By Arjun Makhijani

Almost one-third of New York’s carbon emissions come from heating and cooling buildings and heating water – considerably more than from the electricity sector. New York will fall far short of its 2030 emission reduction goal unless it vigorously pursues emissions reductions from space heating and cooling.

Fortunately there is a synergy between renewable electricity and renewable space heating and cooling. The most efficient, clean heating and cooling technologies are heat pumps, and they run on electricity. So making electricity renewable automatically makes electric space heating and cooling renewable as well.

In early February, New York took two critical steps toward renewable space heating and cooling. It announced a $15 million, two-year rebate program for geothermal heat pumps – by far the most efficient technology.

The rebates, while essential, are a stopgap policy. Far more significant is the publication by the New York Energy Research and Development Administration (NYSERDA) of a policy framework for the long-term renewable transformation of space heating and cooling.

A policy framework is needed because geothermal heat pumps and their close cousin, cold climate heat pumps (less expensive but also less efficient), have a higher initial cost than natural gas and fuel oil heating systems. High first cost makes the use of efficient heat pumps rare, though they produce immense social benefits: reduced carbon emissions and reduced summer peak load on the electricity grid. They also protect families and small businesses from gyrations in oil and gas prices, such as the ones during the terrible “polar vortex” winter of 2014-2015. Sudden fuel price increases create great hardship, illness and sometimes even homelessness due to rent-fuel bill conflicts.

Monetizing social benefits to reduce the initial cost should be an essential ingredient of NYSERDA’s policy. Reducing the first cost by creating a much larger market is also key – for new development and for low-income housing.

Focusing on converting oil- and propane-heated homes to efficient heat pumps would be an excellent way to reduce emissions cost-effectively in the next decade. Natural gas system conversions are usually not economical today. But New York should not stack the deck against renewable heating by extending gas infrastructure to new areas.

NYSERDA indicates that “there is a compelling opportunity to defer natural gas pipeline upgrades and extensions through use of renewable heating and cooling options, leading to a more cost-effective outcome.”

Deferral is not enough. If New York is to be a climate leader, it must firmly reject new gas infrastructure and leapfrog from fuel oil to efficient heat pumps.

Arjun Makhijani is president of the Institute for Energy and Environmental Research in Takoma Park, Md. He is the author of a new study on New York’s heating and cooling prepared for the Alliance for a Green Economy.

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