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What New York's ban on gas-powered heat could mean for the future of clean energy

ELISSA NADWORNY, HOST:

Earlier this month, the New York City Council passed a ban on gas-powered heat and stove appliances in newly constructed buildings. The move makes it the largest city in the country to pass such a ban, which will take effect in 2023 for buildings under seven stories, while taller buildings have until 2027 to make the switch.

Some say this could be the beginning of the end of gas-powered appliances for home use, a major contributor to greenhouse gas emissions. However, critics warn that it may be too early to turn our backs on natural gas and that electrifying buildings only moves carbon emissions upstream to fossil fuel plants. To talk more about this, we've invited Russell Unger to join us. He co-leads the Building Electrification Initiative at RMI, a nonprofit think tank that specializes in clean energy.

Russell Unger, Welcome.

RUSSELL UNGER: Thank you.

NADWORNY: So first, I wonder if you could talk about why the ban? What's bad about gas-powered heat and stove appliances?

UNGER: Math tells us that if we are going to decarbonize our cities, our states, our country, we can't be burning fossil fuels in buildings anymore. Across the country, buildings are responsible for about 40% of U.S. greenhouse gas emissions. And in places like New York, where there's not a lot of emissions from transport, it's much higher. In New York, it's about 70% of the carbon emissions. So the only way to address our carbon emissions in a big city like that is to stop burning fossil fuels in buildings. The only way we're going to get to our goals across the country is to stop that as well.

NADWORNY: And so tell me about your reaction to the New York City ban. It sounds like it's going to make a difference.

UNGER: It's a huge step. I mean, this is the largest jurisdiction in the country to make a move like this. And it's New York City, which is a bellwether for so many things, whether it's other policies related to building and energy, like requiring buildings to measure their energy performance every year. It started outside New York. But once New York did it, a lot of cities followed suit. And it's a bellwether, generally, for the whole country. If you look at other things like stopping smoking inside bars, it was only yesterday when that was required. And New York went out on a limb, it seemed. And now you don't get to bars where there's allowed to smoke anymore. It's also the first cold climate to enact a policy like that. And that's really significant because electrifying a building is quite different in a cold climate than a warm climate like San Francisco because we're electrifying heating.

NADWORNY: Well, so I'm curious because the ban is for new buildings. And New York City, of course, has a lot of old buildings, many of which have gas appliances. So how does this play into kind of the impact a ban like this would have?

UNGER: Well, there's a substantial impact just from the new buildings. So according to our analysis, we'd be saving - or New York City would be saving 2.1 million tons of greenhouse gas emissions by 2040. That's about the equivalent of - the amount of greenhouse gas emissions released by 450,000 cars driving for a year.

But that's not going to be the limit of the impact. So, like, right now, if you live in New York City and you have a home and you call up the company that installed your furnace because you're having a problem and you ask them about a heat pump, an electric heat pump, no guarantee whether or not they're going to know what those are or recommend them. Once this law goes into effect, every one of those companies will have had experience with heat pumps because they're going to be doing new installs. So we'll see the contractors having direct experience with all-electric equipment. And we'll see the distributors having that in stock readily. And, you know, we'll see cascade effects into the existing buildings as well.

NADWORNY: So this is about electrification. And I wonder, why is electrification considered a better alternative to sources like natural gas?

UNGER: When we're using fossil fuels in our homes and offices, we're burning fossil fuels. There's no way around it. And fossil fuels release carbon emissions and other pollutants, and we're contributing to climate change. When we electrify, we're pulling power off the grid. The grid has a mixture of sources. We also, by using electricity, can use types of heating, like heat pumps, that are - you know, have multiple folds of efficiency, just the way they work, by moving the heat. So even today in most jurisdictions, electrification is going to reduce carbon emissions. And then looking forward to the targets that we have around the country, that will become, like, a better and better carbon math.

NADWORNY: Now, I've always kind of been told or thought that gas stoves were better for cooking because they provided more even heating. And I can imagine a lot of listeners kind of listening to this and saying, is that true? Is that a misconception? - because this is a change to a way of life.

UNGER: Well, I guess it depends how much you cook and whether you consider it a change to a way of life. You know, there are, you know, well-known chefs that use induction. I mean, it is more common to use gas. But that's also the result of, you know, 50-plus years of campaigning by the gas industry, which has tested this and found, you know what? People don't care what powers their hot water heater. They don't care what powers their heating system. But for some reason, they care what's going on in their stove. And so that's why when you think about, you know, gas, the kind of classic image is that burner on the stove. And that's not an accident. That is 50-plus years of very active investment into marketing by the gas industry.

NADWORNY: Yeah. Well, given how serious climate change is, do you think a ban like this goes far enough?

UNGER: It's not going to be all that we - you know, everything we need to get there. Eventually, we're going to have to change over, as you noted, equipment in existing buildings. But this sets the table for it. We're doing it in a place where easiest to do it, which is the new buildings. We're building a market by having kind of the HVAC contractors, the designers, the distributors kind of poised and ready for this expand. So it's the place to start.

NADWORNY: That was Russell Unger of the Building Electrification Initiative at RMI. That's a think tank that focuses on sustainability. Thanks so much for being here.

UNGER: Thanks so much for having me. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.