This article was originally published on Syracuse.com
Syracuse, N.Y. – National Grid today will call on New York leaders to reject the goal of converting nearly every building in the state to electric heat by 2050, arguing that natural gas infrastructure should not be abandoned in the quest to stop climate change.
Instead, existing gas mains can one day supply customers with what National Grid calls “fossil-free gas,” a mix of methane recovered from landfills or farms and hydrogen made with solar or wind power.
That way, utility officials argue, not all customers would have to replace their gas furnaces with electric heat pumps. And, they say, the state’s heating system could slash carbon emissions without becoming dependent on a single fuel, electricity.
National Grid is launching a counterproposal to the state Climate Action Council’s draft plan to reduce greenhouse gas emissions, which aims to prohibit new installations of gas heating equipment in homes and businesses in the coming years. State officials are conducting public hearings on the draft plan (including April 26 in Syracuse, details below). The plan is expected to be finalized by the end of the year.
In an online interview with reporters Monday, Rudolph Wynter, president of National Grid NY, said gas should continue to play a role in heating some buildings even after many structures go all-electric.
“The current narrative that we hear … is essentially electrify everything,’’ Wynter said. “And we come up with a vision that is a bit of a hybrid.’’
Wynter said the utility is committed to phasing out the use of traditional natural gas. In its place, he proposes to use waste gas recovered from sources such as landfills, wastewater treatment plants and dairy farms. That “renewable natural gas” would be supplemented, at a volume of up to 20%, with hydrogen, which can be made by electrolyzing water with solar or wind power.
“So we’re essentially eliminating fossil gas from the network in 2050, and we’re utilizing RNG (renewable natural gas) and green hydrogen,” he said.
National Grid’s proposal is likely to meet skepticism from some environmental activists.
NY Renews, a coalition of prominent environmental groups, labels both renewable natural gas and green hydrogen as “false solutions’’ promoted by gas utilities to maintain a foothold in the future energy system.
“It is fair to say that the only scalable, effective, and ultimately lawful climate solution in the buildings sector, building electrification, poses an existential threat to the gas industry,’’ the group wrote in a 2021 position paper.
Heating and cooling buildings account for about one-third of New York’s greenhouse gas emissions, so buildings are a key focus of the state’s climate plan. Nearly 60% of the state’s 7.4 million households burn natural gas for heat.
Under legislation passed in 2019, New York is committed to becoming carbon-neutral by 2050. Change could start much sooner. The Climate Action Council proposed a ban on gas furnaces in new homes as early as 2024, for example, although the legislature has not enacted it thus far.
The draft plan put forth this year by the 22-person Climate Action Council assumes that the heating of buildings will transition to all-electric. National Grid maintains that fossil-free gas should remain part of the solution.
That would make the system more affordable and more resilient, Wynter argues.
Using the existing gas infrastructure, including customer-owned furnaces, would lower costs for customers compared with the all-electric option, he said. It would also add to reliability by providing a second source of heat besides electricity, he said.
Under National Grid’s plan, by 2040 about 50% of the gas in its system would be a combination of renewable natural gas and hydrogen. By 2050, 100% of the gas would be “fossil-free.”
If it’s allowed to go forward with the plan, the utility estimates that about half of all customers would still end up with all-electric heat, compared with 10% now. Many would convert to electric heat pumps to replace current systems using heating oil or propane.
About one-quarter of all customers would continue to heat with fossil-free gas; and the remaining 25% would have “hybrid” heating systems including both electric heat pumps and gas furnaces, Wynter said.
Some customers would want the choice to be able to heat their homes with heat pumps for most of the year but switch to gas appliances during the coldest months, he said.
Under the 2019 Climate Leadership and Community Protection Act, the Climate Action Council is required to deliver its final plan to the governor and legislature by Jan.1, 2023. After that, the state will formulate regulations to implement the plan by Jan.1, 2024.
Comments on the state plan can be submitted online through June 10.
An in-person public hearing will be held at 4 p.m. April 26 at the Gateway Center at SUNY College of Environmental Science and Forestry in Syracuse.