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Closer to a Fossil Fuel Ban

Thu, 05/18/2023 - 11:41

East Hampton Town’s energy and sustainability advisory committee will recommend to the town board the All-Electric Building Act, which would require all appliances, including heating and cooling systems, hot water, and stoves in new residential and commercial construction, to be all-electric as of Jan. 1, 2025, eliminating their use of fossil fuels.

The committee voted unanimously at its meeting on Monday to recommend the act. It follows a similar recommendation made last summer, which the town board did not act on.

The committee’s proposal is similar, but on an accelerated timetable, to New York State’s requirements for advancing zero-emissions construction as detailed in its 2023-24 budget, which passed on May 2. That legislation bans fossil-fuel hookups in new buildings seven stories or lower except for large commercial and industrial buildings as of Jan. 1, 2026, and in all other new buildings by Jan. 1, 2029. It exempts emergency backup and standby power, commercial food establishments, laboratories, car washes, laundromats, hospitals, crematoriums, agricultural buildings, and critical infrastructure.

With its adoption, the state is the first in the nation to advance comprehensive legislation for constructing zero-emission buildings. California and Washington State previously adopted bans through their building codes, as did New York City through a 2021 local law.

Neither the state’s new regulations nor the committee’s recommendation to the town board apply to existing buildings except, in the recommendation to the town, in the case of “substantial improvements,” broadly defined in the zoning code as an addition that increases its gross floor area by 50 percent or more, or any improvement the cost of which equals or exceeds 50 percent of its market value.

In 2014, the town adopted a goal to meet the equivalent of 100 percent of its energy consumption with renewable energy sources by 2030. The town code was amended in 2017 to include the Energy Savings Program, requiring new construction and substantial reconstruction to meet the Home Energy Rating System index, known as HERS, by which a house’s energy efficiency is measured.

In 2021, the town board declared a climate emergency, which commits the town to make mitigation and the elimination of greenhouse gas emissions a guiding principle and objective of municipal operations, policy and purchasing decisions, planning and zoning rules and decisions, and all other aspects of town business. Also in 2021, the board passed a resolution to electrify HVAC systems in municipal buildings. 

According to the State Department of Environmental Conservation, buildings are the leading source of greenhouse gas emissions, producing 30 percent of emissions across the economy. The agency recommends electrification of buildings and increasing their energy efficiency.

The recommendation notes that the federal Environmental Protection Agency and other groups have reported that gas-burning stoves in kitchens may pose a greater risk to the climate and human health than previously thought, including emissions of nitrogen dioxide, which can trigger asthma and other respiratory conditions. “Methane emissions from gas stoves in the United States have a comparable climate impact to about 500,000 gas-powered cars driven for a year,” the recommendation states, and “children living in homes with gas stoves are 42 percent more likely to experience asthma.”


The Leaf-Blower Debate

Also on Monday, the committee postponed voting on a recommendation that the town further restrict the use of gas and diesel-powered leaf blowers.

The town board voted in 2021 to prohibit the use of gas and diesel-powered leaf blowers between May 20 and Sept. 20 and restrict their use during the rest of the year to 8 a.m. to 6 p.m. on weekdays and 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. on Saturdays. Only homeowners and tenants may operate a gas or diesel-powered leaf blower on Sundays and state and federal holidays, and only between 9 a.m. and 3 p.m. The law applies to landscapers, homeowners, business owners, and municipal employees and to all properties including restaurants, shopping centers, and beach, golf, and tennis clubs.

The existing and proposed restrictions would not apply when responding to an emergency or cleanup after a major storm when the supervisor has declared a state of emergency. A limitation of walk-behind leaf blowers to properties greater than a half-acre, and a total of two hand-held, backpack, or walk-behind leaf blowers on properties greater than a half-acre, would also remain, as would a prohibition on the use of gas or diesel generators to power electric leaf blowers.

On Monday, a proposal to recommend amending the town code to prohibit gas and diesel-powered leaf blowers between April 20 and Oct. 20 starting next year, between March 20 and Nov. 20 starting in 2025, and entirely starting on Jan. 1, 2026, was tabled. The committee instead debated how to move forward.

Studies have found that gas and diesel leaf blowers are hazardous to the health of the operator, the public, and the environment. They emit carbon monoxide, carbon dioxide, nitrogen oxides, particulate matter, and volatile organic compounds. According to the D.E.C., the amount of carbon dioxide emitted from a backpack leaf blower in one hour is equal to that emitted from the tailpipe of an automobile operating for more than eight hours.

But leaf blowers, whether powered by a fossil fuel or electricity, are also destructive to insects, including pollinators, as fallen leaves serve as habitat for overwintering insects, Leonard Green of the committee told his colleagues on Monday during the debate over whether and when the committee should recommend lengthening a ban.

Should gas and diesel-powered leaf blowers be prohibited in April, and then in March, “you run the risk that people will blow in January and February — which they do already,” said Paul Munoz, the committee’s chairman and owner of the Eco Harmony landscaping company, which employs electric and solar-powered mowers and equipment.

“The more leaf blowing in the winter, the more damage we do to the insects,” Mr. Green said.

Enforcement of the existing restrictions has been wanting, others noted, and committee members considered how to balance a timely phase-out of fossil fuel-powered equipment, landscapers’ anticipated objection, and the urgency to eliminate greenhouse gas emissions from all sources as quickly as possible.

Cate Rogers, the town board’s liaison to the committee, suggested that committee members solicit guidance from the town board, after which a public hearing on any recommendation could be heard.

“It might behoove us to spend an extra month fine-tuning this in anticipation of the public meetings,” said Gloria Frazee of the committee, “so that we’re easing the conversation forward.”

Educating the public as to the negative impacts of leaf blowers should also be part of the effort, committee members said. At Mr. Green’s suggestion, the committee voted to recommend that the town publish and distribute a booklet modeled on Bellport Village’s “Guide to 1000 Yards Campaign,” a primer on lawn care that is in harmony with the environment.

The committee also voted to formally recommend that the town implement a community choice aggregation program, a model that replaces the utility as the default supplier of electricity or natural gas and gives municipalities the opportunity to seek lower prices from alternative suppliers. The town previously passed enabling legislation.


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