As lawmakers race to electrify buildings, industry pushes back

Developers seek flexibility, analysis; gas-pipe workers fear for jobs

(iStock, Illustration by Shea Monahan for the Real Deal) New York, Electricity
(iStock, illustration by Shea Monahan for The Real Deal)

With just three weeks left of the legislative session, lawmakers debated a key question for developers: Is it possible to make all new buildings electricity-powered in just a few years?

Environmental advocates have pushed for the state to ban gas hookups in new construction throughout New York starting in 2024. Gov. Kathy Hochul pitched a 2027 deadline in her executive budget, but neither proposal was included in the final spending bills.

Now, lawmakers and advocates are pushing a measure that would follow New York City’s lead, banning fossil fuels in some new buildings in 2024, and then applying the rules to taller buildings in 2027.

At a state Assembly hearing Thursday, proponents emphasized the need to act swiftly, pointing to projections that global greenhouse gas emissions must be halved by 2030 to curb the pace of global warming.

Construction industry representatives raised questions about project costs and said the measure would displace workers. Others called the timeline unrealistic, given the unreliability of the state’s electric grid.

In December, the state’s Climate Action Council, charged with preparing a roadmap to meet the state’s emissions goals, released a draft that called for barring the use of gas and oil in single-family and other low-rise residential construction starting in 2024, and in commercial and multifamily projects taller than four stories by 2027.

It also proposed the gradual electrification of the state’s 6.1 million existing buildings, by banning the replacement of gas and oil hookups starting in 2030.

During Thursday’s hearing, Doreen Harris, president and CEO of the New York State Energy Research and Development Authority, supported that timeline and called for the legislature to “accelerate” the transition to electric systems.

Though pending legislation focuses on electrifying new buildings, much of the hearing focused on the challenges of updating older ones. Several lawmakers expressed concern about the cost of forcing existing properties to go electric.

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Republican Assembly member Chris Tague warned that people would “balk at buying a house” if they were required to pay thousands of dollars to retrofit it. Harris said the hope is that by 2030, the market for electric heating and other technologies will scale up and drive down costs.

While she did not have an estimate for the costs associated with retrofitting the state’s building stock, Harris said the state has estimated that it would cost $17,000 to electrify a house worth $350,000 and implement other energy efficient technologies.

Three years ago, the state approved the Climate Leadership and Community Protection Act, a plan to reduce greenhouse gas emissions 40 percent by 2030 and 85 percent by 2050, compared with 1990 levels. According to a 2021 state report, buildings produced 32 percent of New York’s greenhouse gas emissions, more than any other contributor.

Peter Sikora, who heads climate and inequality campaigns for the advocacy group New York Communities for Change, said he was encouraged by the Hochul administration’s support of the electrification timeline. He said failure to pass a bill banning fossil fuels now means losing precious time “in a desperate struggle to survive.”

Last year the New York City Council approved a measure that requires electric heat and hot water in construction of buildings shorter than seven stories beginning Jan. 1, 2024, and in taller ones starting July 1, 2027.

The latest version of the state’s All-Electric Building Act, which initially barred fossil fuel combustion in all new buildings by 2024, mirrors the city’s timeline for electrifying new buildings throughout the rest of the state.

The Real Estate Board of New York submitted testimony urging the legislature to phase in deadlines, and said it would be “imprudent” to one-up the city’s law. The trade group also called for financial support for building owners and asked lawmakers to consider a more flexible approach: banning on-site fossil-fuel combustion in new buildings rather than requiring them to be all-electric.

“With significant investment and innovation underway in low- and no-carbon fuels, it is possible that in the coming years new buildings could utilize energy sources other than electricity and have no on-site emissions,” the group said in a statement.

Michael Fazio of the New York State Builders Association asked lawmakers to conduct a cost analysis of electrification before moving forward. John Murphy, a representative for the United Association of Plumbers, Pipefitters and Sprinkler Fitters in the state, warned that the bill’s timeline would cost his members their livelihoods.

Other housing-related policies remain unresolved with the legislative session nearly over. They include a measure to ease zoning restrictions for hotel-to-housing conversions and another to let the city legalize existing basement apartments.