Long Island’s energy future: vision vs. mirage


Follow the money. This adage never gets old.
For decades, gas pipelines and other delivery infrastructure have been a reliable cash cow for utility companies, which recover the costs of building their distribution systems from our utility bills, which give them a fat return on their investments.
This traditional utility profit model is now at odds with a climate-driven energy transition, creating all kinds of perverse incentives. And while hikes in heating costs are grabbing the headlines, the jostling over the future of heating isn’t getting much attention.
In order to succeed in the challenging but essential task of decarbonizing its economy in the coming decades — as mandated by the Climate Leadership and Community Protection Act, which it passed in 2019 — New York state will need to embrace an all-electric future and eschew fossil fuels, including natural gas. Utilities like Con Edison and the Long Island Power Authority, which together serve about 60 percent of the state’s electric customers, have endorsed this scenario. Many builders and households are already going all-electric, because gas fouls our homes and communities, and modern electric homes are cheaper and superior.
This is the approach espoused by almost all experts because, as the electric grid becomes cleaner, the rest of the economy will naturally follow. This is also the most cost-effective and energy-efficient decarbonization strategy for buildings, because electric heat pumps use only a fraction of the energy of their fuel-based counterparts.

Heat pumps and Long Island are a match made in heaven. With relatively mild winters, Long Island homes don’t need the top-gun units for efficient, reliable heating and cooling. LIPA’s electric load peaks at around 5 gigawatts in the summer, but barely makes it to 3 gigawatts in the winter. Adding winter load will spread the fixed grid costs over more usage and reduce per-kilowatt-hour prices.
In an effort to conserve their profitable gas distribution system, some utilities have floated their own “clean energy vision” involving green hydrogen and biomethane, marketed as renewable natural gas, or RNG — a so-called fossil-free duo that could supposedly flow through their pipeline network forever.
But consider the science and the economics of this vision. It took NASA months to fix hydrogen leaks on its recent Artemis 1 moon mission. Any proposal to pump highly explosive hydrogen, which has the tiniest molecules in the universe, through 50,000 miles of pipe in New York should raise serious doubts. Multiple studies have also warned of the risk of damage to the steel in pipes and appliances posed by gas blends with significantly more than 5 percent hydrogen.
Moreover, it shouldn’t take a NASA scientist to question the wisdom of heating homes by burning the stupendously expensive green hydrogen produced from renewable electricity, when that electricity can directly power energy-sipping heat pumps. Not surprisingly, expensive experiments and demonstration projects involving the use of hydrogen for heat, the kind of boondoggles being developed in the Town of Hempstead, are already being scrapped or failing in other parts of the country and the world.
Hydrogen’s partner in crime, RNG, is produced by capturing and refining the naturally produced biogas in landfills and wastewater treatment plants. But naturally derived biomethane can meet only a minuscule fraction of the home-heating demand, so much of it will need to be artificially generated from organic waste streams. Its global warming potential isn’t much lower than that of fossil gas because of inevitable releases and leaks of methane, which is much more destructive to the climate than carbon dioxide.
Fossil-free doesn’t mean emissions-free, and the scheme doesn’t satisfy the science-based methane accounting methodology of New York’s climate law.
Produced naturally or intentionally, RNG is significantly more expensive than fossil gas, and its supplies will be limited by feedstock availability. Even the rosiest projections in the gas utilities’ own studies show that there won’t be enough of it for every possible use that those companies are touting it for, home heating being the least practical one.
The gas utilities’ so-called fossil-free clean-energy vision based on hydrogen and RNG is a mirage that doesn’t pass scientific, technical, economic or legal muster. To make matters worse, burning hydrogen would produce high levels of nitrous oxide, a health hazard, and RNG would cause indoor pollution from leakage and combustion akin to fossil gas, which is linked to myriad health risks, with the latest research attributing almost 19 percent of all childhood asthma in New York to gas stoves.
Pollution for profit shouldn’t have a place inside homes and businesses.

Anshul Gupta is a Steering Committee member of the Climate Reality Project’s NYS Coalition. Gordian Raacke is executive director of Renewable Energy Long Island.