Tuesday, January 2, 2024

It’s Debatable: Homes free of fossil fuel

natural gas boiler

Editor’s note: This commentary is in the November/December 2023 issue of Adirondack Explorer magazine, as part of our “It’s Debatable” feature. In this regular column, we invite organizations and/or individuals to address a particular issue. Click here to subscribe to the magazine, available in both print and digital formats: www.adirondackexplorer.org/subscribe.

The question: Do you share NY’s all-electric home goal?

Strike a compromise allowing for consumer choice

New York’s mandate for electric-only heating systems in new buildings is a progressive step towards environmental sustainability. Still, it comes with significant drawbacks that cannot be ignored. While the goal of reducing greenhouse gas emissions is commendable, the one-size-fits-all approach of mandating electric-only heating systems has its cons, particularly in terms of cost, reliability, and potential impact on the electric grid.

It’s clear that the goal of electrifying everything and putting all our power eggs in one basket would be ill-advised because innovation and new technologies are by no means confined to the world of electricity. Unique ways are coming to fruition to reduce emissions in building applications.

For many consumers, electric heat pumps are substantially more expensive to install than more traditional natural gas heating systems. This upfront cost can burden homeowners and businesses, particularly those struggling to make ends meet. A recent study by the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and Wentworth Institute of Technology determined that building single-family homes to meet new energy codes will likely increase construction costs by $10,000 to $23,000. Builders ideologically support the state’s climate goals, and while we’re not conceptually opposed to electrification, we see the unintended consequences playing out.

Furthermore, the mandate’s potential impact on the electric grid’s reliability must be considered. New York’s grid is already under stress during peak demand, and the increased load from a widespread shift to electric heating systems could exacerbate the problem. This could lead to more frequent blackouts and strained grid infrastructure, negatively affecting heating and other critical services dependent on electricity. This can be especially problematic in rural areas where power outages are more common and can take longer to resolve.

The energy choice approach that New York has taken eliminates the ability of consumers to choose the heating system that best suits their needs and circumstances and, more importantly, budgets. Providing incentives and subsidies for greener heating technologies while retaining natural gas options can balance environmental goals and consumer choice.

Additionally, investing in grid upgrades and resilience measures can help ensure that the grid can handle the increased demand without compromising reliability.

New York’s “gas ban” has significant drawbacks. The high cost, reliability concerns and potential strain on the electric grid are valid reasons to reconsider this approach. A more balanced strategy that encourages the adoption of greener technologies without eliminating consumer choice would be a more practical and equitable path toward a sustainable future.

— Michael Fazio is executive vice president of New York State Builders Association, Castleton- on-Hudson

Electric heating is good for the planet

The state Legislature passed the All Electric Building Act this year, amending New York’s building code to require that new buildings be built without fossil fuel appliances and heating systems starting in 2026. This is a common sense first step—recommended in the state’s Climate Action Plan—to reduce the biggest source of greenhouse gas emissions in New York: our buildings.

The effective date was set to appease developers and utilities, but there’s no reason to wait. To best serve their clients, engineers, architects, developers, builders and HVAC professionals should be outfitting all new buildings with energy efficient heat pumps and precision induction stoves immediately. This is particularly true in the North Country where heat pumps represent dramatic cost savings—thousands of dollars a year less than heating with propane—for most home and building owners.

There are two general categories of heat pumps for homes, air source pumps which extract heat from the outdoor air, and ground source pumps which extract heat from the ground. Air source pumps are generally cheaper to install, but not as efficient as ground source pumps. Ground source (also known as geothermal) are more expensive to install because it is labor intensive to put a heat exchange loop into the ground. But that’s a one-time expense. Geothermal systems are the most efficient, lowest maintenance and longest lasting heating systems on the market today.

Cold climate air source heat pumps are widely available. They are efficient to 5 degrees and operate down to minus 19. Where temperatures go even lower for long periods, wood, propane or electric resistance back-up heating may be warranted. Ground source pumps maintain very high efficiency regardless of outdoor temperature because the ground below the frost line maintains the same temperature year-round.

In the Adirondacks, both kinds of heat pumps should perform well in new buildings built to high efficiency standards. Thousands of structures across every region of New York, ranging from single-family homes to large mixed-use buildings, already heat and cool with heat pumps. In frigid Scandinavia, heat pumps enjoy widespread use.

In Europe, you’d be unlikely to find a kitchen without an induction stove. Induction cooking, preferred by many top chefs, is fast, precise, and safe.

The buildings we build today will last the next hundred years. They should be outfitted with 21st century equipment and appliances that will benefit the owner and the planet.

— Lisa Marshall is advocacy and organizing director for New Yorkers for Clean Power, Horseheads

Photo: State policies encourage replacing fossil fuel burning systems, like this natural gas boiler, with ones that use electricity. Photo by James M. Odato 

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The Adirondack Almanack publishes occasional guest essays from Adirondack residents, visitors, and those with an interest in the Adirondack Park. Submissions should be directed to Almanack editor Melissa Hart at editor@adirondackalmanack.com


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38 Responses

  1. An Adirondack Resident says:

    Electricity does not magically appear and if you think it will be generated from completely from renewable sourtces anytime in the near future, you are living in a fantasy world.
    It’s even worse in the north country where the power comes a long way on vulnerable lines and goes out fairly frequently.

    • A Brewer says:

      Exactly. Well said.

      National Grid cannot maintain the right of way across my property.

      Additionally they told me that the power poles had not been replaced since 1970 and were needing maintenance.

  2. James Marco says:

    Burning natural gas is not e real problem. Mostly methane, there is a glut in Canada, Alaska, Russia, and other northern countries. It is released by the warming of the tundra. Methane is FAR WORSE as a greenhouse gas than carbon dioxide. Do something about it? Yeah…burn it as heating fuel for the next 50 years.
    Adirondack Resident is absolutely correct, an electrical outage means no heat to an all electric home. It happens…
    You should have two sources of heat. Winters are always tough in the ADK’s and you cannot afford a day with no heat at -10F.

  3. Paul says:

    Brilliant!! Incisive!!!

    BUT, where does electricity come from… hmmmm??

  4. Zachary Denton says:

    They passed the mentioned bill due to a report citing public safety and health. The science in the report was bogus, and there is no risk. Now, all we read is how this is better for the planet. That was the idea all along, but they knew that if they started with, it would never garner support.

  5. Habitatman says:

    We live just a ways outside the blue line and I enjoyed cutting, hauling,spitting, piling wood, and feeding our wood stove and wood boiler for decades. But I started to age out several years ago and had a geothermal heat pump installed. All I can tell ya is the operation is cheaper, efficient, and satisfying. We don’t need it much but do occasionally use the heat pump’s a/c setting too.
    I understand the degenerations of some of the comments here, but for most folks a heat pump is the way to go.

    • Mike says:

      I understand youre giddy about your new geothermal heat, but it isn’t practical for most people. Most don’t have the money or property to install that type of heating. With increased property comes increase in taxes. Also the electronics and pumps have a lifespan that doesn’t come close to boilers and furnaces. Maintenance costs in the long run will be more. When power goes out so will a geothermal heating system, a wood stove will keep heating.

  6. Alan R. says:

    My 90 year old Dad says the comments here are in the same vein he overheard as a little boy in the 1940s: coal is still the best for home heating. People were afraid of change, despite the coal dust, the shoveling, the need for a full size basement etc.

  7. Larry Roth says:

    The technology is improving by leaps and bounds. Gas stoves are a health hazard among other issues. Induction stoves are really changing cooking as well as being efficient. Heat pumps are far more effective these days. Having dealt with fossil fuel prices that can skyrocket and also have supply issues, I wouldn’t miss those. We need to upgrade the grid of course, but home solar and microgrids can make a real difference.

    So yeah, going all electric makes sense.

  8. Eric says:

    I have a air source heat pump in a brand new house. It is horrible. First off it runs all the time when the outside temps are low since the output air is not very warm. There is just not a lot of heat to pull out of the outside air. The outside unit will often frost over blocking any air flow through the outside unit. Then the defrost mode kicks in which is basically cooling mode using interior heat to heat up the outside unit and melt the frost. During this time cold air is blown into the house cooling off the house. Of course the thermostat will call for heat to offset this defrost mode cooling effect thereby causing the outside unit to eventually go into defrost mode gain cooling off the house. Rinse and repeat. These units just move energy around to create heat and do not create any heat. If the backup heating kicks in then you now have a giant really expensive hair dryer running. All of this is at 20 degrees outside temps. I shudder at the thought of this thing trying to heat up my house at 5 degrees. Since the unit pulls close to 40 amps at 220 volts, it would take a very substantial generator to run it if power went out. My current generator which would easily power a gas furnace and a chest freezer would not cut it. Add another 50 amps for the heat strips and you will need a whole house generator to keep warm. These things are supposed to be efficient but my electricity bill this year with a heat pump easily surpassed my bill last year with a NG furnace, and average temps were 10 degrees warmer this year than last. These heat pumps are junk and it seems everyone is trying to sell a lie.

    • Ben says:

      It sounds like you have a system that is the wrong size and/or poorly installed. That is unfortunate. There is a huge need for training of system designers and installers.

  9. Wayno says:

    IMO there is no doubt that we need to confront Climate Change and we have squandered many decades since the impact became clear. That said, we need to be realistic. Just to switch from gas to electric cars will tax the grid and our resources. Natural gas is like the least harmful fossil fuel and therefore should be the last thing we eliminate. The focus should be on cars and new sources of electricity that eliminates coal. Then we can address the lesser priorities like natural gas in the future, hopefully the technology will also develop further so it is less expensive/more reliable.

  10. SNAPPER PETTA says:

    I’ve never understood a “one size fits all” approach to anything; especially when it comes to powering our homes. Although I can’t say for certain, my guess is none of the folks involved in this legislation ever lived in a region of NYS where the power has been out for a week or more; especially during the winter months. If they were familiar with that scenario, I doubt they’d be so hell bent to make everything run on electricity.

    • Joan Grabe says:

      Snapper Petta,
      You are absolutely correct.

    • Boreas says:

      Total conversion to residential electricity in the Adirondacks and most rural areas is unrealistic and should not even be pursued. Electricity in general is only viable with an indestructible, uninterruptible power grid and power supply. As long as it is possible to knock out power grids with cyber and physical attacks, one should have an alternate power supply on hand, or one will immediately be back in the Bronze Age.

      This isn’t to say we shouldn’t lessen our reliance on fossil fuels, but total bans are illogical.

    • Ben says:

      I live in the northern Adirondacks and the grid supplied electricity almost never goes out. It has been since 1998 since a major power outage occurred. Not saying it won’t happen again, but these points about the power constantly being out just don’t line up with my experience.

      • Boreas says:

        It definitely depends where you live! Trees, wind, snow loads, and non-buried utilities all add up to unreliable power.

        • Ben says:

          Where though? Where is the power constantly going out?

          • Steve B. says:

            Maybe not “constantly”. But often enough to question viability of all electric. Think about the ice storm many years ago, took out a huge part of eastern Quebecs electrical infrastructure, main power lines etc…. A million people without power in dead of winter go multiple weeks. The reality is unless you bury local power infrastructure, it’s vulnerable and then it’s a good idea to have a backup such as an alternative fuel heat system.

  11. Susan says:

    We heat with wood, always have, always will. It is cheap, plentiful, renewable, and it is health promoting as well. The few months we spend cutting and gathering firewood keep us outdoors, exercising, improving our health and well being. For us, there is no other way to go!

  12. This supposedly is a FREE country. I know today that is debatable but until you all actually declare us a Communist country we have the choice of which way we heat our homes. -10 below with no electric should be thought out seriously. No heat source because the electric is out and you have a new born baby is a serious cause for a lawsuit of both the electric company and the state. I only speak for myself here, but I’m damn sick of people outside my home community telling me how to live. You all are so gangbusters about not having guns and then demonstrate a real reason why we actually need them. Trying to force people to do what you want is a prime example of the purpose of the 2nd Amendment.

  13. It’s a complex subject, but unless you live in a very small house with a wood stove, there’s little chance you can get by without public electricity, almost always produced with at least some fossil fuel. The exception might be if you have on-site hydroelectric, solar, or wind power, and with the latter two, sufficient battery storage.

    Even with a wood stove, the emissions, even with an included catalytic combustor, are hardly ideal. And unless you have the acreage and physical ability to hand-split free on-site wood, that method of heating can be very expensive and time consuming. And who cuts all of their wood with an ax as opposed with a polluting 2-stroke chain saw. Fireplace inserts are worthless without a integral fan.

    Almost all heating systems, except for a relatively small house, require some form of electricity, whether pumps, fans, compressors, control systems, etc. A wood fired steam boiler might be an exception.

    We live in rural Maryland on a 4+ acre wooded lot. We use a fireplace wood insert for supplementary heat all winter with a natural gas furnace. We have a 6.5 kVA generator (again fossil fuel) for fairly frequent power outages that will run the furnace, refrigerators, water pump, and most other basic needs. I cut and hand-split all of our own wood from dead trees on our lot. Even in Maryland, we could not get by in the coldest part of winter with a heat pump and no electricity unless we invested in a very expensive whole house generator.

    • William says:

      I think the amount of trapped carbon released from trees is the same whether it is burned or naturally decayed.

      • Boreas says:

        William,

        Trapped carbon is indeed released with natural decomposition, but it doesn’t ALL enter the atmosphere. Fossil fuels like coal are the ultimate evidence of this natural carbon sequestration. Carbon is sequestered with natural decomposition, and also benefits the soil and forest biome which maintains the ongoing health of the forest community and soils..

        Burning for heating also creates other toxins that decomposition does not. However I am not against the limited burning of wood for heat until better alternatives emerge. But until fuel cells or mini-nuke generation is available for residential use, the most practical substitution for fossil fuels off the grid, rooftop/stand-alone solar panels seems to be the way to go at the moment. But certainly far from perfect because of the environmental impact to produce and dispose of them.

  14. Paul says:

    This law does not apply to buildings over 7 stories. I assume the deep pocketed developers in NYC have lobbied themselves free of such restrictions. Looks targeted at regular folks.

  15. Glen B says:

    choice…always allow free citizens a choice.

  16. Paul says:

    Given the limited amount of electricity that is generated by “renewables” (NYS is basically trying to get rid of some clean sources like nuclear) currently isn’t most of this electricity going to come from burning fossil fuels of some sort – or maybe wood pellet burning plants (very common in CA) in some cases. This seems like a “cart before the horse” kind of maneuver?

  17. Paul says:

    60% of our electricity comes from fossil fuels. 20% from nuclear and 20% from renewables.

    If I was exxon mobile I would vote for this legislation..

  18. Grant says:

    It seems that those who are making these decisions in NYC area must think the Redneck Hill Billies out in the sticks won’t think we have enough intelligence to know how Electricity is developed. No-one of us is capable of reading and writing. No matter how we heat our home we are going to have to use Mother Nature’s facilities to do it. So why not stop this foolishness and concentrate on real problems like bringing Illegal Aliens that will consume more of our precious resources. You may be empathetic in your sympathy for people invading our country but you need a bunch of uncommon sense when you realize your duty to protect Mother Nature from depleting our resources which eventually will run out is much more important. All we are doing if we protect our resources, sooner or later that resource will run out. What Then Huh!

  19. Big Burly says:

    I learned from long time DAKers that resiliency and options are paramount living in this wonderful place. We heat with wood as a comfort — ever stand near a wood stove on a cold day ? Comfort! We also have a well insulated home with infloor hydronic propane fired heat with associated hot water, cook with an electeric oven and propane cook top. Living in paradise requires hardiness. The folks that pass this type of legislation and promote it? Just saying … not well versed in survival.

  20. JOSEPH M BOPP says:

    In our town (Henrietta, NY) there are several home developments / businesses / DPW projects on hold because the current electrical infrastructure cannot handle the additional power demand. And you want to add electric homes to the mix?

  21. AM Brewer says:

    There aren’t enough people to install, maintain and repair this equipment.

    I happen to know that heat pumps aren’t in the local BOCES curriculum or the local college HVAC programs.

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