Gotham Gazette

The Place for New York Policy and politics

In the last few days, we have seen Climate Week come and go, Mayor Michael Bloomberg tout painting city roofs white and California propose to cut the electricity consumption of your plasma TV by a third.

Energy efficiency is on everyone's mind, including ours.

That's why we have turned a spotlight on New York City's electricity future with Switch -- the final game in our series funded by the John S. and James L. Knight Foundation. A matching game similar to Concentration or Memory, Switch lets you solve New York City's energy crisis.

Between 2005 and 2030, the city will have to come up with about 22 million additional megawatt hours annually to meet our growing electricity demand, according to the Bloomberg administration's sustainability plan, PlaNYC 2030.

In Switch, we ask you how the city should do it. Turn out the lights? Build an offshore wind farm? What about nuclear power?

Switch gives you scores of options. Play again and again and see what conservation policies or generation proposals can close our electricity gap.

Flip the Switch!

And for a sneak peek of the proposals included in Switch see our glossary below.




Solar Panels for City Buildings

Picture City Hall decked out in solar panels. It could happen. According to a 2006 study by the City University of New York, the city gets hit with twice the amount of solar energy we need to run it. But solar can cost more than four times as much as other renewable options. Despite that, the city has started to harness the sun, with 65 percent of solar energy in the city coming from panels on public buildings, according to CUNY.

Solar Powered Apartments
New York may not seem sunny, but solar panels on every inch of residential rooftop that could host them would create more than twice the amount of electricity we need to meet the demand of 2030. But property owners might balk at installation costs -- $4 a watt by some estimates. In response, the state offers financial incentives that could cover 40 to 70 percent of the installation costs. More recently, a City Council member has proposed solar zones to encourage neighbors to join together to share the expense.

Wind on Fresh Kills
From garbage dump to wind farm? Borough President James Molinaro wants to put seven 400-foot wind turbines on Staten Island's Fresh Kills, the landfill turned park. The turbines could produce enough electricity to power 5,000 homes. That kind of small-scale wind farm, according to Columbia University, could cost around $40 million, but the borough president's office says it would get private financing. Despite that, so far, the proposal hasn't picked up any gusts.

Tidal in the Hudson
Tidal power scoffs in the face of cloudy afternoons and breezeless mornings. But it has lagged behind wind and solar power in popularity, making it more expensive. And there are fewer government incentives to boost its use. A 10-megawatt project, one company estimates, could cost $2,000 per kilowatt to install. Some worry that the underwater energy, which has the most potential in the mighty Hudson, will hurt wildlife or interfere with marine navigation.

Tidal in the East River
Some of our electricity already comes from the depths of the East River. A local company has launched a pilot tidal turbine program there, which could bring as many as 30 turbines to the estuary's floor. Its results could determine the potential for tidal turbines elsewhere in the city. For now, it's an expensive technology (about $4,000 per kilowatt for installation alone), and some fear it could disrupt marine navigation and wildlife.

Nuclear Power Plant
No one wants to contemplate a Three Mile Island in a city of 8 million, so New York City probably will never see a nuclear plant within its borders. But it isn't as though we don't use nuclear energy. About 20 percent of our electricity comes from the Indian Point plant -- about 35 miles away. If we built a nuclear power plant in the city, it could cover almost all of our energy gap. Nuclear power does not emit carbon. What to do with the waste, though, is a whole different story.

Geothermal in Institutional Buildings
Geothermal energy uses the earth's constant natural temperature to heat and cool buildings. Heat pumps buried deep in the ground use the earth's temperature -- which averages 50 degrees underneath New York State -- to supplement a building's heating and cooling systems. During the cold months, the pumps pull warmth from the ground and circulate it through the building. It does the reverse -- drawing heat from the building underground -- in warm months. Geothermal systems typically pay for themselves within 10 years, experts say.

Offshore Wind Farm
They have spawned bitter opposition in other areas of the country, but offshore wind farms can produce lots of energy. A wind farm 13 miles off Rockaway Peninsula with more than 100 turbines, each 400 feet high, could eventually create 700 megawatts of electricity, according to Con Ed, which is considering such a proposal. A project of that size, which would surely attract opposition for marring the beauty of the shoreline, could cost about $2.5 billion.

Turbines on Residential Buildings
The rooftops of small apartment buildings and brownstone backyards can play host to wind turbines. According to Columbia University, 13,000 apartment buildings in southern Brooklyn, Queens and Staten Island could each hold a 1-kilowatt system. But per kilowatt hour, these smaller projects can cost double to triple the amount of larger ones, and getting all the permits can discourage the most avid renewable energy advocate. To try to help, the state offers some financial incentives and tax breaks. An owner can expect the payback period to be seven to eight years.

Tower Turbines
Picture the New York Times building with a wind turbine spinning on top. The Bloomberg administration briefly floated the idea of turbines on skyscrapers, but the proposal has since been gone with the wind. It could resurface -- once supporters find a way to address fears that blades could spiral down from the sky, creating catastrophe. Even then, skeptics are likely to balk at altering New York City's classic skyline, considering wind's so-called skyrocketing cost.

Clean Coal
The holy grail of the energy industry, clean coal got a lot of buzz during the 2008 presidential race, but many experts contend that it doesn't exist. Nonetheless, a 40-megawatt, approximately $2 billion proposal for New York State does. The proposal, which we based our estimate on, aims to make coal clean by capturing carbon from a coal plant and trapping it underground.

Build Power Plants
If you need more energy, just make more. The city can always turn to Con Edison to create more power plants -- typically around 500 megawatts a pop. Each would cost about $1 billion to build. But assuming it burned natural gas, a new plant would have lower operating costs than greener technologies. To fill our energy gap, we need about six more. Good luck finding a community that wants one. Queens residents say they have enough.

Methane from Fresh Kills
Fresh Kills may have been Staten Islanders' nemesis for decades, but residents can now use the former landfill's noxious fumes to power their homes. The Department of Sanitation sells off millions of cubic feet of methane it extracts from the landfill to the local natural gas utility, which converts it to energy. The cost is on par with other power generated by natural gas.

Fuel Cells
Eight fuel cells are already run by the New York Power Authority in the Bronx, Brooklyn and Staten Island. Those cells use waste gas extracted from wastewater treatment plants and covert it into electricity. A fuel cell that generates 1.6 million kilowatt hours annually creates less than one percent of the emissions of a coal power plant. They are typically implemented on a small scale, however, so fuel cells alone can't solve our energy crisis.

CHP Systems
CHP systems combine the generation of heat and power into one system. Otherwise known as cogeneration systems, they increase efficiency by capturing the heat that would usually be rejected by our normal electric systems. For instance, heat that was created but not used by your steamy shower could go into the building's electric system instead of being wasted. In the mayor's PlaNYC 2030, the administration envisioned creating at least 800 megawatts with this technology by 2030. Per kilowatt, it costs about $1,200 to install. Per kilowatt-hour, it costs about 6 cents to operate.

Energy Generating Floor in Subway Stations
Tested in Tokyo train stations, an energy-generating floor harvests kinetic energy from the soles of weary commuters' shoes to create electricity. Sure, it's expensive (and you can bet that the cash-strapped Metropolitan Transportation Authority won't buy into it anytime soon), but the technology exists. Our estimate anticipates a five-foot pathway in all of the city's 468 stations.

Energy-Generating Doors in Restaurants
Swish through a revolving door and create energy. That's what they do in some places in the Netherlands. Still in its pilot stages so capital costs are hazy, energy revolving doors are said to cut down on overall energy operating costs. Given the technology is in its infant stage, we aren't sure by how much.

Repower Plants
Instead of building new power plants, we can spruce up the ones we have to increase capacity and reduce emissions by as much as 80 percent. NRG Energy wants to "repower" a plant in Astoria but it requires a significant financial investment. Repowering can cost more than $1 billion.


Ban Air Conditioning in Commercial Buildings
Sure, it will be hot, but imagine the savings! About 17 percent of electricity in office buildings goes to air conditioning. If we banned it, we would be 10 percent of the way to closing our energy gap. Watch out for protests from sweaty office workers.

Greener Building Code
Requiring new construction and existing buildings to consider energy efficiency in their designs could get us almost a third of the way to closing our energy gap. The new code would include rebates for green buildings, require white roofs and stronger ventilation. According to some estimates, greener construction could increase the cost of projects by 3.5 percent.

Air Conditioning with the Door Shut
The City Council has already done it, much to the chagrin of some retailers. Commercial establishments can no longer open their doors and crank up the AC to lure customers inside on sweltering days. By some estimates, stores that leave their doors open with the air blasting can use 25 percent more electricity than those that let the cooling go on only behind closed doors.

Eradicate Phantom Loads
It looks benign, but that cell phone charger or cable box plugged into the wall uses the same amount of energy when it's off as when it's hard at work charging your phone or illuminating NY1. Simply turning these things off can cut our electricity use by 5 percent.

Tinted Energy Efficient Windows
If you thought tinted windows went out with the 1980s, you thought wrong. Putting some tint on sealed windows can keep out sunlight and reduce air conditioning costs by up to 75 percent. Such a renovation has upfront costs, but experts say it ends up paying for itself.

Dark Skyline
New York's skyline, lit up even after most of us are sound asleep, is an urban icon -- and an electricity guzzler. Lighting accounts for approximately 22.5 percent of the city's energy use. If New Yorkers everywhere, from your own apartment to City Hall, had to turn the lights out from, say, 11 p.m. to 7 a.m., it would cut the amount of electricity and money that goes for lighting by about a third. Watch out, though, for what might be lurking in the dark.

Lights Out at Institutional and City Buildings
Most likely, your regular city workers aren't pulling all nighters. Requiring all city and institutional buildings to turn out the lights at night could help close the electricity gap. The Bloomberg administration has endorsed the proposal, but has been known to keep the bulbs burning long after the witching hour.

LED Street Lamps
No one wants to leave city streets pitch black. So some support LED, or light emitting diode, street lamps, which shine on sidewalks, but let the city reduce its own electric bill by 20 to 30 percent. Though the new lights initially would cost $47 million, officials estimate the energy savings would cover that expense in less than four years.

Upgrades for Commercial Buildings
Owners of commercial buildings could help close the energy gap, city officials say, if they examined their own energy use and worked to reduce it. Improvements could be mandatory in vacant space or buildings slated for renovation. These retrofits and lighting improvements could come with upfront costs, but in the long run, supporters argue, this PlaNYC 2030 goal ends up paying them back. Of course, this may be a tough argument to make with commercial real estate mired in a deep slump.

Energy Smart Fridges
A new energy smart refrigerator can keep lettuce crisp and beer frosty with half the electricity used by older models. But if the city required it, it could cost landlords more than $1.5 billion. There are tax incentives and rebates available for the purchase of energy efficient refrigerators.

Green Roofs on City Buildings
Planting vegetables, trees or shrubs on a city roof can reduce electricity use in the building by up to 15 percent. Plus it looks nice, catches stormwater runoff and might even produce some fresh heirloom tomatoes. But it may cost $8 to $10 more per square foot than a conventional roof.

Incentives for Energy Efficient Appliances
The city says it would work with distributors and local retailers to create incentives for residents to buy high efficiency products, like washers and dryers, electronics and air conditioners. Officials could give about $100 financial incentive for residents and landlords to buy the more expensive, but energy efficient products.

CFL Voluntary Replacement Program
Unscrew that old-fashioned light bulb. The mayor's PlaNYC 2030 wants to see 180,000 apartments a year trade in their old, incandescent light bulbs for new, more energy efficient bulbs at no cost to the resident. In the long run, the administration argues the program is cost neutral, because the bulbs save so many megawatt hours.

Ban Standard Light Bulbs in Homes
A compact fluorescent bulb, while more expensive to buy, can use 75 percent less energy than a regular incandescent bulb. Because compact fluorescents last longer, the Department of Energy says you can save up to $107 and 12 light bulb changes for every one you use.

Smart Cable Boxes
Cable boxes can consume large amounts of energy -- even for those of us who are not couch potatoes and rarely turn them on. Requiring cable boxes with smart technology, which would automatically go on sleep when not in use, could cut our cable box consumption by half. By some estimates, that's like taking 2.5 million vehicles off the road.

Daylighting in City Buildings
Call it mood lighting. Better known as daylighting, this technology responds to the amount of sunlight shining through the window. So if it's extra bright, the lights will barely be on. If it's dark, they will be full blast. This technology can cut lighting megawatt hours by 26 percent.

Motion Censored Lighting in City Buildings
Lighting can be just like your shadow; it follows you wherever you go. Using motion-censored lighting can decrease lighting use more than 12 percent. Think about all those megawatt hours you can put toward something else.

Reducing Electricity in City Buildings
Turning out the lights, better maintenance, energy audits -- all of these can turn up a building's energy efficiency and turn down its megawatt hours. The city hopes to reduce its consumption by 30 percent by 2017. These upgrades could cost about $400,000 per public school, but the payback only takes seven to eights years.