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June 30, 2006

Greener With Envy

Envy, we all know, is one of the seven deadly sins, but it's a good motivator. While it's hardly surprising that Portland, Oregon, San Francisco and Seattle get top marks for urban sustainability, the east coast is not far behind. But here's a wake up call for Gotham — although New York City has just been ranked the seventh most sustainable city in the U.S., Philadelphia's been ranked number four and Chicago number five by SustainLane.1 This means kudos for Philly and the Windy City but questions for New Yorkers. What's Philadelphia got, and Chicago too, that we don't? How can New York move up in next year's ratings?

But before answering this question, let's look at what SustainLane means by sustainability. According to its 2005 posting, "The SustainLane US City Rankings focus on healthy regional economic development, vibrant communities and quality of life measurements. Our view point of sustainable practices is weighted toward ideas borrowed from our natural systems and implemented in our cities."2 Its ranking system uses twelve categories, including city innovation and knowledge bases, as well as air pollution and open space

In the SustainLane ranking, New York scores very high on urban density and zoning, which produces mixed-use development. New York's got great drinking water and it gets high marks on mass transit for commuters. Of course, these three factors are not new to New York, so it is hard for the city to take a bow on 21st Century innovation. But the City is also making new strides in sustainability — think of the new green building law. Mayor Bloomberg also recently announced the creation of a Sustainability Task Force and a new Division of Sustainability in the Office of Operations. The City's Energy policy and programs are cited for "showing promise". Could this be attributed to the "New York City Energy Policy" report of 2004?3 In short, it's clear that moving up in the rankings isn't out of reach.

At the same time, the SustainLane ratings point to several areas where there's big room for improvement. The City ranked a middling 22 in the number of LEED (Leadership in Environmental and Energy Design) green buildings, "with only 1 certified and 21 registered LEED buildings as of April 2005."4 Austin Texas, a city of 600,000, had just as many LEED buildings. SustainLane also rated its LEED data on a per capita basis. As of early 2006, the number one city, using this method, was Atlanta, Georgia, with 57 LEED buildings; New York ranked 39. And, as of the 2005 report, "Programmatically, the city has no incentives for commercial or residential green buildings". Since buildings consume more than one third of the energy supply, increasing the stock of energy efficient green buildings, including buildings that generate and deploy renewable energy, will help deliver on the promises of it's energy policy report.

While, as of this writing, the New York has 35 LEED-registered buildings as well as a number of innovative high performance buildings where developers have not chosen to seek LEED ratings, New York should be at the cutting edge of making green building the "new normal". New York is amply endowed with extraordinarily creative architects, designers and builders. It's got private sector developers who are building world-class high performance skyscrapers and mixed income housing. It's not just envy that makes me say that New York can become #1.

And building green is worth a lot more than a #1 SustainLane rating. It's worth something else that's green — money. In June 2006, the Harvard Business Review reported on a green office building in Pittsburgh that "costs 20% less per square foot to operate" (than a comparable conventional building) and on a LEED Platinum-rated corporate headquarters in Cambridge that "used 42% less energy and 34% less water" (again, rated against a comparable building).5 A developer of a mixed income apartment building in Harlem described a design target of energy savings at 36% over the benchmark American Society of Heating, Refrigerating and Air-Conditioning Engineers' standards, but a recent data analysis shows actual energy savings of 60% over the building's first year of operation. This translates into a $1,500 a year savings per apartment.6

SustainLane's other big criticism of New York, last year, was, "A lack of innovative programs and policies driving the city's performance in areas of sustainable economic development is evident. On the macro policy level, the city has no guiding sustainability or environmental plan." Although SustainLane's harsh judgment should have been backed up by something more than a link to just one page on the City government website, it's fair to say that the Mayor's recent sustainability announcements give credence to the SustainLane's conclusion that the City does not have yet have an overall sustainable development policy.

If and when a sustainable development policy is established here, public awareness and accountability must be built in as essential elements. This means that the Mayor's Management Reports, as well as individual program annual reports, ought to include meaningful information based on metrics that matter. For instance, annual reports for Local Law 86, the City's green building statute enshrined in its City Charter, should establish a uniform reporting framework consisting of milestones that apply to all agencies and projects covered by the law. By crafting such a framework, the annual reporting system will be able to collect information in a consistent manner that allows for comparisons over time. To get the greatest benefit from all this effort, this information should be made digitally accessible to the public. Then we can hope that, this sort of systematic data reporting will help the authors of future SustainLane reports to get an even clearer picture of what's happening in New York and make other cities green with envy.

What is DG and Why Should We Care?

We are all connected to the electric grid. It is an essential part of the life we take for granted in our advanced societies. So it would seem that our “connectivity” is high. But this connection, unlike what we have with the Internet, is one-way only. Electrons flow from sources of high voltage, such as power plants, to low voltage consumers like office computers, lighting and household appliances. Unlike the interactive packets of telephone or Internet, the electrons have no particular destination or address on the grid; they flow wherever there are voltage differences. When sudden events interrupt the gentle, balanced flow, surges occur causing breakers to trip (to isolate and protect the wider system) and the system can become unstable. Grid operators seek to control their systems and protect them from “faults”, from the top down, in order to assure that we have reliable power.

Over the last two decades, changes in technology and regulation have begun to enable a different model of the electric grid with more varied generating sources. Decentralized, distributed generators (DG) are connecting to the grid from what were previously just consuming sites (or “loads”). Distributed generators can be solar or wind installations, fuel cells, or, most commonly, reciprocating engine or turbine-driven co-generators, where the waste heat from electrical generation is recovered for use on-site. For an engine-driven distributed generator there is no efficiency gain compared to the fleet of central plants unless the waste heat is being recovered for useful purpose and small, localized engine exhausts can be more polluting than the newest gas-fired central plants.

Distributed generators would like to be connected to the grid, rather than “standing alone”, for several reasons:

(1) The grid provides back-up and reliability. Without a connection, systems would have to be fully redundant, which of course costs money.
(2) The grid allows more economic sizing so that the DG unit would not have to meet the site’s peak demands, which are usually limited in occurrence, e.g., hot summer days, and duration.
(3) For solar or wind installations, because of the intermittent nature of the resource, an isolated installation would require expensive battery banks.

It has not always been easy for private entities to connect their generators to the grid. In an era of vertically integrated utility monopolies, local utilities were unsupportive of private generators. In this period co-generating sites, such as Starrett City in Brooklyn, had to be stand-alone plants without grid connection. This changed when the Public Utilities Regulatory Act (PURPA) of 1977 required utilities to connect “qualified facilities” that were efficient co-generators or used renewable energy sources.

Notice that so far we have only discussed distributed generator drawing electricity from the grid, “in parallel” with the on-site generating source. Why not produce more electricity than the site requires, at least some of the time, especially if there is enough wind, sun or on-site thermal load? Answering this question takes us into the mysteries of utility “grid protection.” Sources that are small, in comparison to the power handled by the local sub-station, will have little impact on the grid’s stability. But larger sources, engine-driven co-generators suitable for stand-alone power (“synchronous”, as opposed to “induction” generators) do have the potential to introduce significant faults into the system that, by causing circuit breaker trips at the sub-station, could cause local grid shut-downs (i.e.- black-outs). Under PURPA, utilities actually did have to go beyond one-way connection, to actually buy-back power from qualified facilities. But this additional mandate was limited by specific utility needs to protect their local grids.

New York City’s Con Edison has a particularly vexatious situation as its “network” grid has multiple pathways into (and hence, potentially out of) many buildings. In much of NYC, the transformers that reduce voltage from the distribution system so that the electricity can be used in buildings for lights, computers and so many other needs, have more than one electrical feeder. This improves reliability, as many alternate pathways are available for the flow of electricity. But the fact of multiple electrical feeders also makes it much more difficult to monitor, track and isolate faults which might occur on the system, so Con Edison has one of the most rigorous procedures in the country for inter-connecting DG. And only the smallest installations such as a residential photovoltaic installation – no more than a few kilowatts in size – are allowed to sell power back into the grid. The level of detail and systematic interconnection application and design process can be gleaned from a visit to their website,

In recent years, many states including New York have passed “net metering laws” that require local utilities to accept electrons from renewable energy sources, such as solar photovoltaic (PV) and wind, making the meter turn backward when more power is generated on site than is consumed. This mandate applies to farms and residential sites, the latter meaning single family homes, as most of the regulations set a 10 kilowatt (kw) maximum; a typical NYC apartment will draw 2-3 kw at summer peak. Such small-scale installations of direct-current “inverted” power (to convert the direct current into alternating current) do not pose a grid-protection issue and are easily accepted onto the system. To accept much larger electron flows from DG will require major grid upgrades for improved fault protection. But keep in mind that the quantity of electrons that can be cost-effectively generated on a site is a function of the thermal loads that exist on that site – for a gas-fired engine (or turbine) driven distributed generator, no heat recovery equals no cost-advantage.

More contentious is the allocation of costs for back-up service. Con Edison, not alone among utilities, has long sought to charge co-generators fully allocated costs for the site’s full potential load. Such a charge would be a major economic disincentive for distributed generation, at a time when the city as a whole and many local distribution networks could use the additional power. Recognizing this, in recent rate cases the Public Service Commission have denied Con Ed the authority to impose such charges. Other locales have gone further. Chicago, for example, has experimented with having its local utility acquire – that is, actually participate in the development of -- distributed generation to reinforce the local distribution system. Con Edison has accepted this principle for demand-management measures but so far has not included distributed generation resources in the mix. The step from demand-management to participation in the ownership and management of distributed resources is not large and harks back to the early days of the first generating plants, often on-site, in the early part of the 20th century. Thomas Edison might be smiling.

Michael Bobker is a senior fellow at the CUNY Institute for Urban Systems and leads the new CUNY Building Performance Lab. He has worked for engineering firms, energy service companies, and not-for-profits, most recently the Association for Energy Affordability, over his thirty-year career in NYC buildings. He is a board member of the NYC chapter of the Association of Energy Engineers and chairs the Environmental Science Section at the New York Academy of Sciences.

June 26, 2006

NYC's Getting Energetic

Two years ago, the Mayor's Energy Policy Task Force reported that NYC needed 2,600 MW of new electric power resources by 2008. Now, in mid 2006, the Task Force reports on so much progress that NYC won't need new power plants for another six or or eight years. Read the fine print for yourself.

June 23, 2006

Hotter Not Better

Associated Press Yahoo! News Earth hottest it's been in 2,000 years

June 22, 2006, Thursday
By John Heilprin, Associated Press Writer
Posted 7:06 PM ET

WASHINGTON — The Earth is running a slight fever from greenhouse gases, after enjoying relatively stable temperatures for 2,000 years. The National Academy of Sciences, after reconstructing global average surface temperatures for the past two millennia, said Thursday the data are "additional supporting evidence ... that human activities are responsible for much of the recent warming."

Other new research showed that global warming produced about half of the extra hurricane-fueled warmth in the North Atlantic in 2005, and natural cycles were a minor factor, according to Kevin Trenberth and Dennis Shea of the National Center for Atmospheric Research, a research lab sponsored by the National Science Foundation and universities.

To read this article in its entirety go to
To start reading the report online visit

Psst. Want to Buy a REC?

For renewable energy fans and readers of Mike Bobker's "Snapshot" about distributed generation who are ready to plunge into a key controversy, where money meets power, see "Who Owns Renewable Energy Certificates" from the Lawrence Berkeley National Lab. Download PDF version of the report.

June 22, 2006

We Think We Can

These days, the words "affordable" and "New York" rarely go together — especially when it comes to high performance housing. But it's all brought together in "Affordably Green in N.Y.C.", a hands-on how to guide. To download the book at no cost — fill out the form and it's yours.

June 19, 2006

Your Feet's Too Big

If the "ecological footprint" of the U.K. were matched worldwide, two planets' worth of resources would be needed to meet demand. How many planets would it take to fill the ecological footprint of the U.S.?
Find Out »

June 05, 2006

How Green is My City?

The Bronx is up and the Battery's down — but the surprising news is that Philadelphia is greener. SustainLane's 2006 US City sustainability rankings are out. How do American cities compare to one another? Find Out »