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This study focuses on strategies for phasing out direct use of fossil fuels (natural gas, fuel oil, and propane) in buildings in New York.

New York State has set a goal of reducing greenhouse gas emissions by 40 percent by the year 2030 and 80 percent by the year 2050. About three-fifths of the state’s greenhouse gas emissions in 2011 came from the direct use of fossil fuels in transportation (39.3 percent) and in buildings for space and water heating (21.4 percent). To reach greenhouse gas reduction targets it will be necessary to make significant reductions in both these sectors.

Overview

Space and water heating and air conditioning in New York State’s buildings are responsible for more CO2 emissions – about 50 million metric tons in 2011 – than the entire electricity sector (including electricity imports) – about 42 million metric tons.  The residential sector represents over 60 percent of the space conditioning and water heating emissions.  Similarly, direct use of natural gas in buildings is greater than its use in the electricity sector, even as the latter use has grown substantially.  Eliminating the use of fossil fuels, including natural gas, as completely as possible is essential for New York to achieve its 2050 goal for deep reductions of greenhouse gas emissions.  The importance of phasing out direct use of natural gas is enhanced when we take into account the warming impact of methane leaks associated with natural gas use at various stages of production and transport.

The most straightforward way to address the elimination of fossil fuel use is by adopting efficient electric heating, ventilation, and air-conditioning (HVAC) and water heating systems.  They are commercially available.  There are several other advantages of adopting this approach in addition to reduction of CO2 emissions due to combustion of fossil fuels:

  • Electrification creates an HVAC sector that is renewable grid ready.  In other words, as the grid is decarbonized using renewable resources, the emissions from all things driven by electricity, including heating and air-conditioning systems, decline.  A fully renewable electricity sector will then automatically mean zero emissions from heating and cooling buildings, if direct use of fossil fuels is completely eliminated for those applications.
  • Geothermal and cold climate (air-to-air) heat pumps provide air conditioning much more efficiently than conventional central air-conditioning systems.  As a direct result heat pumps reduce peak loads on the grid and decrease the need to invest in additional peaking generation.  Peak load reduction also reduces transmission congestion and the costs associated with it.
  • Leaks of methane, which is the main constituent of natural gas, increase the CO2-equivalent emissions of natural gas heating systems between about 20 and 150 percent.  The latter figure corresponds to a 5 percent leak rate and a 20-year global warming potential.
  • Investment in efficient equipment in effect substitutes an upfront cost for continued high energy costs.  This can be very beneficial for low-income households, since high energy burdens are part of a complex of economic, health, and housing issues that contribute to serious and all-too-often devastating problems like ill-health and homelessness.
  • The use of fuel oil and propane in home heating is common in New York.  These are relatively expensive fuels; there is no reason to delay their conversion to efficient electric systems.
  • Conversion of natural gas systems to efficient heat pumps is usually not economical on a straight dollar-cost basis.  However, when the social cost of carbon emissions, reduction of peak load, and upstream methane emissions are taken into account, the economic case for retrofitting with efficient electric systems is clear.

Principal Recommendation: New York State should adopt a policy of converting fossil fuel heating systems to efficient electric systems.  Cold climate heat pumps or geothermal heat pumps are widely available technologies that can serve the purpose.  Leading edge heat pump technologies could reduce cost and/or increase efficiency.  Water heating conversions should be done at the same time, where possible.  Incentives for efficient heat pump systems should be based on a combination of heating and cooling performance, with the lowest rebate being geared to an Energy Star system and the highest to the best available technology, which is currently a geothermal heat pump system.

It would be most efficient to start in four areas:

  • Conversion of fuel oil and propane systems to efficient heat pump systems.
  • Conversion of all low-income households using fossil fuels, including natural gas, to efficient electric systems.  This reduces annual energy burdens and provides low-income families as well as other New Yorkers with significant non-energy benefits.
  • An end to the promotion of natural gas appliances by NYSERDA, which should not provide rebates for conversion of fuel oil and propane systems to natural gas.
  • Exclusive use of efficient electric systems in new housing construction and in retrofits in areas where there is no natural gas infrastructure at present.

Read the full Making Residential Heating and Cooling Climate-Friendly in New York State here.

WRVO Radio Interview with Tom Magnarelli (aired on Morning Edition, March 4, 2017)

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Watch video of Arjun Makhijani speaking in Syracuse on February 17, 2017: