How Politics Are Determining What Stove You Use

Source: By Brad Plumer and Hiroko Tabuchi. New York Times • Posted: Sunday, December 19, 2021

New York is the latest Democratic city aiming to fight climate change by ushering out stoves and furnaces that run on gas in favor of electric alternatives. But Republican states and the gas industry are fighting back.

Climate activists in City Hall Park demonstrating in favor of a ban on natural gas in new buildings on Wednesday.
Dieu-Nalio Chéry for the New York Times

In a nation that is already 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 like 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 last year, backed by the natural gas industry and local gas utilities, which see electrification as a looming threat to their bottom line.

Homes and buildings are directly responsible for about 13 percent of America’s annual greenhouse gas emissions, largely from natural gas burned in furnaces, hot 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 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 like 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 is fighting back and 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 have 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 like California and Texas are already struggling to meet demand.

Karen Harbert, president and chief executive 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 like asthma.

Like many climate policies, the push to phase out natural gas in buildings began in California.

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, including San Francisco and Sacramento, have adopted similar rules, often over the objections of local gas utilities.

The movement quickly spread. 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 on 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.)

But 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.

But “industry talking about industry isn’t effective,” Ms. Forrester warned. So she outlined a plan to work with community groups 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 like the AARP, the influential lobby for older Americans, as well as restaurants, hotels, homebuilders and barbecue equipment makers.

“The message was: ‘You don’t want these California liberals telling you that you can’t have a gas stove,’” said Mary Boren, a Democratic state senator in Oklahoma who voted against the bill.

In a statement, Bill Malcolm, a senior legislative representative at the AARP, said the group had “supported legislative and regulatory initiatives allowing customers to continue to use the fuel of their choice to heat their homes and cook their food.” He added: “Outright bans on certain fuel options would run contrary to that choice.”

Asked this week about its lobbying campaign, American Gas Association spokesman Jake Rubin said the group had “studied the implications of electrification as well as public perception of policies that would force American families to replace their natural gas appliances with more expensive, less efficient alternatives. The association has shared this research with groups that rely on the affordability and reliability of natural gas like restaurants, manufacturers, appliance makers, homebuilders and low-income families and encouraged them to make their voices heard about the damaging impacts of these policies.”

This year, Republican-controlled legislatures in 16 additional states have passed measures to forbid cities from banning gas, including Alabama, Georgia, Kansas, Indiana, Iowa, Kentucky, Louisiana, Missouri, Mississippi, New Hampshire, Ohio, Tennessee, Texas, Utah, West Virginia and Wyoming. A similar bill in North Carolina was recently vetoed by Democratic Gov. Roy Cooper, while another such bill is being debated in Pennsylvania.

This year in Nevada, Lesley Cohen, a Democratic state legislator, proposed a bill to apply greater scrutiny to new natural gas infrastructure. The state’s largest gas utility, Southwest Gas, worked to defeat the legislation, enlisting a wide range of allies like the AARP. The president of the Latin Chamber of Commerce warned that the bill could force “abuelo and abuela to make a choice between medicine and groceries or heating their home affordably in the winter.”

“I was getting calls from people who literally thought that in 2023 they were going to lose their gas stoves,” said Ms. Cohen, who eventually withdrew the bill. “That was absolutely not what the bill did.”

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 percent 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 Austin, Boston, New York and Seattle, it is now often cheaper to build a new all-electric 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.

Tim Kohut is the director of sustainable design at National Community Renaissance, a developer building a new 184-unit affordable housing project in San Bernardino, Calif., that will use only electric appliances and feature solar panels on roofs to reduce bills even though the city has not banned gas. He said that cost was the biggest consideration.

“The guys I work with on the construction team, they are not tree-huggers, they are pragmatic general contractors,” Mr. Kohut said. “They’re not interested about doing this because of climate change, it is all economics.”

Still, building a new all-electric home from scratch is one thing. It will likely prove more difficult and costly to retrofit the millions of existing homes and apartment buildings that already depend on gas, since doing so often requires additional renovations, such as new ductwork or wiring. At least 17 states now offer incentives for consumers to install heat pumps, but finding contractors familiar with the technology can still be a challenge.

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 all-electric housing development near Fort Collins, Colo. “We’re not going to meet our climate goals if we just go by the market,” she said.

The electrification push could potentially get a boost from Congress, where Democrats are currently debating a massive climate and social policy bill that would include several key provisions to cut emissions from buildings, including $6.25 billion to provide rebates to homeowners who replace fossil-fuel appliances with electric versions.

But that raises another complication: Experts have warned that as more homeowners go electric, gas utilities will still have to pay to maintain their existing network of pipelines, which could mean higher costs for the smaller base of remaining customers, many of whom may be low-income.

It was that “death spiral” that Ms. Cohen, the Nevada legislator, was hoping to address with her legislation in March. After her bill died, Nevada’s regulators opened an investigation into the future of natural gas in the state, studying how to ensure a smooth transition for gas customers as the state pushed to slash emissions.

“I think it’s pretty clear that there are going to be changes in the market,” Ms. Cohen said, “and we need to start planning.”