Sallan Torchlight Articles
Nancy Anderson, Ph.D.

Hedgehogs And Foxes

February 21, 2013

By: Nancy Anderson, Ph.D.

Isaiah Berlin wrote that hedgehogs are thinkers who have one big idea, while foxes are folks who know many things. Taking liberties with the great political philosopher, let's say that climate hedgehogs demand whatever-it-takes action, while foxes find myriad workable ways to cut our carbon footprints. Now we are learning that every hedgehog's delight in sustained cuts in US CO2 emissions can be ascribed to enough different reasons to satisfy a climate fox.

Since the US has no climate law, what's going on? It turns out that the glut of cheap natural gas that's been killing the coal market and the Great Recession are not the only drivers of lower carbon emissions. A recent analysis also gives a shout out to the rise of renewable power and improvements in energy efficiency. However, its authors are anxious that natural gas prices are starting to rise and coal could become resurgent. This prospect, as any good fox would agree, means that we have to know many things and energy efficiency should stay squarely in focus. For every city this means finding the many paths to greening its old and new buildings alike.

Already in 2013, two new important reports have appeared on ways to make New York City's building stock more climate friendly. One looks up to daylighting strategies and the other drills down into geothermal power and wraps its arms around insulation. Let There by Daylight , written by an A-team in building energy efficiency, sets out to make the case that, "114 million square feet of New York City office space can easily accommodate the retrofitting of comprehensive daylighting controls and achieve electric peak demand reduction of as much as 160 megawatts". Making this case is backed up with local legal requirements to upgrade all office building lighting systems by 2025 and estimates of energy savings that translate into $70 million in annual financial savings to building owners.

What's more, evidence for the real impact of daylighting is on-hand with the analysis by five years of data on the integrated daylighting-designed New York Times headquarters near Times Square.

The New York Times Building

The study team began working with the Times Company a decade ago and now it proves that a work-horse office building can cut its annual electric use by 24% and reduce its heating use 51% in comparison to a similar size building designed just to meet current code requirements. These savings also translate into a 12% rate of return on the investment the Times Company made in daylighting systems and controls. While building operators admit to some teething problems, these performance numbers are proof that green building design can deliver on its promises. While critics point to the risk that an even a well-designed building relying on daylighting can run into trouble if a light-blocking behemoth is built nearby, system controls should still help this kind of high performance building stay high performance. As Let There Be Daylight notes, "Daylighting is an important component of a comprehensive lighting controls package. Energy savings from daylighting are only realized if controls make it easy and acceptable to turn down or dim the electric lighting in the space."

Nevertheless, it would be premature to declare, "Mission accomplished". As the report acknowledges, "Many existing advanced daylighting systems are not working as intended, or have been disabled, and often these systems are not delivering expected savings" and it calls for a multi-year "proof-of-concept" project to offer financial incentives, training and outreach along with real-world projects that would provide opportunities for daylighting system evaluations and reporting. Foxes everywhere, stay tuned.

Within a month of the Daylight report, the Urban Green Council, the City's high performance building brain trust, broke climate action ground by posing a challenge to the owners and occupants of the Big Apple's real estate with NYC Can Reduce its Carbon Footprint 90% by 2050. While Mayor Bloomberg envisions cutting New York City's overall carbon footprint 30% by 2030, many climate scientists and some policy makers declare that an 80% cut by 2050 is needed to keep the planet from calamitous overheating. The Urban Green Council report embraces this climate-activism by upping the ante to 90%. With the core of the analysis focusing on buildings, currently the source of 75% of the City’s greenhouse gas emissions, it spells out how to put New York City on the path to such an enormous achievement.

Relying on building simulation modeling, the report posits, "Heating and cooling loads can be dramatically reduced through air sealing, heat recover ventilation and additional insulation, to a point where all heating, cooling and hot water can be provided by heat pumps." The one-two punch here is the postulate that virtually all the energy to heat, cool and light New York buildings can be provided by geothermal wells, along with some rooftop scale solar power and that all conventional power plants can be shut down. This means that New York's electricity can come from carbon-free sources by 2050. 90x50 doesn't stop there, but advances the claim that, "The savings from energy user reductions will be comparable to the costs of the building improvements. The total amount is affordable and will pay for itself over time if the cost of improvements falls as expected and fuel prices increase."

90x50 gives New York City thirty-seven years to shape up and do its part to save the planet from irreversible climate change. Hedgehogs and foxes alike should read this 55-page report with close attention and admire its ambition and its yes-we-can attitude. But it sets the bar very high and leaves little room for inattention, error or inertia. For the present, I have two points to make. First, the report does not demonstrate that geothermal power is geologically feasible and technically available throughout the City. Even with its embrace of air-to-air heat pump technology for structures where geothermal power is not an option, it is a hedgehog "one big idea" strategy. In the same energy-supply vein, the report misses the opportunity to tip its hat to prospects for distributed power or combined heat and power systems as part of its power tool kit. Relying on an intriguing, but one-big-idea approach to shrinking New York's carbon footprint way, way down, 90x50 might just miss being a lodestone for cities committed to outfoxing climate change.

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