Turn on the television, tune to the news. Climate change is finally a leading story. President Biden has made climate change a core policy for every department. He has committed the United States to reducing greenhouse gas emissions (ghg) 50 percent by 2030, compared to 2005 emissions.
New York State has pledged to have a fossil-fuel-free electricity grid by 2040. That means electricity in New York will come from sources like solar, wind and hydropower. By 2050, the state plans to reduce emissions across all sectors of the economy by at least 85 percent from 1990 levels.
1n 2019, New York City enacted the Climate Mobilization Act, Local Law 97 targeting emissions from buildings over 25,000 square feet. Emissions limits are set starting in 2024, then get tighter in 2030 and each five years thereafter. A building’s emissions are based upon how much electricity, natural gas and fuel oil it uses during the year. Those numbers are reported to the city each year, and buildings that exceed their emissions limits are subject to a financial penalty.
In New York City, buildings are the major source of emissions, and heating and cooling is the biggest producer of emissions in buildings. The planners believe that with green electricity by 2050, buildings can switch from using oil and gas boilers for heating to electrification using heat pumps. There are several kinds of heat pumps. The most common being discussed are air source heat pumps. The easiest way I’ve found to explain a heat pump is to think of it as a reversible air conditioner (An air conditioner itself uses a heat pump but only moves heat in one direction). A heat pump can provide heat in the winter and cooling in the summer.
To waste less heat, there is talk of making buildings tighter. Exterior insulation finishing systems (EIFS) add insulation outside the building with a covering over the insulation. Where that is not feasible, insulation can be added inside, though that can reduce room sizes. Roof insulation standards will also increase. New, more insulating windows are included in the vision.
With buildings more airtight, ventilation and indoor air quality are an issue. Here the technology calls for energy recovery ventilation (ERV). Old air is drawn out of the building; new air is brought in. The system uses the energy in the exhaust air to contribute to the heating or cooling of the new air.
There’s more, but now let’s look at what it means for our cooperatives. Amalgamated and Park Reservoir already meet the emissions standards for 2024 – 2030. Unless we add to our emissions between now and 2030, both cooperatives are okay as is. LL97 also allows an extension through 2034 for Park Reservoir (Mitchell Lama) and Amalgamated (Mitchell Lama equivalent). The extension allows an alternate path of prescriptive measures, including some steps we are already planning on.
Amalgamated is going forward along the primary path as indicated several times in other reports. We do this to bring us closer to the tightening standards of 2035 and beyond and more importantly because we believe that through a combination of incentives from the New York State Energy Research and Development Authority and Con Edison, along with energy loans that are repaid through energy savings, we can reduce our emissions, lower our energy bills and provide greater comfort with no upfront cost to cooperators.
Electrification, EIFS and ERVs are likely to be in our energy future. Getting there will require long-term thinking and long-term planning. They are major undertakings, with funding and logistical questions not yet answered.
Our buildings may not now have the electrical capacity that will be needed for electrified heating and cooling. If needed, rewiring is expensive, estimated at $50,000 to $70,000 per apartment at current rates. We are not alone in facing this issue, and government leaders understand that. Will they step up with funding or simply impose mandates on us? There’s another “who pays for electrification” question. The law now mandates that building owners pay for heating, while residents usually pay for cooling. Our cooperatives are currently master metered, but for residents who are directly billed by Con Edison or who are sub metered, heating costs will show up on their electric bills. Once again, a problem broader than our cooperatives, that must be addressed before we can electrify.
Adding to the question, there are voices recommending eliminating gas stoves with replacement by induction or electric stoves. They make the case to improve indoor air quality (IAQ) as well as eliminate greenhouse gas emissions that come from cooking with gas. Induction or electrical cooking will add to the electrical capacity needed for each apartment. Our cooperatives are not yet considering eliminating gas, but future policy may lead us there.
Amalgamated is still considering submetering. Every study I have seen says submetering reduces electrical use by at least 10 percent, usually 15 percent or higher. There are problems and obstacles including those noted above. It remains to be seen whether we will seek to overcome the obstacles or accept the shortcomings of our existing master metering.
We are already thinking about charging equipment for electric vehicles (EVs). There are very few EVs in the cooperative now, but that number will surely grow. What equipment should we buy? How do we fund it? How many charging stations? How do we bill for charging? Can we accommodate cooperators who do not have spots in the garages?
Other cooperatives are seeing the same questions, and members of our Coordinating Council of Cooperatives’ family are exploring optimum solutions. We will probably need additional power from Con Edison and separate lines for EV charging. EV charging electricity will not count toward our emissions for LL97 as the city will certainly recognize that EV charging offsets far greater emissions that would come from gas powered vehicles.
Amalgamated has just invested about $8 million in two new boilers, a combined heat and power unit (CHP), chimney repairs and a range of modernizations in our power plant. Therefore, electrification with heat pumps is likely to be later between now and 2050. Heat pump technology will improve between now and then, as a lot of very smart people are working on this challenge. New and better refrigerants for air source heat pumps (ASHP) are high on the list of priorities. The field of geothermal and ground source heat pumps (GSHP) is also growing, and by the time most of our cooperative buildings electrify, other alternatives will also be explored.
Amalgamated is planning on geothermal for the towers very soon. This is because the existing towers’ heating and cooling system needs major overhaul now. Geothermal offers the best option for reducing emissions.
Climate change is not just a topic for political debate. How we deal with it will impact us all, as individuals and as a cooperative. The more we learn about the problem and the technology to address it, the better prepared we will be.
This article, reprinted with permission, originally appeared in Community News, a publication for Amalgamated Houses and Park Reservoir Houses, Bronx, N.Y. Author: Ed Yaker
This article was featured in the Summer issue of CHQ. Click here to read the PDF newsletter.