Growing chorus of critics want to hit the brakes on N.J. electric heating mandate

By: - September 8, 2021 7:00 am

The nearly $3.4 million in independent spending in the 2nd and 8th districts accounts for 52% of all such spending statewide. (Getty Images)

A provision in the state’s energy master plan has critics clamoring for change.

The Fuel Merchants Association of New Jersey has launched a campaign seeking to head off portions of the state’s energy master plan that would require ubiquitous use of electric heating systems, charging they will cost households several times more than predicted while still proving unreliable in cold weather.

The master plan estimates the costs of installing an electric heating system as falling between $4,000 and $7,000, but a study conducted by the Massachusetts-based biofuels firm Diversified Energy Specialists commissioned by the Fuel Merchants Association that examined installation costs found the average electrification cost ranges from $12,000 and $22,000, with costs for new homes and gutted buildings falling on the low end.

“A lot of consumers who have these electric heat pumps need back-up heat sources because they simply cannot heat the whole home efficiently enough,” said Jeanette Hoffman, a spokeswoman for the Smart Heat NJ campaign. “The house doesn’t get warm enough with one electric heat pump.”

Gov. Phil Murphy enacted the energy master plan, a roadmap to reach 100% renewable energy by 2050, through executive order in 2019. Future governors can nix parts of the plan, but the Senate has approved a bill that would codified the energy goals it established. The bill has yet to advance in the Assembly.

The plan doesn’t call for homeowners to replace their heating systems with a pump until 2030, and technological advances could lessen the need for reserve heat systems.

“These are not your parent’s heat pumps,” said Doug O’Malley, director of Environment New Jersey, a supporter of the master plan. “Heat pump technology has come a long way in the last decade plus, so much so that the governor of Maine, Janet Mills, signed legislation to mandate heat pump installation in Maine. Obviously, it’s colder up there.”

Mills, a Democrat, in 2019 signed a bill that requires Maine to install 100,000 heat pumps over five years, though in some cases those pumps are meant as secondary heat sources.

These heating systems are seeing adoption in other states known for colder weather than New Jersey. Massachusetts Gov. Charlie Baker, a Republican, in March signed a bill that altered state tax incentives to support residents who replace fossil-fuel-based systems with electric ones.

Some air-source pumps can heat and cool, potentially offsetting costs related to replacing freestanding air-conditioning systems.

The Smart Heat NJ campaign is meant mainly to educate and engage voters, Hoffman said, and the group is urging citizens to write their lawmakers in support of a yet-to-be introduced bill proposed by state Sen. Vin Gopal (D-Monmouth). Residents can expect to see its messaging on television, radio, and digitally in the coming weeks, though the bill won’t be introduced until the Legislature convenes for its lame duck session in November.

Gopal’s measure would order the Departments of Environmental Protection and Community Affairs to alter the master plan to allow non-electric renewable heating sources.

“Let’s get there, but let’s just amend it a little bit so we can get to the same goal without limiting how we get there,” Gopal said, praising the governor and master plan while raising concerns about cost under the current plan.

The Fuel Merchants’s group also raised questions about the continuing costs of electric heating systems.

Citing figures from the Energy Information Administration, the master plan pegs average winter electric heating costs for the region at $1,406 — higher than all fossil fuel heating systems except propane, which has an average price tag of $1,857 — but warns that number was driven up by power-hungry furnace and baseboard heating systems used by most homes with electric heat systems.

It estimates modern heat pumps would cost $706. That’s lower than the $742 average winter natural gas heating bill reported by the EIA, though cold weather could cause a surge in electricity demand.

“Everybody wants clean energy, but if you told me I had to switch my home — which right now is natural gas — to all electric heat, like what?” Hoffman said. “It’s really a huge task for many New Jersey homeowners, especially if you have an older home.”

As an alternative, the campaign supports capturing natural gas secreted by landfills and wastewater treatment plants along with increased use of biofuels that do not require heating system upgrades.

Studies have identified as many as 29 landfills and wastewater treatment plants that could be mined for natural gas. No such projects exist in New Jersey, though there is a landfill gas extraction site on Staten Island.

Gas captured by such sites has a smaller carbon imprint than fracked gas, as landfill gases will be released regardless of capture systems — the Staten Island site burned its gas emissions before its capture systems were installed in 1982 — but that’s likely to prove a non-starter for climate advocates.

“There’s nothing renewable about fossil fuels,” O’Malley said. “Whether it’s renewable or not, gas still is emitting air pollution and carbon pollution.”

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Nikita Biryukov
Nikita Biryukov

Nikita Biryukov most recently covered state government and politics for the New Jersey Globe. His tenure there included revelatory stories on marijuana legalization, voting reform and Rep. Jeff Van Drew's decamp to the Republican Party. Earlier, he worked as a freelancer for The Home News Tribune and The Press of Atlantic City.