Energy road map calls for sweeping changes for WNY homeowners

April 28, 2022

Matt Glynn Apr 27, 2022

Big changes are looming for how Western New York residents heat their homes and operate their appliances.

A new statewide energy plan being debated would gradually phase out the use of natural gas in homes and buildings, in favor of greater reliance on electricity.

The changes recommended in the Climate Action Plan’s energy road map haven’t been finalized, and would be rolled out in stages. But some of the recommendations would take effect as soon as two years from now.

And they would have a big impact on homeowners and building owners.

• Starting in 2024, newly built homes in the state would not be allowed to install equipment powered by oil, natural gas or propane for heating, cooling and hot water. The plan would instead require homes to install a zero-emission system like a heat pump, which is more energy efficient, but costs more than a conventional heating system.

• Starting in 2030, owners of existing homes would face similar restrictions. Once homeowners need to replace their fossil-fuel powered systems and appliances – whether that happens in 2030 or later – they would need to install a zero-emission system instead.

Those upgrades could cost the owner of an older home upwards of $23,000, depending on the duct work and equipment needed, according to National Fuel estimates. The company also estimates that the annual energy costs at an electrified home could about $650 higher, at current rates.

The energy plan is part of the state’s strategy to drastically cut greenhouse gas emissions, while phasing out the use of natural gas, through hitting ambitious targets. The state is aiming to cut greenhouse gas emissions by 40% by 2030, and 85% by 2050.

Critics say the state’s plan goes too far, too fast, and would burden homeowners by mandating the use of more-expensive heating equipment and fuel sources, like electricity, that cost more than natural gas.

“It’s a pretty radical change to the state’s energy complex,” said David Bauer, president and CEO of National Fuel Gas Co.

Bauer describes the plan as a road map to “electrify everything, at any cost.”

“What it proposes to do is phase out all fossil fuel use and replace it with electricity that’s generated by renewable resources,” he said.

Supporters of the plan, including environmental groups, say the changes are overdue to combat the effects of climate change, and say the switch to clean energy will produce better outcomes in public health and for the environment.

“The damages currently caused by burning fossil fuels cost us billions a year, while the benefits of a just transition would gain us billions,” said Conor Bambrick, director of climate policy for Environmental Advocates NY. “The faster we move to an all-electric future, the faster we will realize the vast economic and health benefits associated with a fossil-free future.”

The public has a chance to weigh in. A hearing is set for 3:30 p.m. to 6:30 p.m. Wednesday in the Mason O. Damon Auditorium of the main branch of Buffalo and Erie County Public Library, at 1 Lafayette Square. The meeting will also be shown on Zoom.

The Climate Action Council is gathering comments through June 10, including through 10 public hearings across the state.

The proposals would have a widespread impact on Western New York, where more than 90% of the homes are heated with natural gas, which has become a more economical heating fuel as production has increased in nearby Pennsylvania, using controversial hydrofracking techniques.

A decade ago, winter heating bills routinely topped $1,000 between November and March. They were expected to average around $700 this winter after falling below $500 during each of the previous two winters, according to National Fuel.

Despite its potentially far-reaching impact, the plan has received little attention since it was released in December.

“I’m in the community a lot,” said Donna DeCarolis, president of National Fuel’s utility business and a member of the 22-person council. “I feel like hardly anybody knows about this.”

Broadly, the plan calls for phasing out natural gas from the state’s energy mix, and for the state to become increasingly reliant on electric power over the next two decades.

National Fuel officials say they are in favor of “decarbonizing” the power grid, but urge the state to take an approach that eases the cost burden on homeowners and lessens the need for additional power generation. 

“We get it that something has to be done,” Bauer said. “But it’s got be done reasonably, affordably and in a way that doesn’t impact energy reliability. To me, now is not the time to start banning natural gas appliances or phasing out the natural gas distribution system.”

Utilities argue that more of an emphasis should be on making homes and businesses more energy efficient, which would reduce harmful emissions by reducing energy consumption.

“If we are successful, that’s a way of eliminating easily a third of the emissions that we’ve got to get rid of in New York state,” said Rudy Wynter, National Grid’s New York president. “About a third of emissions come from burning of fossil fuel and heating homes and businesses.”

Wynter said a lot of the state’s heating load will be increasingly electrified as time goes on, through systems such as heat pumps.

“Having said that, we know you cannot electrify every single building,” due to factors such as building size, type and age, he said.

And Wynter said not every customer can afford to electrify. For that reason, Wynter said, there should be an alternative, in the form of a decarbonized natural gas network that blends renewable natural gas and hydrogen.

National Fuel also is proposing an alternative plan that would include renewable natural gas and hydrogen in the state’s energy mix.

The utility cited an analysis by an engineering firm that said it currently costs $650 a year more to heat a Western New York home with electricity instead of natural gas. Bauer said that cost gap is likely to grow much wider, as electric rates rise in the face of greater demand.

Those cost differences would be acute on the coldest days of the winter months, Bauer said.

“The reality is, we’re a lot colder upstate than downstate, by a meaningful measure,” he said.

Bauer also questioned the plan’s impact on energy reliability, given its greater emphasis on wind and solar power. The plan would also require the state’s power grid to be dramatically scaled up, he said.

Beyond homeowners, Bauer said industrial customers would face much higher energy costs, too.

“This will have a huge impact on the ability to attract or retain any energy-intensive industry to the area,” he said.

New Yorkers for Affordable Energy, a coalition of business, community and labor leaders, says the Climate Action Council should be clearer about the financial impact the plan will have on the average homeowner, once the proposed changes start to take effect.

“As you start to change out those appliances – say your furnace breaks, the cost of reconfiguring your HVAC system, that can be in excess of $25,000 for people, depending on the size of your home and the intricacies of your HVAC system,” said Michelle Hook, executive director of the coalition.

The coalition’s members “are not climate deniers,” Hook said. “We know it exists. But we have to do this transition at a pace people can afford, especially with the recent inflation.”

The debate over the plan’s contents comes amid heightened attention to greenhouse gas emissions, and the most effective way to curb them.

Like National Fuel, National Grid has put forward a plan that relies on different sources of fuel, on the way toward eliminating fossil fuels from its gas and electric systems by 2050.

“Part of the big savings in this plan is, we’re not building another network. We’re utilizing an existing network,” Wynter said.

But Bill Nowak, president of the New York Geothermal Energy Organization, said the heating of homes and buildings is responsible for a high percentage of greenhouse gas emissions.

“We’ve generally had drilled into our heads that gas is a very clean fuel, it’s helping on the climate front,” Nowak said. “And that’s not the case when you take into account the methane emissions.”

If You Go:

The public hearing on the Climate Action Council’s draft plan is scheduled for 3:30 p.m to 6:30 p.m. Wednesday in the Mason O. Damon Auditorium of the main branch of the Buffalo and Erie County Public Library, at 1 Lafayette Square. Up to 301 people may attend. 

Advance registration is encouraged but not required. Priority in seating and speaking will be given to those who register in advance.