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Economy

A Housing Heavyweight Goes Shopping for 10,000 Induction Stoves

The New York City Public Housing Authority is throwing its weight around in the nascent induction stove industry — and renters everywhere stand to benefit.

A huge induction stove in Manhattan.
Heatmap Illustration/Getty Images

Anyone considering an induction stove has probably encountered a frustrating, expensive obstacle: the need for an electrical upgrade.

Most induction stoves, those magical, electric cooking devices that use magnets to heat pots and pans and can boil water in two minutes, must be plugged into a high-voltage, 240-volt outlet. Gas stoves only require a 120-volt outlet. Making the switch usually requires an upgrade, which can cost anywhere from a few hundred dollars to thousands, depending on how far away it is from your electrical panel, and whether your panel can handle the additional power.

Induction stoves already command a premium. Despite growing awareness of the health and climate risks of cooking with gas, the added cost and headache of an electric upgrade is enough to lead homeowners and landlords to stick with the fossil fuel, as Lisa Martine Jenkins wrote about for Heatmap earlier this year. But soon, an easy, affordable solution might be coming from an unexpected place: the New York City Public Housing Authority, the biggest provider of public housing in the United States.

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  • NYCHA, in collaboration with two New York state agencies, announced Monday they are launching the “Induction Stove Challenge.” The contest invites manufacturers to compete for a contract to install at least 10,000 induction stoves in NYCHA buildings — if they can design efficient models that do not require electrical upgrades. The idea is not just to improve the lives of NYC public housing residents, but to spur a larger market transformation that lowers the barriers to induction stoves for everyone.

    “This challenge in New York is exciting because it focuses on those who deserve to transition away from gas first,” said Panama Bartholomy, the executive director of the Building Decarbonization Coalition, which was hired by New York's clean energy office to enlist other housing authorities in the effort and engage manufacturers. “But it will most certainly have a ripple effect throughout the marketplace.”

    Bartholomy told me appliance companies are watching closely for an inflection point before they make any decisions to wind down gas stove production or increase their induction offerings. “Things like this are indicators of, okay, it's getting serious, the sales are going to be there. They are guaranteeing sales.”

    NYCHA first pioneered this strategy in the 1990s, when it held a contest for energy-saving refrigerators. At the time, no one was selling a model that was small enough for a typical urban apartment. NYCHA was uniquely motivated to push for one, since it both supplied the appliances and paid the energy bills for most of the apartments it oversaw. In leveraging its immense purchasing power, and working with other public housing authorities in the region to place bulk orders, it was able to bring the cost down for a new, apartment-scale fridge that cut energy consumption in half.

    The agency has revived this strategy for the decarbonization era, using it to solve some of the biggest challenges to getting the state’s — and the nation’s — buildings off of fossil fuels. In 2021, it launched the Clean Heat For All Challenge, a contest to design a new heat pump that could be installed in a window, like an air conditioner. Most heat pumps on the market have both indoor and outdoor components, and require costly construction work involving plumbers, carpenters, and electricians to set up. A window-unit version would not only be cheaper and easier to install, but would enable renters to take advantage of the technology.

    The winners — a model from the longtime window AC manufacturer Midea America and another from a startup called Gradient — were announced last summer. Next steps include extensive testing of the designs, followed by a pilot installation of 60 units before the companies begin fulfilling a much larger order. NYCHA had originally promised a 10,000-unit contract, but the city and state said they planned to triple it to 30,000.

    “Purchasing power of NYCHA is a big draw to manufacturers,“ a spokesperson for the state's clean energy office told me. “By including the potential for a large purchase order if successful in the Clean Heat for All Program, we saw a lot of interest from manufacturers because they saw the customer opportunity on the other side of the 'demonstration phase' of this program.”

    The heat pump contest was, in part, inspired by a pilot program where the housing authority tried to install traditional heat pumps in a few apartments in one of its buildings in the Bronx. The project turned out to be hugely complicated, expensive, and disruptive to residents. “Each apartment was a story,” Jordan Bonomo, a senior project manager at NYCHA, told me at the time. “We quickly realized that while we like the technology, we couldn’t possibly scale that effort across our portfolio.”

    NYCHA has experimented with induction stoves, too. Last year, the environmental justice group WE ACT ran a study on the air quality benefits of switching to induction cooking in NYCHA households. The group installed induction stoves in 10 apartments, and then monitored the air quality while residents cooked and compared it to 10 control apartments. They found that induction cooking lowered daily indoor nitrogen dioxide concentrations by 35 percent compared with gas cooking.

    But the project required installing new breakers and outlets, and the building’s limited electrical capacity restricted which apartments could participate.

    “In partnership with WE ACT, we studied and understand that electric induction stoves are healthier for indoor environments compared to gas cooking, and we can’t allow the costs of retrofits to constrain us in acting on this strategy,” Vlada Kenniff, NYCHA’s senior vice president for sustainability, said in a press release. “This is our next attempt to create a solution that will allow us to abandon often failing gas lines, while providing a healthier, more reliable cooking option for our residents.”

    There are already a few startups, like Impulse Labs and Channing Street Copper, trying to eliminate the electrical upgrade obstacle for induction stoves. They are getting around the issue by designing models that have built-in batteries that enable them to run on a 120-volt outlet. Most cooking can be conducted using the lower voltage, but when more is needed, the battery can supply it. These companies are close to putting their products on the market, but they are unlikely to be cheaper than an electrical upgrade. Channing Street Copper’s product is expected to cost nearly $6,000.

    I asked Bartholomy why the legacy manufacturers that make induction stoves weren’t trying to solve this problem, and he said he doesn’t think there has been enough demand yet to justify the manufacturing costs.

    Maybe a 10,000-unit order will be enough to change their minds.

    Read more about induction stoves:

    The Real Reason You’ll Eventually Ditch Your Gas Stove

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    Emily Pontecorvo profile image

    Emily Pontecorvo

    Emily is a founding staff writer at Heatmap. Previously she was a staff writer at the nonprofit climate journalism outlet Grist, where she covered all aspects of decarbonization, from clean energy to electrified buildings to carbon dioxide removal.

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