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Largest utility companies in US plan major projects that will transform home heating — here's why it matters

"Utilities make the most sense to do this."

"Utilities make the most sense to do this."

Photo Credit: iStock

Utilities in New York have recently submitted plans for 13 pilot projects to replace gas pipelines with neighborhood thermal energy networks, Canary Media reports.

The proposed projects are in response to a 2022 state law that promotes the development of thermal energy networks throughout the state to decarbonize buildings and reduce the output of planet-heating pollution. 

The bill requires the state's seven largest investor-owned utilities to submit at least one proposed thermal network pilot project for review, and at least one should be located in a disadvantaged community within each utility's service area.

The submitted proposal areas range from downtown Manhattan commercial centers to low-income housing in New York City, along with neighborhoods in the Hudson Valley and Ithaca. One project will see Manhattan's Chelsea neighborhood getting all of its heating, cooling, and hot-water needs for a low-income multifamily residential building from a nearby data center.  

The new thermal energy networks will utilize the same types of pipelines that traditionally carry planet-warming gasses to buildings, but they will carry water or other liquids that transfer heat from underground or other buildings to power heat pumps.

"Utilities make the most sense to do this," said Lisa Dix, New York director for the nonprofit Building Decarbonization Coalition, per Canary Media. "They've got rights of way, they have the permitting authority, they have access to capital, and they have the workforce, which is already unionized."

Heat pumps are more efficient than furnaces or boilers that run on dirty energy. According to the U.S. Department of Energy (DOE), ground-source heat pumps can reduce energy consumption and emissions by up to 44% versus air-source heat pumps and 72% compared to standard air-conditioning equipment.

Transitioning away from planet-warming energy sources is a win for clean air. According to the World Bank, fine particulate matter from the burning of dirty fuel is one of the most toxic forms of air pollution and can lead to cancer, heart disease, asthma, and premature death. The organization also estimated that health damages associated with exposure to air pollution come in at about $8.1 trillion per year.

Plus, our consumption of dirty energy is driving the overheating of our planet, and we are already seeing the negative consequences. For instance, olive oil prices are spiking as farmers face unseasonably high temperatures and drought. In the Amazon, people are dealing with water shortages as rising sea levels contribute to more frequent saltwater intrusion from the ocean.

That said, opportunities for renewable, clean-energy sources like geothermal, wind, and solar are expanding and offering hope. 

For instance, the DOE recently announced federal funding for new projects that seek to turn former coal towns into producers of equipment that would be used for the clean energy sector. Seattle just became the first U.S. city to deploy double-decker electric buses with wireless charging. Meanwhile, New Jersey recently approved two new offshore wind projects that are expected to power around 1.6 million homes.

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