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Nancy Anderson, Ph.D.Torchlight

Edging Toward Energy Efficiency

By: Nancy Anderson, Ph.D.

November 22, 2010

As this tumultuous year winds down, the urge comes over me to do some stocktaking. In light of raging national controversy over the impact of the federal stimulus program as well as profound concern over the value of government spending and the difficulty of assessing its impact, consideration of several local efforts to enhance energy efficiency and save money is in order.

Let’s frame this assessment with the latest figures on New York City’s greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions. The newest emissions inventory contains 2009 data, with Citywide and municipal GHG numbers declining 4.2% and 3.5% respectively from the previous year. [i] The inventory attributes declines largely to lower carbon intensity of the electric power supply. Put simply, this means less coal was burned to make electricity consumed in New York City last year. Reductions in our per person consumption of electricity and fuel were offset, however, by increased GHG emissions due to population growth and continued expansion of the City’s building stock.

Turning now to local impacts of federal stimulus funding, New York State received $3.1 billion for energy programs and another $3.2 billion in energy efficiency and conservation block grants from the federal government. As part of this package, the State was awarded $394 million for home weatherization projects of which $83.7 million had been dispersed by mid-2010. This funding allowed the venerable home weatherization program to increase finding from $3,000 a unit to $6,500. Since it’s well known that getting money is hard, but programmatic spending can be just as hard, a November 2010 panel organized by GreenHome NYC, focusing on the impact of stimulus finds on New York City multi-family buildings, was an eye-opener. Ariel Krasnow from the Supportive Housing Network, NY, described what it takes to tackle energy efficiency improvements in apartment buildings that provide affordable housing with support services for the mentally ill, substance abusers and other challenged populations. New York State has 42,000 units of housing in this network and many would qualify for weatherization funds. Still, the pace of program applications has been slow. Applications are not easy to complete for staffs that have little or no experience with energy efficiency and cutting utility costs are not on the top of their to-do list and there is no uniform protocol for supportive housing applications and every one seems to be “out of the box”. Nevertheless, outreach to residents and training for building supers is available and good news might be forthcoming if and when program evaluations are undertaken.

In contrast, the New York City Housing Authority (NYCHA), with a staff infrastructure better equipped to apply for grants and manage the physical fabric of its properties than an organization that is rooted in social service, is using $423 million in stimulus funding for weatherization and waterproofing work on facades of 300 buildings. Authority representative Tony Piscopia expects 60% of this work to be completed next year. Work to replace roofs and add insulation to improve energy efficiency is also underway. NYCHA currently spends $513 million a year in fuel and utility bills and understands that investing in upgrading its buildings will pay off in lower bills year-in-year-out.

New York City government is also a recipient of stimulus funds through the US Department of Energy. It has obtained $80.8 million through Energy Efficiency and Conservation (EE/C) Block Grants and another $10.1 million for an array of solar power, clean fleet and education projects. Most of the EE/C money will pay for work in municipally owned buildings and support the City’s efforts to “lead by example”. $500,000, however, will go for a project to improve energy code compliance in privately owned buildings and $16.1 million is set aside to establish the “Greener, Greater Building Loan Fund”, to assist private owners in meeting the requirements of the legal mandates in the Greener Greater Building Plan. This loan fund is not yet in operation. The single biggest allocation, $26.1 million, is for energy efficiency building retrofits, of which 25% has been spent to date. The second largest piece of the pie, $22.12 million, is for building operations and maintenance. This information comes from the City’s easy-to-access, but detail-limited online Stimulus Tracker. Despite its wealth of information, the Stimulus Tracker does not calculate how much money has been spent to date on any particular project category and information, if it exists on program outcomes, is not on this webpage.

In an effort to look beyond stimulus-funded work and learn about grass roots energy efficiency projects that made a difference in 2010, I tracked down a new report by the Pratt Center on its Retrofit New York Bedford-Stuyvesant pilot program; it makes worthwhile reading. With funding from the New York State Energy Research and Development Authority as well as a private foundation, the Pratt Center partnered with the Bedford-Stuyvesant Restoration Corporation, focusing their efforts on one block composed of 3-4 family brownstones to make energy-retrofits and weatherization easy for owners by packaging financial incentives and delivering services directly to them. Fifteen buildings opted to have free energy audits with support of a grant from the State’s Department of Environmental Conservation and thirteen of them “have or plan to receive one or more energy efficiency improvements.” In addition, 48 new street trees were planted along the block.

One of the report’s outstanding contributions is its “Lessons Learned” chapter. The value here comes from the fact that climate and energy policy makers are charting unknown behavioral territory and the chapter’s thoughtful analysis will help future efforts to make great strides. In this Bedford-Stuyvesant pilot, the participation rate was 15% and one lesson is that the block-by-block model is a good way to achieve some economies of scale. A different lesson is that cost is the most significant barrier to homeowners choosing to undertake energy efficiency improvements, even though they can be benefit from long -term utility and fuel savings. This analysis found that for homeowners $1,000 was the ceiling for acceptable upfront energy-improvement costs. This contrasts with the $21,025 average total cost of recommended actions made in an energy audit. The report was also astute in noting that terms like “retrofit” and “energy efficiency improvements” were not words residents used or found motivational. Instead, they preferred “opportunities to save”. Sounds quite right.

Now that the City Council is adding $400,000 to this Pratt initiative, let’s see how this program evolves as it expands into six neighborhoods in four boroughs! And stay tuned for a 2011 update on the impact of stimulus funds and lessons learned from the front lines of trying to do something new across a wide swath of New York City’s building stock.


[i] New global data on GHG emissions finds that while emissions dropped in 2008-2009 due to the recession, they decreased less than earlier thought and emissions for 2010 are expected to reach an all-time high.

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