By Brad Plumer and Hiroko Tabuchi
© The New York Times Co.
In a nation that is deeply split along partisan lines over the pandemic response, racial equity and abortion, add this: gas stoves and furnaces.
This week New York City moved to ban gas hookups in new buildings, joining cities in blue states such as California, Massachusetts and Washington that want to shift homes away from burning natural gas because it releases carbon dioxide, which causes global warming.
Instead developers in New York City will have to install electric heat pumps and electric kitchen ranges in newly constructed buildings.
But the growing push to electrify homes has triggered a political backlash: At least 20 mostly red states, including Arizona, Georgia, Florida, Ohio and Texas, have passed laws that forbid their cities from restricting gas use. Most of these bills have passed in the past year, backed by the natural gas industry and local gas utilities, which see electrification as a looming threat to their bottom line.
In Denver the city is moving toward requiring all commercial and multifamily buildings to use electric heating and cooling systems. It’s part of an initiative to have the city using nearly a third less energy by 2030.
Homes and buildings are directly responsible for about 13% of America’s annual greenhouse gas emissions, largely from natural gas burned in furnaces, water heaters, stoves, ovens and clothes dryers. Curbing that pollution is crucial, experts say, if the nation hopes to stop adding greenhouse gases to the atmosphere by 2050, as President Joe Biden has proposed.
“People understand the potential of renewable energy. We’ve really reduced emissions in the power sector. We’re doing a lot more on electric vehicles now,” said Dylan Sullivan, a senior scientist for the climate and clean energy program at the Natural Resources Defense Council, an environmental group. Gas use in buildings, he said, “is the new issue and one that’s going to be a big focus over the next decade.”
The best way to clean up buildings, states such as California have concluded, is by converting them to run largely on electricity. That means ditching gas furnaces in favor of electric heat pumps, which essentially act like air conditioners that can run in two directions, providing heating in the winter and cooling in the summer. As states continue to add wind and solar power to their electric grids, emissions from these appliances should decline even more.
But the gas industry has lobbied in statehouses across the country to slow the shift away from gas. It argues that gas appliances are widely popular and still cost less than electric versions for many consumers. Opponents also warned that a rush to electrify homes could strain power grids, particularly in the winter, when heating needs soar, at a time when states such as California and Texas are struggling to meet demand.
Karen Harbert, president and CEO of the American Gas Association, an industry group, said efforts to disconnect homes and businesses from the extensive network of gas pipelines would make it difficult to supply those buildings with low-carbon alternatives that might be available in the future, such as hydrogen or biogas.
“Eliminating natural gas and our delivery infrastructure forecloses on current and future innovation opportunities,” she said.
The question of whether to use natural gas in homes has become part of the culture wars, pitting climate activists against industry and other interest groups. Some chefs and restaurant owners have argued that they won’t be able to cook certain dishes as well without gas. Environmentalists counter that gas stoves are a source of indoor air pollution, contributing to diseases such as asthma.
In 2019, Berkeley became the first city to ban gas hookups in most new homes and buildings, citing climate change. Since then, at least 50 California cities have adopted similar rules.
This year, Seattle and Eugene, Ore., put forward measures to ban gas hookups in new buildings. Last month, Denver approved an ordinance requiring large buildings to shift to electric heating and cooling “when cost effective.” And Wednesday, New York City became the largest city in the world to ban gas in new buildings, requiring those up to seven stories tall to go all-electric by 2023 and larger buildings to do so by 2027. (The bill would not affect existing buildings.)
As the push for electrification has sped up, the gas industry has mounted a counteroffensive.
In March 2020, Sue Forrester, a lobbyist for the American Gas Association, warned a meeting of utility executives that the campaign against natural gas was growing quickly and that the industry needed “to really change the narrative and say that we are part of America’s clean energy future,” according to a recording of the meeting obtained by The New York Times.
So she outlined a plan to build support for state legislation that would bar cities from restricting gas, which she framed as protecting consumer choice.
“The idea behind choice is to really get ahead of the localities, the big cities and counties and say we are allowing our customers the right to have, to be hooked up, to any kind of energy they would like,” she said.
That spring, Arizona, Tennessee, Oklahoma and Louisiana passed laws that barred cities from banning natural gas. In Oklahoma, the gas industry drew support from groups such as the AARP, the influential lobby for older Americans, as well as restaurants, hotels, homebuilders and barbecue equipment makers.
This year, Republican controlled legislatures in 16 additional states have passed measures to forbid cities from banning gas.
For now, natural gas remains the dominant fuel in much of the country, heating nearly half of American homes. Electric heat pumps, by contrast, satisfy just 5% of heating demand nationwide.
But the cost of electrification is dropping, at least for new construction.
An analysis last year from the Rocky Mountain Institute, a research group focused on climate policy, found that in many major cities, including Boston, New York, Seattle and Austin, Texas, it is now often cheaper to build a new allelectric single-family home than a new home fueled by gas, in part because modern-day heat pumps work more effectively in frigid weather and there are savings from not having to extend new gas lines into homes.
Still it probably will prove more difficult and costly to retrofit the millions of existing homes and apartment buildings that depend on gas, since doing so often requires additional renovations, such as new ductwork or wiring.
A market shift away from natural gas is likely to proceed slowly unless states put in place additional policies and building codes, said Sue McFaddin, who consulted on a recent allelectric housing development near Fort Collins “We’re not going to meet our climate goals if we just go by the market,” she said.