Op-Ed | We must work together to move towards an equitable transition away from fossil fuels

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The implementation of New York’s landmark Climate Law, the Climate Leadership and Community Protection Act, is at a crossroads.  If we are to succeed in achieving the aggressive climate emissions reductions and the equity mandates under the law, swift and urgent action will be required every year by the legislature and by every state agency.  The Climate Law requires that as we transition away from fossil fuels across the economy we must do so equitably, with investments and benefits flowing directly into communities disproportionately impacted by climate change and ensure workers are uplifted by the clean energy economy.  

We must work together.  

That’s why a coalition of labor, climate and environmental advocates, utilities and consumer leaders have come together to urge the New York legislature to pass the Utility Thermal Energy Network and Jobs Act 2022 this session removing Climate Law implementation barriers by immediately allowing the Utilities to advance utility-scale emissions-free thermal energy network demonstration pilots coupled with labor standards. 

Fortunately, we have a precedent with the pioneering work that unions, climate and environmental justice advocates and the offshore wind industry delivered for New York.  This partnership achieved both nation leading labor standards and offshore wind climate targets at scale. Offshore wind in New York will be built with project labor agreements, create tens of thousands of new union careers through state and private investments in several ports, domestic manufacturing and a union led workforce training center creating a pipeline of a highly trained and skilled workforce as the industry scales to meet the state’s targets.  

Just like for offshore wind, we must now partner to build a vision, forge solutions and similar pathways to decarbonize our built environment at scale coupled with labor standards ensuring New York sets the national bar again. Buildings are New York state’s largest source of climate emissions. The New York State Energy and Research Development Authority estimates that there are over 380,000 state, institutional and commercial buildings and over 7 million households that need to be fully decarbonized by 2050. 

If we are going to effectively decarbonize our buildings at the scale necessary to meet the Climate Act’s timeline, we need to build out emissions-free thermal energy networks that utilize high efficiency ground source heat pumps over the next two-decades across the state. Thermal energy networks are good for the environment and provide a transition for fossil fuel industry workers, gas utilities and their union workforce. Utility-scale thermal networks connect multiple buildings together and capitalize on thermal energy exchange using sources like geothermal boreholes, surface water and even wastewater.  

Thermal energy networks will scale building decarbonization and reduce costs for customers with little impact to the electric grid even during peak periods. Utilities will be able to reduce the costs of electrifying buildings by spreading the costs of thermal networks across many customers and many years. By enabling the utilities to construct these projects, the gas utility and building trades workforce will be able to apply their skills and training for careers in decarbonizing New York’s buildings. Utilizing the NYC Building and Construction Trades model of direct entry into registered Apprenticeship programs also allows people in local communities disproportionately impacted by climate change to gain access to union careers and a pathway to the middle class. 

New York State can begin this transformation and create union jobs through policies that fund and prioritize converting the 380,000 state, institutional (i.e. universities and K-12 schools) and commercial buildings into zero-emissions, high performance buildings. By installing thermal energy loops with ground source heat pumps and utilizing strategies such as weatherization and energy efficiency, New York will be on a clear path to decarbonization.

New York utilities have been proposing thermal energy network demonstration projects across every utility territory for several years and have been unable to move forward due to legal barriers.  

Passing this legislation and the Governor signing the Utility Thermal Energy Network and Jobs Act 2022 this year, is a winning solution and a necessary critical first step to both decarbonize New York’s buildings while preserving and creating middle class careers.

It builds momentum, breaks through political deadlock and advances political and policy pathways and solutions forward, together.

John Murphy is the International Representative, United Association of Plumbers, Pipefitters and Sprinkler Fitters and Lisa Dix is the New York Director, Building Decarbonization Coalition.

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