New York City's co-op and condo boards have plenty of company as they struggle to cut their buidlings' carbon emissions enough to satisfy the looming caps set by Local Law 97. Anyone who's trying to tackle climate change is being told increasingly that the best path is to stop burning fossil fuels and switch to heating and cooling systems, cars, trucks and factories that run on clean sources of electricity, including wind, solar, geothermal, hydroelectric or nuclear power.
In New York City, buildings produce about two-thirds of greenhouse gas emissions. But electrifying apartment buildings and everything else, according to a report in The New York Times, will be a formidable task.
“If you ask, ‘How on Earth are we going to power the modern economy cleanly?’ nothing else makes sense,” says Saul Griffith, founder and chief scientist of Rewiring America, an advocacy group. “All roads point to electrification.”
Still, widespread electrification faces huge obstacles. It would mean replacing more than 280 million gasoline-powered cars and 200 million home appliances that run on natural gas such as furnaces, boilers, water heaters, stoves and dryers. Many Americans might balk at switching due to costs or logistics. Indeed, a group of Queens co-ops has filed a lawsuit to block Local Law 97, and legislation has been introduced that would push implementation of the law from 2024 to 2031.
It’s also not enough to shift to electric machines if their electricity comes from power plants that burn fossil fuels. Power plant emissions have declined 40% since 2005 as cheaper and cleaner gas, wind and solar energy sources have replaced coal. But much of the nation’s electricity is still generated by burning gas and coal, and it is getting harder to build and connect new sources of renewable power to antiquated grids.
“There are people who say this is impossible, and people who say this isn’t challenging at all,” says Ben Haley, an energy expert and co-founder of Evolved Energy Research. “I’d say it’s somewhere in between: It’s challenging, but it’s not impossible.”
Electrification would require sweeping changes to the nation’s power grids. If electrification continues to spread, total electricity demand in the United States would roughly double by 2050, even as overall energy use went down.
To meet that demand, electric utilities would need to add staggering amounts of new emissions-free power while making sure that all those newly electrified apartment buildings, cars and factories don’t strain the system and cause blackouts. They would also have to construct large new power lines across the country, both to accommodate far-flung renewable projects and to improve the reliability of the grid.
There is no shortage of skeptics that it can be done. But there are also optimists. “There’s a lot more you can do with electricity as a fuel,” says Matteo Muratori, an analyst at the National Renewable Energy Laboratory, “more efficiency, less waste, avoiding pollution — it’s not just about greenhouse gases.”
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