The New York City Council voted today to ban natural gas in new buildings, putting the nation’s largest city at the vanguard of national efforts to eliminate the fossil fuel and potent greenhouse gas.
The bill prohibits natural gas hookups and oil-burning equipment in new buildings under seven stories starting in 2023 and all new buildings starting in 2027. Existing buildings are not affected by the measure, though significant renovations could require buildings to become all-electric. Hospitals, factories, laundromats, and commercial kitchens are also exempt. Mayor Bill de Blasio has said that he will sign the bill.
The city isn’t the first to attempt something like this. Other, smaller cities like Brookline, Massachusetts, and San Jose and Berkeley, California, have enacted similar bans on new hookups, but New York City is by far the largest to date. Some 40 percent of its greenhouse gas emissions come from boilers, furnaces, and hot water heaters.
New buildings in the city will use heat pumps for heating, air conditioning, and hot water. That may not be as much of a stretch as it seems. Even during colder months, air-source heat pumps are at least twice as efficient as the best natural gas furnaces, and in more ideal conditions, they can move up to 4.5 times as much heat as the energy they consume. In New York City, they’re about three times more efficient than gas furnaces, and they have the added benefit of providing air conditioning in the summer. Ground-source heat pumps, which rely on relatively stable temperatures underground, typically move about four times more heat than the energy they consume.
The grid is expected to be able to bear the burden. Even without upgrades, the Urban Green Council estimates that New York City’s peak winter load is over 40 percent lower than during the summer, when air conditioning use sends demand significantly higher.
The measure was opposed by the American Petroleum Institute and ExxonMobil, which reportedly ran Facebook ads asking people to “voice your support” for gas stoves. The gas stove gambit has been the most recent attempt by fossil fuel lobbies to sway the public—people don’t really care much about where their heat comes from, but they’re more intimately connected to their stoves. Yet apart from some techniques that require an open flame, most people would be better off using induction ranges, which heat far faster and operate more efficiently, without the danger of spewing toxic fumes into people’s homes.
In recent years, sentiments have turned against natural gas. Fossil fuel was once viewed as a way to eliminate dirty coal while building renewable power capacity. But research has shown that once leaks in the production and distribution systems are taken into account, natural gas can in some circumstances be worse for the climate than coal. That’s because methane, one of natural gas’s key components, is a potent greenhouse gas, warming the atmosphere 86 times more than carbon dioxide over 20 years. That means even small leaks can have an outsize impact, and in older cities like New York, which have aging gas infrastructure, leaks are widespread.
Before today’s vote, the city analyzed new buildings and determined that the utility bills of all-electric structures were cost-competitive with gas systems in older ones, in part because newer buildings are better sealed and insulated. New York City already has several all-electric buildings, and a 44-story electric-powered tower is set to be completed in 2024.
Experts think that the city’s natural gas ban could serve as a template for other cities. “We’re big, we’re dense, we’re complicated, we have all four seasons,” Ben Furnas, the city’s director of climate and sustainability, told E&E News. “We’re putting a marker down, saying the next generation of buildings is going to be electric. We want to be a model for the world.”