Beacon is largely built out, so new construction will likely slow in coming years. For that reason, Wake said she hopes to limit exemptions, “to make sure this is applicable to as many people [as possible], to have the outcomes that we need.” 

Above all, Ward-Willis advised that the law must be understandable and implementable. “Keep it very simple, very straightforward, so that the building inspector can enforce it,” he said. 

4 thoughts on “Electric Beacon

  1. According to a 2020 report by the National Fire Protection Association, households with electric stoves reported fires at a rate 2.6 times higher than those with gas stoves. [The report states that one cause for this is that “it is sometimes less obvious that an electric burner is turned on or is still hot than it is with gas burners. In addition, once turned off, it takes time for an electric burner to cool.”] Equally staggering, the death rate of electric-run households was 3.4 times higher than those with gas appliances, and the injury rate was nearly five times greater.

  2. If the city wants to step up its green initiative, it can start by enforcing engine-idling laws. Each day, hundreds of cars and trucks park on Beacon streets with their engines idling. The city also can embrace more bike racks and lanes, and alternate bike routes, which would encourage using bikes for short trips rather than a car. That would reduce greenhouse gases, as well. Enforcement and green education can make environmental changes accepted and happen.

  3. Doesn’t everyone love individuals who presume to know what’s best for people? If you start taking choices away, the result is a dictatorship. I believe that most people are intelligent and environmentally responsible and are capable of making the best choices for themselves, their families and the environment.

    I know electric cars and eliminating fossil fuels at every turn is the current rage, but there are consequences. A large portion of electrical energy is generated by fossil-fuel facilities. How do these self-described experts intend to generate all the electricity required under their plan? I suppose with noisy, visually polluting windmills that are extremely expensive to maintain, and solar panels, which are a blight on nature and must be kept free of snow and debris.

    Ask any chef or homemaker which cooking medium they prefer; the overwhelming answer would be natural gas. I would venture to say that the preference for heating one’s home is also natural gas and oil. Electrical costs are prohibitive, but that doesn’t seem to be a concern.

  4. Appliances are only a small part of the use of gas. Heating buildings and providing domestic hot water is much more significant. As we move forward, we need to consider that transition.

    I don’t see any real downside in requiring new construction — commercial, mixed-use or residential — to use electric heat. In fact, it is hard to believe that anyone would build a structure with gas- or oil-fired heating. Heat pump systems are cost-effective, deliver heating and cooling and, for apartments, allow the separate billing of utilities for each renter.

    There are, however, still barriers to tap/shower water being heated by electricity. Ground and air-source electric heat pumps generally don’t produce water that is hot enough. The few systems designed to do so lose much of their efficiency.

    As the state or Beacon starts to dictate the removal and replacement of gas/oil heating systems, structures with existing ductwork should manage the transition without major issues, with subsidies. But historic homes with radiators (steam or hot water) will be costly to convert.

    One solution would be “mini-split” heat pump systems with units added to most rooms. That means opening up all the walls or running conduits up and across the exterior. That’s OK, unless you mind defacing a historic building. Adding large duct systems inside a house not designed that way doesn’t usually make sense. Where would they go? In my view, those types of buildings should be exempt until the technology evolves.

    I hope the city and state will be thoughtful about how to support the necessary transition away from fossil-fueled heating and hot water. While these investments pay back over time, many can’t afford the high upfront cost. Low- or no-interest loans would work. We also would need to incentivize and train the technicians needed to maintain heat-pump technology. There are not enough manufacturer-approved firms to do that work, and warranties require that certification.

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