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.
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.
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