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. Now, leaders from different fields and sectors across the state are working to determine the specific policies that will allow New York to reach 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 goes up to 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 will likely rest 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.

For a few select applications, this might mean switching to renewable fuels like biogas. For the most part, however, it means switching to electric. 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 low-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? Without a crystal ball, we can’t say for sure–but we can make educated guesses based on current policy discussions and industry trends.

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. Look for a post on our website in the coming weeks for an 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 a radical 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. 60% of households in New York are heated by natural gas and another 23% 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. In one likely scenario, 50%-70% of new heating systems sold in the state will be electric as soon as 2030.

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, 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. To achieve its emissions reductions goals, New York will have to carefully 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. One way to kickstart this process is to follow the lead of San Francisco, which has banned the use of natural gas in new buildings beginning in June 2021, joining a growing number of California cities that are moving toward all-electric construction.

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. We might be a few years away from policy and market transformations that will make it cheaper and easier to overhaul your home energy use, but 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.

STEPS YOU CAN TAKE NOW:

ENERGY CODE

In Saratoga Springs, all new buildings, renovations, and additions must comply with the New York State Energy Conservation Construction Code. Based on international energy code standards, the NYS ECC ensures that all buildings meet basic energy efficiency requirements.

One immediate step that Saratoga Springs can take is to adopt NY Stretch. NY Stretch is an easily adoptable energy code designed for local governments that want to go one step greener than current state requirements. NY Stretch would boost the energy efficiency of new construction in Saratoga by around 11%, reducing both energy costs for building owners and greenhouse gas emissions.

SWITCH TO LOW CARBON FUELS

The oil and gas that fire our furnaces, stoves, and water heaters are a major source of residential carbon emissions. Reduce those in-home emissions by going electric:

  • Switch to air- or ground-source heat pumps to heat and cool your home. HeatSmart Capital Region is a regional initiative that offers education about types of heat pump systems, access to trusted installers, and information about financial incentives. Check out Sustainable Saratoga’s webinar on the HeatSmart program.
  • Heat pumps can power hot water heaters, too.
  • Try an induction cooktop. Home chefs who sniff at electric appliances find themselves won over by the speed and precision of newer induction technology. They’re pricey now, but that could change as the market responds to New York’s climate policies.

The carbon footprint of your electrical appliances will decrease over time as New York works toward an all-renewable grid. But, you can shrink their footprint right away by either purchasing or producing renewable power (learn more here):

  • Home solar
  • Community Solar
  • Community Choice Aggregation
  • Options available through your energy supplier

ENERGY EFFICIENT DESIGN & WEATHERIZATION

A 2017 report by the Natural Resources Defense Council found that residential energy efficiency is the greatest single source of potential carbon emissions reduction in the U.S. Making building shells, lighting, and appliances more efficient could save as much as 550 million metric tons of GHG emissions annually by 2050—that’s more than the electric power emissions of California, Texas, New York, and Florida put together!

ENERGY EFFICIENT APPLIANCES

ENERGY-SAVING HABITS

In addition to the basics, like turning out the lights when you leave a room and unplugging appliances that aren’t in use, here are some ideas you might not have thought of:

  • Don’t let your dishwasher dry the dishes. Use the air-dry setting, if it has one, or simply stop the cycle before drying begins and leave the dishwasher door ajar.
  • Let sunlight take some pressure off your thermostat: open your curtains or blinds on chilly days and keep them closed on warm ones.
  • Lower the temperature on your hot water heater when you go on vacation.

ENERGY-SAVING TECHNOLOGY

  • Advanced power strips take the work out of remembering to unplug appliances when they’re not in use. Check out National Grid’s Marketplace for special discounts.
  • A programmable thermostat saves energy by delivering hot or cool air on an adjustable schedule. A Wi-Fi enabled smart thermostat responds to your habits with even greater precision, and may enable you to participate in further power-saving programs through your utility.
  • Smart appliances can be programmed to run during times of lower energy demand. Setting your dishwasher to run in the middle of the night can help reduce strain on the electrical grid. It can also save you money, if your utility provider offers off-peak power pricing.