Syracuse Post Standard All-Electric Homes

The Climate Leadership and Community Protection Act (Climate Act) final draft Scoping Plan framework was approved on December 19, 2022.  The framework outline suggests that all-electric heated homes are a viable option even in New York’s winters.   Tim Knauss writing for the Syracuse Post Standard did a relevant article entitled New York state’s move to all-electric homes: How expensive is it? Will it work?  I recommend it because it does a nice job describing a complex issue.  However, I want to describe points that I think should have had more emphasis.

Everyone wants to do right by the environment to the extent that they can afford to and not be unduly burdened by the effects of environmental policies.  I submitted comments on the Climate Act implementation plan and have written over 250 articles about New York’s net-zero transition because I believe the ambitions for a zero-emissions economy embodied in the Climate Act outstrip available renewable technology such that the net-zero transition will do more harm than good.  The opinions expressed in this post do not reflect the position of any of my previous employers or any other company I have been associated with, these comments are mine alone.

Climate Act Background

The Climate Act established a “Net Zero” target (85% reduction and 15% offset of emissions) by 2050. The Climate Action Council is responsible for preparing the Scoping Plan that outlines how to “achieve the State’s bold clean energy and climate agenda.”  In brief, that plan is to electrify everything possible and power the electric gride with zero-emissions generating resources by 2040.  The Integration Analysis prepared by the New York State Energy Research and Development Authority (NYSERDA) and its consultants quantifies the impact of the electrification strategies.  That material was used to write a Draft Scoping Plan that was released for public comment at the end of 2021 and approved on   December 19, 2022.

The buildings sector is currently the largest source of greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions in New York State.  As a result, reducing emissions from home heating is a key component of the Scoping Plan implementation framework.  Heat pumps are a prominent part of the state’s residential electrification plans and its narrative is that installing a heat pump is easy, cost-effective, and will provide a satisfactory level of comfort.  The article notes that heat pumps are the most economical option to replace gas and other fossil fuels. 

As has been the case for every component of the Plan that I have evaluated, there is more nuance and issues than the Climate Action Council admits.  My concerns about home electrification have prompted me to submit comments on the Draft Scoping Plan, write a number of articles on home electrification (building shells, narrative, and costs), and even get interviewed about heating electrification conversions.

The New York State Energy Research & Development Authority (NYSEDA) is responsible for convincing homeowners to retrofit.  Given the performance of modern fossil-fired furnaces I think that is an uphill battle.  That difficulty is recognized by the state.  For example, Table 11 of the Buildings Chapter in the Final Scoping Plan includes the theme “Expand New York’s commitment to market development, innovation, and leading-by-example in state projects contains strategy “B9: Scale up public awareness and consumer education”.  In my opinion, public awareness and consumer education from NYSERDA about heat pumps is propaganda because it only shows the benefits and barely, if at all, mentions the downsides and caveats.  Even the Scoping Plan recognizes that there are caveats for heat pump success: heat pumps must be properly chosen, appropriately sized, paired with an energy efficient building envelope or building shell, and installation must consider the appropriate minimum temperature. This post will address those caveats relative to this article.

New York State All Electric Home Article.

The article does a good job explaining why heat pumps will likely be mandated by the State.  It correctly points out that now that the Scoping Plan is complete it is up to the governor, state agencies and legislators to implement the council’s recommendations.  One of my concerns about the article is that it does not consider the possibility that the Scoping Plan could be flawed.  For example, the Plan claims that 1 million to 2 million heat pumps will be installed in New York homes by 2030.  However, that assumes that there is widespread consumer appetite to switch to all-electric homes.  The article includes a description of a homeowner who has installed a heat pump.  He is quoted as saying “His main goal was not to save money. He was out to fight climate change.”  I investigated installing a heat pump for my home and the energy advisor said that most of the people who are installing them now have the same motive.  The Scoping Plan hasn’t considered the fact that while many people say that they want to do something about climate change the number of people willing to spend significant money or can afford to do something is much smaller.

The article asks if “pricey electric heat pumps really keep homes warm in our frigid winters.”  The article follows the party line when it states that “A new breed of “cold climate” air-source heat pump is a valid, energy-efficient heating option in Upstate New York.”  I agree that heat pumps work but only if all four caveats noted in the Scoping Plan are considered. 

The first caveat is that the heat pump must be properly chosen.  If the heat pump is one of the new breed of cold climate systems it can meet that requirement.  In a recent post I noted that in a recent presentation to the Climate Action Council it was explained that the Northeast Energy Efficiency Partnerships (NEEP) maintains a specification and product list that identifies specific air source heat pumps that work during extreme cold weather.  If the heating, ventilation, and air conditioning (HVAC) contractor determines the appropriate extreme cold weather limits, then the furnace should be able to provide sufficient heat.

However, there are two complicating issues for choosing the proper heat pump.  In the first place determining the appropriate cold weather constraint is not as straight-forward as the Scoping Plan suggests.  At a recent Climate Action Council meeting there was a discussion of maps of worst-case cold temperatures that are used for this purpose but no recognition that there are multiple maps.  Furthermore, temperatures are affected by local terrain conditions creating colder temperatures than shown on any state-wide map.  The second issue is a design consideration.  Heat pumps are more efficient than typical furnaces because they move energy from outside air into the home instead of creating it through combustion.  However at some point even the most effective heat pump is not going to get enough energy out of extremely cold air to create enough heat to warm a house.  Supporters argue that heat pumps are used successfully in the Scandinavian countries but the reason is that those homes have very effective building shells.

Based on my research and what I have seen, the building shell caveat has not received enough attention in the Scoping Plan, Integration Analysis or the NYSERDA marketing campaigns for heat pumps.  Last summer I published a long article describing building shell issues.  The Scoping Plan does not include a description of the building shell assumptions sufficient to differentiate between the reference, basic, and deep shell categories used in the Integration Analysis. I believe that the deep shell building envelope is necessary in order to ensure that New York homes can work without supplemental resistance heating capabilities.  Unfortunately, the Scoping Plan does not provide sufficient information to determine what has to be included in order to meet that level.

The last caveat to discuss notes that the heat pump must be appropriately sized.  The subtlety is that the entire system, including the ducts, has to be sized correctly.  In the building shell post I documented my conversation with the energy advisor who described many of the issues related to improperly sizing the system.  Heat pumps do not provide treated air that is as warm as a combustion furnace, so a big issue is that the ductwork may have to be made larger to provide sufficient heat. Tearing out the existing ductwork and installing larger ducts must be a disruptive project.   In my case, this requirement led to his recommendation that it would be more cost-effective to install several ductless air-source heat pumps than to replace the existing central heating system.

The article discusses costs.  The research I have seen agrees with the article that over the lifetime of the equipment that retrofit conversions will be cost effective for homes heated with oil, propane, or electric resistance heat but that is not true for natural gas. I have not seen analyses that incorporate the costs of building shell improvements but I my anecdotal discussion with the energy advisor he said that in my case those upgrades would never reduce energy use enough to pay for them.

The article references HeatSmart CNY, a Syracuse community organization, for its costs for installation of air source heat pumps.  While I have my doubts that an organization whose sole reason to exist is to push heat pumps using NYSERDA funding could be considered an unbiased source of information the numbers provided appear reasonable.  Based on their experience the “average cost of installation for a cold climate air-source heat pump has been about $20,000 to $25,000”. It is interesting that those costs are higher than the costs used in the Scoping Plan consistent with my findings that most of the cost numbers in the Plan are biased low.  One of the arguments why the Climate Action Council claimed they could not provide costs to consumers was because rebates, tax credits and other subsidies availability isn’t known.  HeatSmart CNY claimed that the homeowner typically pays more like $15,000 to $16,000 out of pocket when they are applied.  The article also notes that additional rebates are expected for low- and middle-income homeowners as the result of the past year’s new Federal spending bills.

Earlier I mentioned that the Plan claims that 1 million to 2 million heat pumps will be installed in New York homes by 2030.  However, HeatSmart CNY has only helped about 150 Central New York homeowners replace existing heating systems with heat pumps in the past four years.  That suggests that there is going to have to be an enormous uptick in adoption rates for electric heating systems.

There is another cost issue that is never brought up in the advertising. The article mentions evolving technology being developed by the U.S. Department of Energy that includes a ”competition under way for manufacturers to develop heat pumps that will operate efficiently at temperatures as low as minus 15 degrees Fahrenheit” and “For now, many heat pumps in cold climates are installed with backup systems (using electric resistance heat or other sources) for extremely cold temperatures.”  The Scoping Plan goal is to eliminate emissions from backup heat systems so their preferred backup alternative is electric resistance heat.  The problem is that electric resistance heat is very inefficient and needs a lot of energy to operate.  In order to provide that energy during periods of extremely cold temperatures when everybody who has all-electric homes and electric vehicles needs the energy the most, the distribution network and house service for many homes will have to be upgraded or the system will overload and blackout.  The direct costs to upgrade home service and the indirect costs to upgrade the distribution network are a real hidden cost.

The article describes the experience of a homeowner who had a heat pump installed about 18 months ago. In addition to the heat pump, “he beefed up his insulation, installed a separate heat pump for hot water, and added a mechanical ventilation system to circulate fresh air.”  The homeowner estimates the whole project cost $30,000 to $40,000 after rebates.   Based on my work I think that is a more accurate reflection of the conversion costs.  The article notes that there are efforts to subsidize low- and middle-income homeowners to make conversions less expensive but the fact remains that these conversions are costly.

Conclusion

This is a good article and covers many issues associated with residential home heating.  However, despite its length and coverage it still did not address all the downsides of the Hochul Administration’s planned mandates to electrify homes.  The Scoping Plan is only a framework.  It does not begin to cover the “what if” questions like will any New York actions possibly affect climate change or what happens when there is an ice storm when everything is electrified.  Finally, it does not include a detailed estimate of consumer costs.

New York’s Greenhouse Gas emissions are less than one half one percent of global emissions and since 1990 global those emissions have increased by more than one half a percent per year.  While the fact that our emission reductions will get displaced by global emission increases in less than a year may not mean that New York should not do something, it does mean that we can step back and look at what can be done to ensure the State’s plan does not do more harm than good. The State’s arguments that we must act in haste are not supportable.

I have two concerns about doing more harm than good both related to the observation that “Death rates in winter months have been eight to 12 percent higher than in non-winter months”.  The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency adds that “even moderately cold days can increase the risk of death for many people.”  Home heating is obviously crucial to reducing those risks.  My family survived two prolonged electricity outages and many more short outages in the 40 plus years we have lived in my home but never had any outage of our natural gas supply.  When everybody has electrified everything what happens when there is an ice storm that causes an extended blackout in the winter?   The other concern is whether all New Yorkers really afford all the costs for all-electric homes? How do we make sure that those least able to afford the investments necessary to convert to all-electric homes are not disproportionately dis-advantaged?  Over 58% of current housing units are heated with natural gas and retrofitting those homes is not cost-effective.  Will the State provide detailed cost estimates before they propose regulations to coerce us to convert?

The article cites the American Council for an Energy-Efficient Economy as saying that if the goal is to eliminate site emissions from households, natural gas will have to be phased out.  My obsession to address New York’s net-zero transition boils down to fighting for my personal choice.  I think that when all the benefits, costs, and tradeoffs are considered that natural gas is a better choice than electrification for me and my home.  Anyone who agrees with me should let your legislators know of your concerns and demand answers to the inconvenient questions not addressed by the Scoping Plan framework when regulations are proposed.

Author: rogercaiazza

I am a meteorologist (BS and MS degrees), was certified as a consulting meteorologist and have worked in the air quality industry for over 40 years. I author two blogs. Environmental staff in any industry have to be pragmatic balancing risks and benefits and (https://pragmaticenvironmentalistofnewyork.blog/) reflects that outlook. The second blog addresses the New York State Reforming the Energy Vision initiative (https://reformingtheenergyvisioninconvenienttruths.wordpress.com). Any of my comments on the web or posts on my blogs are my opinion only. In no way do they reflect the position of any of my past employers or any company I was associated with.

2 thoughts on “Syracuse Post Standard All-Electric Homes”

  1. You’re 100% correct Roger. Unfortunately, the NY politicians and activists are going to continue to ignore you, as they’ve ignored your comments on the plan these many months. I live in Tucson, AZ, and have an efficient heat pump, but it struggles to keep the house warm on the rare occasions when the temperature gets down near 20F. Good intentions are not going to keep New Yorkers warm in the winter.

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