In June of 2019, New York passed a landmark climate law. The Climate Leadership and Community Protection Act, or CLCPA, sets New York—the eleventh-largest economy in the world—on the path to carbon neutrality, modeling the changes that will need to take place across the country and the globe if we are to avoid the most catastrophic consequences of climate change. At the end of 2022, the state’s Climate Action Council, supported by dozens of experts across various fields and informed by substantial public input, developed the Scoping Plan which lays out the roadmap to meeting the targets set out by the law:
According to New York State’s greenhouse gas inventory, buildings account for 30% of climate-warming emissions. That figure covers only emissions from on-site combustion—that is, from fuels like natural gas that are piped into our homes and offices. When you factor in the electricity they consume, buildings’ share of the total emissions approaches 45%. About half of those emissions come from residential buildings, a third from commercial buildings, and the rest from industrial buildings.
That means that in order to reach its emissions targets, New York is going to have to institute major changes in the way we construct our homes and other buildings and the way we consume energy within them. Viewed from another angle, it means that if we can fix the way we use energy in our buildings, we’ll be more than halfway to meeting our climate goals.
DECARBONIZING BUILDINGS 101
There are many steps that we, as individuals, can take right now to reduce greenhouse gas emissions from the buildings we live in. To see how those steps can add up to meaningful change, it is helpful to place them in a broader context. New York’s strategy for decarbonizing buildings rests on three major pillars:
The principle here is simple: the easiest way to reduce emissions from buildings is to use less energy. We can use less energy by choosing energy-efficient appliances, designing and improving our buildings to stay cool in the summer and conserve heat in the winter, and adopting energy-smart habits, like turning out the lights when we leave a room. Technological updates like advanced power strips and smart thermostats can help to make those habits automatic.
A furnace powered by oil or natural gas burns fossil fuels on the spot. Electric power, in contrast, can be generated by any number of sources, including zero-carbon renewables. That’s why electrification—of transportation, of appliances, of heating and cooling systems—is a key component of New York’s climate strategy.
The second pillar operates in tandem with the third: powering the electrical grid entirely with renewable sources. New York gets a relatively high proportion of its electricity from renewables—largely hydropower—but natural gas is still the single largest contributor to the mix at 37%. The new climate law requires the grid to be 100% carbon-free by 2040. Toward that end, it calls for the installation of six gigawatts of distributed solar capacity by 2025 and nine gigawatts of offshore wind power by 2035.
New York’s grid is not only going to have to shift to renewables; it will also have to expand and adjust to accommodate the increased demand from all-electric homes and vehicles and a new winter-time peak as heating moves from gas to electric.
A GLIMPSE OF THE FUTURE
What will New York’s climate law mean for buildings in Saratoga Springs? What will our homes look like in 2050, when our city is virtually carbon-free?
Let’s begin with the buildings that we live in: our houses, our apartments, our homes. Some of the new ones will be built according to net-zero design principles, with roofs oriented to capture sunlight and windows sized for optimal heating and cooling. Click here to read our interview with Karen Kellogg about her net zero home. But most of us, probably, will be living in the same familiar studios, townhouses, and rambling Victorians, retooled to meet an aggressive new set of energy standards.
The biggest change will be the way we heat our homes. In cold climates like Saratoga’s, space heating is the number one source of greenhouse gas emissions from home energy use. 59% of households in New York are heated by natural gas and another 22% by fuel oil and propane: that’s a vast amount of fossil fuel technology that will need to be replaced.
The replacement technologies at the heart of New York’s climate plan—and those of states and cities around the world—are air- and ground-source heat pumps. Heat pumps not only run on electricity, a cleaner power source than oil or gas, but they also leverage the heating and cooling potential of the ground or the outside air, making them many times more efficient than traditional boilers or furnaces. Heat pumps have long been a popular choice in milder climates, but the cold-climate technology keeps advancing, and models that can handle frigid winters are already on the market. Recognizing the potential of heat pumps, New York became the first state to require, consistent with the climate plan, that new residential buildings of up to seven stories be constructed without any gas- or oil-powered heating or cooking equipment after 2026 (2029 for larger buildings). In addition, New York’s climate plan recommends adoption of standards that would require, by 2030, that fossil fuel-burning furnaces and boilers be replaced with heat pumps at the end of their life, and prohibit the sale of gas-powered cooking equipment after 2035.
By 2050, then, most households in Saratoga will be heated and cooled by heat pumps. Some neighborhoods might take efficiency a step further by sharing thermal energy between buildings. Denser downtown neighborhoods and residential complexes are good candidates for district or community thermal systems, often using geothermal energy, which distribute energy for heating and cooling to multiple buildings from a centralized source. District systems have been around since the 19th Century, and Saratoga already boasts a successful example: 35% of the Skidmore College campus is heated and cooled by a district system powered by geothermal energy, a renewable heat source with great potential in the Saratoga region.
As buildings shift toward cleaner energy sources, the state will also have to adopt measures to ensure that they use that energy as efficiently as possible. New buildings will have to comply with energy codes that might look like the one that Ithaca, NY is considering adopting, which outlines several different paths to emissions reduction and gets progressively more stringent over time. And major initiatives will be required to improve energy efficiency in existing buildings, which will still be responsible for the lion’s share of emissions.
All of these changes, of course, will have to be driven by policies that make efficiency and electrification affordable. A number of factors continue to make fossil fuels an attractive energy source, including market familiarity, the wealth of skilled installers and technicians, and the low price of natural gas. The climate plan recommends that New York plan a phase-out of natural gas while at the same time making it less expensive to draw power from the ever-cleaner electrical grid. The proposed NY HEAT legislation would be a major step in this direction.
What does this mean for Saratogians who want to make their homes, and their city, more climate friendly? When it comes to electrification, Saratoga is in a good position: residential customers in the region pay less than the national average rate for electricity, and the upstate power grid is already relatively clean. The Inflation Reduction Act, which was enacted by the federal government in 2022, offers unprecedented energy-related savings opportunities for residents and businesses and is the largest climate investment ever made by the U.S. government. Inflation Reduction Act tax credits and/or rebates can be combined with state and utility incentives for even more savings.
There is a lot that you can do right now, from the big—like switching over to renewable-powered electric heating—to the small, like weatherstripping your windows. Some of these steps require an initial investment that will pay itself back in savings on your utility bill. Others cost nothing at all. In the table below, we’ve collected ideas and resources to help you reduce the carbon footprint of your home and get a jump on the changes that will soon be happening across the state. Many of the items below are eligible for federal, state, and/or utility incentives. Be sure to check this resource from NYSERDA to understand which incentives you might be eligible for. For Inflation Reduction Act savings, Rewiring America also has a savings calculator that you may find helpful.
STEPS YOU CAN TAKE NOW: