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On Energy, Consider the Alternatives

by John Nettleton, May 07, 2007
 

My high school's motto, "finis origine pendet" can be translated as "well begun is half done.'" On energy, Mayor Michael Bloomberg's plaNYC is a well-begun start, with the well-intentioned design of a new Energy Efficiency Authority within a new Energy Planning Board. Such an overarching governmental framework is vital to reducing New York's "'carbon footprint' - the sum of all the greenhouse gases we emit. But community-grounded measures and daily practices must compliment such an effort given the fractious nature of planning here.

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Other initiatives could be expanded as well. The recommended measures to modernize power plants, improve the electrical grid and revise the building code revisions will help transform our environment. But an equally robust effort must focus on buildings: We have 100 "green buildings" in a city with 950,000 structures. Just as Bloomberg looked to his London counterpart for inspiration in traffic management, he can find innovative public programs in the U.S. for reducing our energy consumption.

Energy Education

Research has found that energy efficiency measures accompanied by education have a greater and more lasting impact than efficiency measures alone. Residents and owners maintain efficiency improvements to the extent that they understand their nature and effect. "An Energy Awareness and Training Campaign" should begin immediately in and the involvement of the Department of Education engagement is vital.

The city should also look at programs that provide energy efficient compact fluorescent lights to residents: Chicago's mayor is giving away 500,000 fixtures, which residents pick up along with basic energy information at their alderman's office. Commercial buildings, working with unions and the Apollo Alliance for Good Jobs and Clean Energy, must train maintenance staff so lights get turned off after 9:30 p.m.

Promoting Alternative Energy Sources

New solar generating capacity is critical to citywide peak load reduction, but the plan's conclusion that New York City is uniquely expensive overlooks the obvious. If installation costs here are 30 percent to 50 percent above those in New Jersey or Long Island, one should seek out areas within the five boroughs that mirror New Jersey and Long Island. Where are the largest expanses of publicly accessible land or south-facing surface area available for large-scale photovoltaic installations? One finds multiple options, from railyards (Sunnyside, Hunts Point) to roofs (airport hangers, for one) to public rights-of-way. In Denmark, highway shoulders and rail lines feature soundproofing berms mounted with photovoltaic panels. This could provide a model for large-scale solar-power generation along the many city highways, the Long Island Rail Road right-of-way and the entire above ground southern exposure of the Number 7 line.

Sacramento's municipal utility installs solar panels on private property on a leaseback arrangement and provides the panel-shaded parking (at a premium price) at the local airport. Developers could do something similar on the acres of rooftops in Hunts Point, Long Island City, along Atlantic Avenue in Brooklyn and elsewhere.

Fuels made from plant material - so-called biofuel -- offers a triple benefit: improving air quality and public health while reducing petroleum use and emissions of carbon dioxide and other pollutants. Fully half of New York City's houses and apartments -- nearly 3 million homes -- use oil-fired or dual fuel heat. This exposes owners and tenants to the vagaries of an increasingly volatile international oil market. Worse, it generates sulfur dioxide (23,500 tons in 2004) linked to New York's per capita death rate from so-called diesel fine particles - the third highest in the U.S., behind only Beaumont, Texas, and Baton Rouge.

The plan shortchanges biofuels in several ways. First, biodiesel can be blended with existing heating oil and burned in many existing furnaces. A fuel that is 20 percent bodies significantly reduces particulates, carbon dioxide and sulfur dioxide.

Three good first steps would demonstrate the potential of cleaner fuels. First, with the New York City Housing Authority heating over 80 percent of its 170,000 apartments with heavy oil, immediate conversion to heating fuel with 20 percent biofuel in developments located where asthma rates are particularly high is an environmental and a public health imperative. Using biodiesel for transit and school buses would benefit riders, drivers and residents, especially those in communities of color where bus depots are invariably sited. Third, complete boiler changeover in 100 NYC schools is largely unnecessary- many if not most can already use a blend of biodiesel and fuel oil.

As New York primes the pump for such renewable fuels it should not simply seek out the cheapest material. The growing of soya oil from Brazil and palm oil from Indonesia on clear cut land releases ten times as much carbon as petroleum production. PlaNYC can help pioneer a clearly needed green fuel certification modeled on current sustainable forestry.

Building Public Support

Citizens will respond to leadership and timely information. When the California energy crisis led officials to call for a 6 percent reduction in overall electrical demand, residents called for demand to be cut by twice that. A record of 'Best Practices' can excite and empower residents and building owners to take the next step. Couples waiting for marriage license at the municipal building could view material on saving energy. And at the end of the school year all 1 million public school students could depart for summer vacation, trained agents in reducing peak electrical demand.

John Nettleton is a senior extension associate at Cornell Cooperative Extension/NYC. In spring 1990, he designed and taught 'Urban Impacts of Global Warming' at Manhattan College, the first such course ever given in the city.

 




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