In this article, author Bruce Nagy discusses the recent innovations to fight climate change in New York, with a focus on clean energy
New York. “If I can make it there, I’ll make it anywhere.” These words were sung by Frank Sinatra and Liza Minnelli in the late 1970s in a song called New York, New York. If California is the epicentre of hopes, dreams and big ideas, New York is where those ideas go to die or take off on a global tour.
At this point shifting the world economy from relying on fossil fuels would have to be considered a big idea. It’s almost certainly the most significant technological and economic disruption in human history and will demand a rethink from all of us, and some clear signals from our leaders. New York City and New York State have recently taken definitive action.
Local climate action
As we enter the 2020s it feels as if everything is changing more quickly than ever before, including governments, their influence, their roles, and their operating characteristics. Globally, national governments still command news headlines, but as populations in cities increase in number and proportion, local government budgets grow. And so despite an infamous science-denier in residence at the White House, the real action on climate in the USA is found at regional and municipal levels.
And as unprecedented brutal weather events continue to batter all US regions, polls indicate that the left-right polarization on climate breakdown is beginning to soften. In the clean energy policy arena, California and Massachusetts have led a handful of states for years, but this has recently become a couple of dozen states. Beginning about a year ago, New York State surged ahead of everyone, accompanied by New York City, which passed a long list of aggressive bills this year.
Big apple buildings
They’re making a brand new start of it. Collectively called the Climate Mobilization Act, New York City regulations include one that mandates deep emission cuts with punishing fines for non-compliance. Landlords will be required to retrofit buildings with new windows, heating systems, and insulation to reduce greenhouse gas 40% by 2030, and twice this amount by 2050. The city says it will create more than 3600 jobs per year in construction, and 4400 jobs in maintenance, services, and operations.
Other bills create a renewable energy loan program and require some buildings to cover roofs with vegetation, solar panels, and/or small wind turbines. Another goes to the very heart of it, establishing a research team to look at closing all 24 oil and gas burning power plants within the city limits and replacing them with clean alternatives. Renewables-plus-batteries will easily win that one on economic grounds.
Along with New York, cities that want to be a part of it are implementing progressive building packages. They include Austin, Boston, Boulder, Chicago, Houston, Los Angeles, Minneapolis, New Orleans, Portland, Philadelphia, San Francisco, San Jose, Santa Monica, Seattle, Washington DC, Toronto, Vancouver, and Montreal.
New York State heating
Meanwhile, a standoff between the public, the New York state government and regional utilities have been fascinating to watch. It began with utilities pressing for more gas pipelines, which was met with public outcry. New York and New Jersey residents have been learning about fossil fuels, especially since Hurricane Sandy sent a wave of water and a flooding downpour far inland in 2012.
During the past few years, geothermal trade groups have battled to keep their technology’s eligibility under the Federal 30% clean energy tax credit. Their efforts created public awareness of alternative heating and cooling options, in a region dominated by oil furnaces.
When utilities threatened to institute a moratorium on new gas service connections in a Westchester County, just outside New York City, the state and the public called their bluff.
In December of 2018, Governor Cuomo announced adoption by the Public Service Commission of a new Energy Efficiency program, requiring utilities to install some 83,000 heat pump systems in the next five years. One industry leader says the target number for systems just in Westchester County exceeds the current total shipment of ground source equipment in the whole USA. The world is watching to see if a ramp up on this scale is achievable.
In February the New York State Energy Research and Development Authority (NYSERDA) set aside its first $26 million incentive fund, providing rebates of $1200 – $1500 per ton for ground source systems. Funding is also being made available for installers, designers, inspectors, and accreditation programs through unions, colleges, trade groups and manufacturers.
A few years ago a private sector company called SolarCity created a homeowner financing scheme and repeatable model for rooftop solar, which turned a few thousand installations into hundreds of thousands around the USA. Again a federal 30% clean energy tax credit was a key enabler.
Some of the top personnel from SolarCity recently established Dandelion Energy, a Google-backed company in New York, which is now doing the same for geothermal. They started operations in August and are already installing thousands of systems, each worth about $15,000 after incentives, or $135 per month.
City fleet electric vehicles
The clean energy world should also have eyes on New York City’s proven success with fully electric vehicles. Municipalities, courier companies and many other organisations around the planet are dabbling, while New York seems to have gone “all in.”
Its current fleet includes 591 fully electric vehicles, 1328 hybrids, 690 charge stations within the city and 86 solar carports. The plan is to expand all of these, with the exception of hybrids. Fleet Director Keith Kerman says that with 80% fuel savings 65% less maintenance on fully electric, and no real maintenance saving on hybrids, the hybrid pilot is over. He is targeting 2,000 fully electric vehicles by 2025 and says it will cut greenhouse gas emissions of the city’s overall fleet by 50% or more.
Other notable electric fleets in North America include Ryder Truck Rentals which has 150 fully electric vehicles operating, and 500 more on order, UPS and Frito Lay each with about 300, Vancouver and Los Angeles, each with about 100, DHL with 45, and an undisclosed number for Pacific Gas & Electric, that is reportedly in the hundreds. Los Angeles and other cities are also completing pilots with fully electric garbage trucks, fire trucks, and ambulances.
America has been late to the electric bus party, compared with some countries, but is now beginning to order in numbers. New York has 5700 diesel buses and has begun converting the entire fleet to fully electric buses, with 2040 as the target completion date. Los Angeles will convert 2300 buses by 2030. San Francisco has established 2035 for its 1100 bus fleet to stop using diesel fuel.
We know from 170 years of actual recorded temperatures and from scientific evidence, which permits reliable estimates, that in the past 800 million years the five hottest years have been the last five years, ie. 2016, 2015, 2017, 2018 and 2014. If that keeps us up at night, maybe we can look for inspiration to the city that never sleeps.
If clean energy can solve this in New York it can solve it anywhere. New York has a big idea for a brand new start, and it’s sending it on a global tour. It’s up to you. Start spreading the news.
Bruce F Nagy
The Clean Energy Age (Rowman & Littlefield 2018), over 170 articles on the clean energy future
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