New York to ban fossil fuels in new buildings. 23 states have forbidden such bans.

A partisan rift is widening as states clash over electrification of buildings.

By: - May 3, 2023 6:00 am
A California stove burns natural gas. Even as New York this week is set to become the first state to mandate electrification of buildings by law, numerous other states have outlawed such requirements.

A California stove burns natural gas. Even as New York this week is set to become the first state to mandate electrification of buildings by law, numerous other states have outlawed such requirements. (Matt Vasilogambros/Stateline)

A widening clash over gas stoves and other fossil fuel appliances has ignited in statehouses across the country as Democratic lawmakers pursue more aggressive climate policies.

On one side, environmentalists and left-leaning legislators have championed new construction rules that require homes and other buildings to run off electricity only, to reduce greenhouse gas emissions.

On the other side, fossil fuel companies, business groups and Republican legislators have moved quickly to pass laws that bar local governments from establishing such regulations, which they say will limit consumer choice, raise utility bills and jeopardize existing jobs.

The fight has created a patchwork of energy rules across the country. New York this week is expected to become the first state to mandate electrification in new buildings by law. Since 2019, Washington state and roughly 90 local governments also have moved to phase out natural gas and other fossil fuels in many new structures, according to the Building Decarbonization Coalition, which advocates for state electrification policies.

In that same period, however, 23 states have enacted “energy choice” laws that prevent state and local governments from regulating energy sources for businesses and homes. Last month, Idaho, North Dakota and South Dakota became the latest states to pass such natural gas preemption laws, and Montana is poised to adopt similar legislation.

Meanwhile, in April, a federal appeals court overturned Berkeley, California’s first-in-the-nation rule banning natural gas hookups in new buildings — effectively requiring new buildings to be all-electric. Advocates fear that ruling could give lawmakers in other jurisdictions pause.

But many Americans already are transitioning their homes away from fossil fuels, even in states that have embraced laws to protect fossil fuel appliances.

The increased demand for electric heating systems, cooktops and other appliances has spurred more production and created jobs, environmentalists say, making it easier and cheaper for consumers and builders to go electric. New federal incentive programs included in the 2022 Inflation Reduction Act also allocate more than $4.5 billion to helping homeowners switch to all-electric appliances.

“Decarbonization is inevitable,” said Nicole Abene, a senior legislative and regulatory manager with the Building Decarbonization Coalition. “People have become aware of electrification as a really good solution for the fight against climate change and also really good for just heating and cooling their homes.”

That could go a long way toward reducing greenhouse gas emissions: In 2017, a study from the U.S. Department of Energy concluded that electrification of buildings alone could cut fossil fuel emissions more than 40% from their 2005 level by 2050, taking into account combustion for heating and cooling as well as reduced electricity use by energy-efficient appliances.

Phasing Out Fossil Fuels

For years, scientists and policymakers have recognized the importance of lowering buildings’ greenhouse gas emissions from natural gas and oil used for heating, cooling and cooking. While exact estimates vary, commercial and residential buildings and their electricity use account for as much as a third of total U.S. emissions.

Joan Fitzgerald, a professor of urban and public policy at Northeastern University, said that local, state and federal agencies have long promoted energy-efficient appliances and building standards to minimize fossil fuel use. But more stringent climate goals, and newer advances in electric heating, cooling and cooking technologies, have encouraged some jurisdictions to advocate for a complete transition away from fossil fuels.

“If you’ve already got high requirements for building efficiency, the logical next step is to say, ‘Now we’re going to get fossil fuels out of buildings entirely,’” Fitzgerald said.

Natural Gas Bans Are New Front in Effort to Curb Emissions

Policies that promote electrification generally bar new gas hook-ups or mandate that new buildings be constructed with all-electric systems, using heat pumps rather than gas furnaces and electric or induction cooktops in place of gas stoves. These policies also can apply to substantial renovations or replacement of existing appliances.

Advocates say the switch improves home air quality and can reduce household utility costs, since high-efficiency electric appliances need less energy. They also say the move will create hundreds of thousands of new jobs in the green energy sector, although critics contend there aren’t currently enough workers manufacturing or installing all-electric systems to handle large surges in demand.

In the four years since Berkeley adopted the country’s first natural gas ban, nearly 100 cities and counties have passed laws or tweaked building codes to favor electrification, according to the Building Decarbonization Coalition. The organization now estimates that 1 in 5 Americans live in an area where building electrification is either required or encouraged.

Those regions include major cities such as Denver, Los Angeles, New York, San Francisco and Washington, D.C., as well as the state of Washington. Last year, Massachusetts lawmakers greenlit a trial program that will pilot all-electric building codes in 10 cities, potentially including Boston.

New York state’s new law will ban the use of natural gas and other fossil fuels in most new buildings beginning at the end of 2025. It represents an especially significant milestone, Fitzgerald said, because the state’s size will help move the overall market toward electrification. New York is implementing the provision to help meet the goals of a groundbreaking climate law, passed in 2019, that requires the state to reduce its emissions 85% from 1990 levels by 2050. New York City in 2021 also banned the combustion of fossil fuels in its new buildings, providing a model for the rest of the state.

The final electrification measure does not include an earlier proposal that also would have phased out existing gas appliances, said Michael Hernandez, the New York policy director for Rewiring America, a national advocacy group that supports electrification. Lawmakers have signaled that could be part of future legislation.

“Electrifying new construction is the first easy step,” Hernandez said. “Then … that can really provide a demonstration to representatives and communities about how great it is to go electric.”

Protecting ‘Energy Choice’

But even in progressive New York, electrification has faced opposition from some consumers, labor groups and utility companies. In February and March, following a robocall campaign by the natural gas utility National Fuel, upstate lawmakers were inundated with calls from constituents who said they preferred their gas stoves and furnaces. In New York and across the country, natural gas costs less than electricity, on average. New York’s fuel industry also employs more than 12,000 workers.

Those three issues — cost, consumer choice and labor force — have precipitated a slew of laws in states across the country, utility trade groups told Stateline, including Arizona, Florida, Georgia, Ohio and Texas. The laws block cities from phasing out natural gas or require that they apply the same permitting and building codes to all construction projects, regardless of utility provider.

Many state “energy choice” laws have been championed by local fossil fuel utilities and business groups, sometimes with the support of national trade groups like the American Gas and the National Propane Gas associations. One preemption measure, introduced in Idaho in February and passed in March, appeared to copy language from similar bills in Georgia, Missouri, Texas and Wyoming, the Idaho Capital Sun reported. The bill’s sponsor did not respond to Stateline requests for comment.

Twelve other states are considering similar legislation, said Jacob Peterson, the director of state advocacy and affairs at the National Propane Gas Association.

“NPGA supports these efforts and strongly maintains that energy consumers, not local officials, should retain the right to decide for themselves what fuel source best meets their unique heating and energy needs within their budget,” Peterson said.

But the impact of the laws may prove largely symbolic, in part because so many have been adopted in states that already rely heavily on electricity for heating and cooking. Electricity is the dominant home heat source throughout much of the Northwest and Southeast, for instance, including Florida, Georgia and Texas.

Bills also generally have passed in states without active or pending building electrification measures.

‘This Movement Is Here to Stay’

Environmentalists argue that they don’t need every jurisdiction to pass building electrification laws to significantly reduce greenhouse gas emissions — they merely need to establish market conditions that make it more affordable and accessible for consumers and builders to opt for electrification. For example, measures implemented in just a few large states could spur training in green building trades and create economies of scale that reduce the cost of heat pumps or induction cooktops.

In addition to Massachusetts, New York and Washington, advocates are currently focused on passing all-electric building codes in Democratic-led states including California, Illinois, Maryland and Michigan, said Jonny Kocher, a senior associate with the Carbon-Free Buildings Program at RMI, an environmental think tank and advocacy organization.

After historic year of environmental laws, California wants to go further

Even in states with preemption laws, cities can still take steps to encourage electrification, advocates say. Some cities have, for instance, pursued new health and safety regulations that pause the construction of new natural gas lines due to the potential for dangerous explosions. State preemption laws also may allow cities to offer incentives and rebates that encourage electrification.

“Once you have a certain number of states that have done it, the economics just fall into place,” Kocher said.

Already, proponents of building decarbonization say they see signs that electric heating, cooling and cooking have become mainstream. In 2020, for the first time ever, more U.S. households used electricity than gas to heat their homes. Heat pumps also outsold gas furnaces for the first time last year, even before the introduction of new federal incentives that will cover as much as 100% of the cost of heat pump installation.

In New York, Abene said the Building Decarbonization Coalition would continue to lobby for measures that cap household energy costs and empower the state to plan neighborhood-by-neighborhood fuel transitions.

“I think we’re providing some certainty that this movement is here to stay, and it’s worth investing in these technologies,” she said.

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Caitlin Dewey
Caitlin Dewey

Caitlin Dewey is a Buffalo, New York-based correspondent for Stateline and has reported for outlets including The Washington Post, The New York Times, The Guardian, Slate, Elle and Cosmopolitan.