New York recently reached an agreement to become the first state to ban natural gas connections in new construction, heralding a new era of consumer restrictions.
The ban would take effect for new construction starting in 2026, according to the budget agreement announced by Gov. Hochul. With that deal, the state outbid Biden’s Department of Energy, which released a proposed regulation that would effectively ban 50 percent of the market for gas cooktops. Both Biden and Hochul promote their bans as efforts to shift from natural gas consumption to “zero-emissions” renewable electricity. By doing so, they hope to reduce greenhouse gas emissions, curb climate change and prevent indoor air pollution.
The problem is that natural gas bans are unlikely to work that way and, in the meantime, limit consumer choice and jeopardize the innovation that led America to cleaner, safer technologies. Prioritizing climate change concerns above all others will only serve to prevent consumers from using the type of energy that works best for their situation.
There is also the question of whether the ban will be lifted. A federal appeals court found in April that Berkeley, California’s 2019 ban on gas stoves is overturned by the federal Energy Conservation and Policy Act of 1975, which gives the final say on restrictions on the use of power for household appliances. The Ninth Circuit’s decision is not binding on New York, but its logic may guide anticipated legal challenges to New York’s ban.
Unlike the Consumer Product Safety Commission, which in January 2023 cited “hidden dangers” and childhood asthma as reasons for considering the ban, Gov. Hochul is not promoting the measure as a health and safety concern.
Instead, he praised the state budget for prioritizing “national climate action.” But constitutionality aside, the natural gas ban is unlikely to have the impact Hochul might hope for. Electricity is produced primarily with natural gas, and renewables are currently a small fraction of production capacity and have significant environmental costs to produce.
As of 2021, natural gas accounts for 32% of US energy consumption. 38% of households used natural gas for cooking in 2020 and 61% for any end use. New York’s ban goes beyond restricting the use of natural gas stoves, banning natural gas connections in small newly built buildings by 2026 and in large buildings by 2028. However, consumers in New York have clearly revealed their preference for natural gas, as 58.7% of New York households used natural gas for home heating in 2021. Many households that use natural gas today prefer to stick with it, especially in New York’s brutal winters.
Ms. Hochul also stated that New York will be “the first state in the nation to promote new zero emission homes and buildings.” That’s not entirely true: Gas-fired power plants now account for nearly three-fifths of New York’s generating capacity. So the ban is likely to simply transfer gas consumption and emissions from homes to utilities, as power companies work to meet the increased demand from these “zero emissions” homes. Nuclear power will not be able to catch up, as it is only a quarter of New York’s generating capacity and is declining due to reactor retirements, despite its safe and reliable track record.
While Ms. Hochul can expect non-hydro renewables, which currently account for less than 10% of New York’s generating capacity, to become more widespread in the next three years and generate electricity for these new “zero emissions” homes “, neither truly zero emission hydro renewable energy. Wind and solar power must be combined with battery storage to ensure that episodic power is available for use on demand. The manufacture of batteries, as well as wind turbines and solar panels, requires electricity, possibly generated from coal or natural gas. Wind and solar power also generate high levels of non-recyclable waste and require the extraction of toxic elements such as lithium and cadmium, which are produced primarily in overseas locations with less stringent environmental and labor standards than in the US.
Consumers can choose to use electric stoves on their own initiative, but forcing them to use technologies that are not optimal for their individual situations will not make climate causes any more attractive, especially when those methods are not likely to deliver the environmental benefits they promise. The free market will continue to improve emissions-free energy technologies, but requiring certain technologies can actually slow the pace of innovation and limit consumer choice.
Top-down policies like New York’s ban on natural gas hookups and proposed DOE (Department of Energy) emissions standards limit consumer choice and jeopardize innovation. If Ms. Hochul and the Biden administration are seriously concerned about climate change, they would do better to let the free market do its job.