After blizzard, a flurry of criticism
Recent historic winter storms in Western New York have provided a perfect opportunity for the fossil fuel industry to brazenly exploit the tragic loss of life for fear mongering against the state’s Climate Action Council’s scoping plan, even when the losses were mostly the result of an outdated fossil-fuel dependent energy system.
During the holiday blizzard, four people died in gasoline powered cars, at least 11 in their homes with fossil-fueled heating that doesn’t work in power outages, and one from carbon monoxide poisoning. A Buffalo clinic was damaged from a catastrophic failure of their gas heating system. During the same cold snap, and also amid the terrible 2021 Texas winter storm, widespread gas network failures shut down power plants and caused millions of downstate customers to receive emergency warnings to curtail heating. Hundreds of residents of the New York City Housing Authority are without gas, some for weeks and months, due to dangerous leaks.
Energy, climate, and building experts from municipalities to states to nations all over the world are all reaching the same conclusion that the most cost-effective and energy-efficient way to tame the health- and climate-destroying pollution from burning fuels in homes and buildings is to power them with electricity. Already superior in comfort, health, affordability, and emissions, all-electric buildings will continue to see their environmental footprint decline as the electric grid transitions to cleaner generation. Like most climate solutions, eliminating combustion also comes with tremendous public health benefits, especially as New York sees the most premature deaths in the country from fossil fuels in buildings.
None of these benefits have prevented the fossil-fuel industry and its allies from attempting to sow fear, uncertainty, and doubt about our clean energy future with culture wars over gas stoves and scaremongering over grid capacity and reliability.
Research highlighting the health risks from gas stoves has been accumulating for decades. American Medical Association, American Lung Association, state Public Health Association, the Asthma and Allergy Foundation of America, and all state chapters of the American Academy of Pediatrics deem gas stoves a health hazard, particularly as asthma triggers for children. A recent public statement by a US Consumer Product Safety Commissioner just served to bring a long standing issue into limelight that some saw as an opportunity to help spark an anti-electrification backlash.
New York’s climate scoping plan recommends a prohibition on new gas stove installations starting in 2035. The provocateurs of the controversy seem to be missing the point that next decade, New Yorkers may want a gas stove as badly as they want lead paint or asbestos in their homes today. According to the Energy Information Administration, more than a quarter of US homes are already all-electric and a majority of Americans do not cook on gas.
Cold-climate heat pumps and EVs would be just fine in upstate or western New York; much-colder Montreal’s ban on fossil fuels in new construction starts next year, and 80% of new cars sold in Norway are now 100% electric. By the time the climate law’s mandates fully take effect in the middle of the next decade, these technologies will be much cheaper and more versatile with advances in microgrids and vehicle-to-grid and vehicle-to-vehicle charging.
Contrary to gas utilities’ propaganda, we will not need four times the grid capacity to match the energy content of the inefficient fossil-fuel systems – EVs and cold-climate heat pumps use three times less energy to do the same job.
Even fossil-fueled heating doesn’t work during power failures without expensive generators. Electrification of our homes and vehicles actually has the potential to improve safety. Just like we stock up on groceries before storms, we’ll be able to stock up on electrons. A fully charged Ford F-150 Lighting can power basic cooking and heating equipment for two to three days in an emergency. Anyway, the climate plan doesn’t prohibit backup generators or pellet stoves.
While power failures may not warrant delaying electrification, they indeed are a cause for serious concern. No amount of gas can help with electrically powered medical equipment, for instance.
The frequency and duration of storm-related outages have been creeping up due to the worsening climate crisis and lackadaisical maintenance of our power distribution infrastructure. Inadequate winterization of substations caused widespread power outages in the Buffalo area during the historic Christmas blizzard. Our decrepit grid needs significant investments regardless of our climate goals.
Similarly, electrification isn’t just about the climate; it’s also about doing more with less, more cleanly, more healthfully, and more reliably.
Instead of assailing this beautiful future with disinformation and divisiveness, how about using beneficial electrification as a reason to unite for safer, healthier energy and demand a robust, world-class electric grid?
Lynn Saxton and Anshul Gupta volunteer with the Climate Reality Project and Saxton co-chairs its Western New York chapter.