A lot more than gas stoves: A deep dive into what NY must do to meet its climate law

New York state has seven years to do most of the work required under the terms of the Climate Leadership and Community Protection Act, the landmark 2019 law that calls for a 40% reduction in the state’s greenhouse gas emissions by 2030 — and an 85% reduction by 2050.

The Climate Action Council, a 22-member state-appointed committee tasked with defining recommendations for the law, believes there’s still hope for New York to meet its goal.

In a 445-page report released ahead of Christmas, the council proposed full electrification for all sources of power across all economic sectors, building renewable sources to make the grid zero-emissions, and reducing solid waste. This scoping plan also outlines financing methods, new practices and technologies for agriculture and manufacturing, and repurposing existing fossil fuel infrastructure for new sources of energy such as green hydrogen and renewable natural gas.

The final scoping plan is the result of more than three years of work and 32 public meetings. But it’s not the final step in implementing the CLCPA. By Jan. 1, 2024, the New York State Department of Environmental Conservation must distribute a draft of the enforceable regulations to ensure the CLCPA’s goals are achieved. Cost projections are unclear given the giant scale of the endeavor, but the DEC will publish a report every four years on progress made through the law. In five years, the Climate Action Council will update the scoping plan.

Michael Appleton/Mayoral Photography Office via Flickr

“The devil is in the details, and there’s an enormous number of devils out there that the DEC and other agencies are going to have to wrestle with,” said Michael Gerrard, director of the Sabin Center for Climate Change Law at Columbia University. “There are several hundred proposals that need to be acted upon – many require legislation and even more of them require regulations or guidance documents. This is an important step in the right direction, but there’s a whole lot ahead of us.”

Gerrard and other environmental experts said it will take focused and concerted efforts at all layers of society – government, industry and individuals. For the climate law to succeed and to prevent global warming, all New Yorkers have to be on board to enact the final plan, they said.

“It’s going to take a lot of work to meet those deadlines for 2030, seven years from now,” said Dr. Robert Howarth, an ecology professor at Cornell University. “If we meet the 2030 goals, we’ll be in a great position to make it the rest of the way [to 2050 goals]. The 2030 goals are two-thirds of the battle overall.”

The scoping plan is sprawling, so here’s a breakdown of what the council says could change in our daily lives over the next seven years — from the buses we ride to the trash we make.

On Earth Day 2022, Gov. Kathy Hochul announced the Metropolitan Transportation Authority will deploy 60 zero-emission electric buses at six bus depots serving all five boroughs.

Darren McGee/Office of Governor Kathy Hochul via Flickr

Going All-Electric

The foundation of the scoping plan — and part of every sector’s requirements — is full electrification. That means no more fossil fuels for end uses, such as diesel for trucks or natural gas stoves. Everything from home heating to factory processes will have to connect to the grid.

“A phenomenal number of new [renewable energy] projects are going to be necessary,” Gerrard said. “It’s truly a massive undertaking; we shouldn’t understate how difficult it’s going to be.”

Electricity from the grid was responsible for 13% of New York’s emissions in 2019, and since 1990, its emissions have declined by nearly half statewide. This progress will only improve as more renewable sources are added, but the downstate grid that serves New York City is a different story. Currently, only 8% of its power involves zero-emissions, and nearly 90% comes from fossil fuels.

With a deadline to reach 70% renewable in seven years, there’s a lot of green energy to build, and it requires more than installing solar panels or wind turbines. New large infrastructure that spans New York, much like our natural gas pipeline system, will be required to deliver and distribute the power from renewable sources to homes and businesses. Often these projects take years to launch because of the multiple approvals and permits required from different government agencies.

“Switching to a grid that is dominated by renewables and hydro [power] is going to require a lot of transmission lines, substations and a whole lot of new infrastructure that generally has been hard to build,” said Joshua Rhodes, a fellow at Columbia’s Center on Global Energy Policy. “It’s technically possible, but it’s going to be an uphill battle.”

Electricity use is going to grow so it’s not only chasing after today’s target, but we’re chasing after a target that’s growing.

Joshua Rhodes, Columbia’s Center on Global Energy Policy

While the New York state government has set ambitious goals for green power with 9,000 megawatts of offshore wind energy by 2035, enough for more than 6 million homes, and targets of 10,000 MW of distributed solar and 6,000 MW of storage by 2030, it must meet all the state’s power needs. Those demands are expected to substantially increase as a result of full electrification.

And the infrastructure built to address the CLCPA must also have the capacity to meet future demand. Rhodes estimated that power consumption from full electrification will likely double current demand. New York City alone currently consumes 11,000 MW of power — during the summertime’s peak loads — without full electrification.

“Electricity use is going to grow so it’s not only chasing after today’s target, but we’re chasing after a target that’s growing,” Rhodes said. “We’re not building it fast enough to really get to a fully renewable or zero-carbon system.”

Transportation

The rising adoption of electric cars will also put demand on CLCPA infrastructure, given that those vehicles are typically charged on the grid. Rhodes said that if every vehicle traveling in New York state became electric overnight, that alone would increase electricity consumption by about 30% immediately.

About 10,000 electric vehicle charging stations currently exist statewide, which support the 120,000 electric vehicles currently on the road. But that’s only about 1% of the more than 11 million total registered vehicles. Not only would the number of stations have to dramatically increase, but the stations would also require faster charging times to accommodate all the potential customers.

A fast-charging station for electric vehicles stands in the cell phone lot at John F. Kennedy airport on April 2, 2021.

Spencer Platt/Getty Images

Keeping gas-powered cars on the street isn’t an option for hitting the emissions reductions outlined by the Climate Action Council. Transportation activities accounted for about 28% of climate-causing pollution in 2019 for New York state. More than half resulted from road vehicles, and so far, this trend shows no sign of abating. Emissions from this sector have increased by 16% since 1990, and it’s almost entirely dependent on petroleum.

Even if personal gas-powered vehicles were outlawed and the only options were to walk, ride bikes or use public transportation, it wouldn’t solve the problem. New York City’s transit system relies on 6,000 buses that serve passengers along 320 routes. The MTA is fully committed to going electric, but it would need more than 10 times its current power capacity.

“We realize the amount of power that we currently have available at our bus depots is not adequate for a full-scale [electric] fleet adoption,” said Craig Cipriano, chief operating officer at New York City Transit.

An estimated 400 MW would need to flow to the 28 bus depots, and only one is currently equipped to maintain electric buses. The remaining depots would need to be retrofitted, and its staff retrained to work on electric buses. As of now, the MTA only operates 15 electric buses, but its current capital plan calls for a total of 500 all-electric buses and outfitting depots with charging stations. The price tag would be just over $1 billion. Each electric bus the MTA buys costs up to double what it paid for a standard diesel-powered one.

An electric bus can travel up to 120 miles daily on a full battery, while diesel buses are expected to go up to 300 miles.

“Battery electric is a really different animal – a different way that we have to operate,” Cipriano said.

Reliability is also an issue. An electric bus can travel up to 120 miles daily on a full battery, while diesel buses are expected to go up to 300 miles. If an electric bus runs out of juice on its route, there is no access to charging stations on the road, and even if there were, it could take up to eight hours to replenish the battery. How long an electric bus can travel is also dependent on the weather. Common weather occurrences, such as a torrid day when the air conditioner is droning at full blast or on a frigid evening when the heat is on, would drain an electric bus’s battery faster.

“The current technology of an electric battery can be assimilated into [bus route] schedules,” Cipriano said. “About two-thirds of our schedules can handle it, but we still have about one-third of our schedules where we need to do something – either technology will mature or maybe provide on street charging at the end of routes.”

Buildings

Buildings are the largest source of greenhouse gas statewide, accounting for about one-third of the pollutants. The combustion of fossil fuels in residential dwellings for gas stoves, heating and hot water is a major contributor. The state Legislature has been debating a gas ban, and recently Gov. Kathy Hochul supported a statewide ban on fossil fuel-based heating starting in 2030 for single family homes and 2035 for larger structures.

New York City already has a law on the books to reduce these emissions that goes into effect in 2024, but the CLCPA scoping plan’s timeline for similar regulations starts one year later. Howarth said there isn’t any reason to wait at all on implementing this law for new construction because it will cost more to retrofit later on after the buildings are built.

The electrification of buildings is really critical because that’s kind of like the lowest-hanging fruit.

Adam Roberts, American Institute of Architects.

“The electrification of buildings is really critical because that’s kind of like the lowest-hanging fruit,” said Adam Roberts, policy director at the American Institute of Architects.

Many of the building regulations center around efficiency improvements such installing thermostats and insulation, which are simple, but still highly effective. Rhodes said that this strategy of simply not wasting is intrinsic to grid stability and being able to meet energy demand.

“It’s generally cheaper to do things more efficiently than it is to just throw more energy at the problem,” Rhodes said.

The transition is fairly affordable for small buildings, according to Roberts, even with replacing a gas stove and changing the boiler to a heat pump. It’s more difficult for larger buildings, which will require expensive retrofits for the same changes because of their sheer size and the increased electrical capacity.

Redefining garbage

While most sectors can reduce emissions with electrification and efficiency, reducing solid waste requires a behavior change, according to Gregory Anderson, deputy commissioner of the sanitation department. Waste accounts for 12% of statewide emissions, most of which comes from landfills that will continue to release significant amounts of methane, a greenhouse gas on steroids, for the next three decades. Rotting organic materials, such as discarded food scraps, are the source and constitute about one-third of New York City’s trash.

Methane is 25 times more potent than carbon dioxide when it comes to global warming. Methane concentrations in the atmosphere have doubled over the last 200 years as a result of human activities. Reducing this pollutant would have a tremendous and immediate impact on mitigating climate change because although it’s more potent than carbon dioxide, its lifespan is shorter – only about 12 years compared to centuries.

The New York City parks department offers the public a chance to view the new Fresh Kills Park, built on top of what used to be the largest trash dump in the world, Sept. 29, 2013.

Andrew Lichtenstein/Corbis via Getty Images

To reduce methane, the CLCPA plan will require robust composting. For other waste streams, effective recycling programs are recommended along with placing the responsibility on the producers for electronic waste and packaging. By 2050, landfills will accept very limited and specific types of trash. More than half of New York City’s garbage ends up in landfills even though half of it can be recycled under its current program.

Even after 34 years of curbside recycling pickup, New York City diverts only 17% of its garbage. Its composting program is voluntary and may be unavailable if you’re a renter living in a building that doesn’t participate. But the sanitation department does have plans to make composting citywide, which could be a reality by 2050.

The sanitation department said it’s focused on diverting organic waste as a key measure — but collecting the compost is not the hard part. Anderson said the challenge lies in how to handle and process the raw waste. The infrastructure for large-scale processing capacity for organic waste once it’s picked up still requires a solution that can manage millions of tons annually.

“It’s one thing to collect it [organic waste], it’s another thing to actually use it effectively,” said Anderson.

Individual decisions on what to throw away pose another challenge. Whether it is the hassle of carrying a reusable cup or the inconvenience of rinsing a jar for recycling, the sanitation department has no control over what ends up in the trash bags they pick up. Anderson said that people need to see their garbage in a different way, such as selling and donating items when possible.

“In some ways, we’re at the mercy of New Yorkers,” Anderson said. “Those impacts [of people reflexively throwing things away] do add up from a sustainability and climate perspective.

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