The following is a contributed article by Arnold Wallenstein, a principal at the Energy Law Group.
New York plans to aggressively reduce greenhouse gas emissions by shutting down fossil-fueled power generation by 2040 and electrifying cars and trucks. But the state’s only solution for decarbonizing buildings is to require all electric space heating — a very costly approach with disproportionately adverse impacts on environmental justice communities.
In New York, buildings — and not transportation or electricity generation — are the largest source of carbon emissions, responsible for 32% of greenhouse gas emissions statewide. New York state has aggressive plans to decarbonize over 7 million residential and commercial buildings by mandating all-electric heating. New York’s Governor recently announced a plan to decarbonize New York’s high-rise buildings.
In 2019, New York City passed Local Law 97 requiring all buildings greater than 25,000 square feet to cut carbon emissions by 40% by 2030. This will impact 50,000 buildings — almost 60% of the city’s buildings — 59% residential and 41% commercial.
The New York Climate Action Council plans to achieve the state’s greenhouse gas emissions reduction goals by converting 1-2 million homes and 10% to 20% of commercial space statewide by 2030 to all-electric heating and cooling with heat pumps. After 2030, more than 250,000 New York homes and thousands more commercial buildings each year would be retrofitted or constructed to be energy-efficient and to install heat pumps for heating, cooling and hot water, which would be more than a ten-fold increase from current annual adoption rates.
The primary tool used to reduce building greenhouse gas emissions is mandatory elimination of the use of oil, natural gas or propane for building space heating and requiring that the buildings use 100% electricity for space heating. The replacement technology would be either air or ground-sourced heat pumps powered by electricity — a very expensive option for home and building owners. Moreover, without mitigation, all-electric heated and cooled buildings could increase New York’s peak load by 58 GW!
Outcries of impossibility and unbearable utility cost increases have already been raised about New York’s aggressive building decarbonization plans: The New York Post’s Editorial Board called the state’s all-electric building decarbonization plan “…insane, impossible…” and stated that this plan is “Not Going To Happen.” The Albany Times Union editorial board also questioned the feasibility of New York’s building decarbonization plans.
The Columbia University Center on Global Energy Policy reviewed New York City Local Law 97’s building emissions reduction requirements and opined that the ordinance would not achieve the decarbonization goals over the next decade. Even the Climate Action Council admits that this aggressive building decarbonization plan would not achieve its targets and must be supplemented with some amount of natural gas heating back-up.
Thus it is highly unlikely that New York State will come anywhere near to transitioning its 7.3 million homes and 370,000 commercial buildings from the use of fossil fuels for space heating and converting to all-electric heat pumps and accomplish this in ten or even 20 years.
To make any progress in achieving the state’s building decarbonization goals, the NY Climate Action Council Staff recommends buildings become all electric and the state building code would have to be amended to require that new construction be prohibited from using fossil fuels for heating as well as the use of maximum energy efficiency techniques.
What the state missed is that building decarbonization can also be significantly accelerated by mandating installation of newly developed clear solar photovoltaic windows for use in commercial and residential buildings. These innovative clear solar photovoltaic windows can enable commercial and residential buildings to self-generate electricity with zero greenhouse gas emissions to meet an all-electric building’s electrical demands. These transparent solar PV windows are now being beta tested. One clear solar PV window being developed by Stellaris has about a 14% efficiency and a cost which is competitive with standard non-transparent solar PV panels.
Clear solar PV windows can be used in high-rise residential and office buildings that are enclosed by hundreds and in some cases thousands of windows. If these clear solar PV windows were installed in new construction or retrofitted into existing buildings in the U.S. and worldwide they would generate a substantial amount of the building’s electricity, which can then be used to power heat pumps for space heating and cooling.
This technological innovation can go a long way to accelerate the decarbonization of buildings and likely achieve rapid acceptance by building owners and developers because of their ability to self-generate GHG-free electricity to meet a building’s all-electric heating and cooling loads when the state or cities prohibit the use of fossil fuels for heating, as is already occurring in many states in municipalities in the US.
Every window could, in effect, be a miniature power plant.
Decarbonizing buildings is a worthy and needed objective to combat climate change. Building developers and government mandates should consider newly developed solar PV windows to reduce greenhouse gas emissions from buildings.