Recap: Forum on Reducing Emissions from Buildings

January 20, 2021

We recently held the second virtual forum in our series on implementing the Climate Leadership and Community Protection Act together with Columbia University’s Sabin Center for Climate Change Law. This roundtable focused on reducing emissions from the buildings sector, both in and outside of New York City. Buildings account for 30% of statewide greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions, and a staggering 70% of such emissions in New York City. The forum featured several expert speakers from the building and climate sectors: Zineb Bouzoubaa, Sarah Burger, Sophie Cardona, Marvin Church, John Ciovacco, Dan Egan, Donovan Gordon, Stephanie Margolis, Bill Norwak, Amy Turner, and Jason Vollen.

To view the recording of the forum, please click here.

The first part of the forum focused on New York City.

Amy Turner is a Senior Fellow at Columbia’s Sabin Center and the co-founder of the NYC Climate Action Alliance. During the forum, she talked about Local Law 97 (LL97), a carbon emissions bill passed into law in 2019 which places a declining GHG emissions cap on the city’s largest buildings beginning in 2024. Failure to meet the cap results in a fine of $268 per ton of carbon above the cap. The cap does not apply to rent-stabilized buildings. Turner also mentioned that only a handful of other cities across the country have comparable legislation.

Zineb Bouzoubaa works in the NYC Mayor’s Office of Sustainability. She mentioned that the city recognizes that the emissions cap is ambitious, and would look to incentivize more buildings to comply through studying alternative lower-cost compliance pathways. She also mentioned that the city is developing strategies which drive investment in environmental justice communities. Bouzoubaa also mentioned the use of carbon trading to provide an additional source of revenue for buildings because of the ability to trade credits.

Dan Egan is the Senior Vice President of Energy & Sustainability at Vornado Realty Trust. He published Vornado’s Vision 2030, the company’s commitment to carbon neutrality. During the forum, he mentioned that although LL97 only starts implementing penalties in 2024, building owners should start reducing their emissions now to minimize their exposure to the law in the future. Egan also clarified that the all energy consumed in a building, whether by the owner or the tenants, counts towards the energy cap, and that owners must work with tenants to ensure efficiency. Additionally, he mentioned that the most promising measures that owners can implement today include lighting retrofits, motor replacements, the installation of variable frequency drives, automation programs, damper replacements, and glazing. Egan also stressed the importance of submetering and sharing data with tenants. He also brought up the fact that even though people are working from home in light of the pandemic, energy consumption has not gone down proportionally because of IT needs.

Sophie Cardona is the Senior Project Manager at the New York State Energy Research & Development Authority (NYSERDA). Her work involves helping owners and tenants recognize opportunities to reduce emissions. During the forum, she spoke to the series of activities that can support the decision making process with respect to energy efficiency and management. These are available through NYSERDA, including expert advice and analytical models to calculate energy and cost savings. Specifically, she talked about FlexTech, a cost shared energy studies program which will provide 50-100% of the funding for an energy study. There is also a similar commercial tenant program, as well as a Green Jobs – Green New York program for small businesses. Cardona also said that COVID is impacting energy consumption in buildings because of the need for increased air filtration. According to Cardona, research is still ongoing, but possibilities include ventilation, filtration, and UVGI technologies.

Jason Vollen is the Director of Architecture at AECOM. He mentioned that there are other resources available to aid building owners in compliance, including PACE financing and energy savings performance contracting. He mentioned the need to challenge the demarcations between owner and tenant, and that looking broadly at entire systems will allow for larger improvements. Vollen emphasized the need for research dollars in the buildings sector. The city should consider utilizing geography to the city’s advantage as well as being competitive about how to reduce energy costs, according to Vollen.

The second part of the forum focused on the rest of the state, and was moderated by Bill Nowak, Executive Director at and Founding Member of NY-GEO.

Donovan Gordon, the Director of Clean Heating & Cooling at NYSERDA, brought up the CLCPA codified goals put in place years ago by the governor, including reducing carbon emissions to 40% below 1990 levels by 2030 and 85% below by 2050, as well as 0 carbon electricity by 2040. Also mentioned were the NY State Clean Heat Incentives program and the NYSERDA clean heat market development plan. Gordon stated that a third of carbon emissions in the state come from building HVAC systems, and that we need to transition from fossil-fuel based systems to heating pumps. We can increase the use of heat pumps through education and economic incentives, he says. Other than paying upfront, financing options include home improvement and/or equity loans, PACE financing, the NYSERDA program, third party ownership, and heat pump incentives from utilities. Gordon also stated that the transition to clean energy results in a fundamental change in the state economy from fossil fuels to clean energy.

Sarah Burger is the Sustainability Planning Manager at PUSH Buffalo. The priorities at PUSH are to make residents comfortable with the idea of installing a heat pump, as well as making sure that the resident’s bill doesn’t increase. Burger mentioned that there’s a large amount of older buildings in Buffalo, and that means that some need to have updated electrical service or insulation to be heat-pump ready. PUSH educates homeowners about insulation and makes sure to monitor utility costs. PUSH follows a one-stop shop model, building trust by talking directly with homeowners before getting them signed up for an energy audit. They then guide the homeowner towards the NYSERDA funding programs and work with homeowners through repairs. Burger stressed the importance of reducing the paperwork burden on homeowners, and said that municipalities need to make it clear that code enforcement is not going to punish people working to improve their houses. Burger also mentioned the need for financing for repairs to prepare houses for heat pumps, and suggested tying renewable energy such as community solar programs into the offerings.

Marvin Church is the Vice-President and a Founding Member of Comrie Enterprises. He is also a Westchester Chapter board member for NYLCV. He mentioned that although wealthy for the most part, Westchester does have poor residents, and a big issue is that there are lots of new buildings with unattainable rents. People are fleeing which is causing rents to fall, but this also gives an opportunity to create a comprehensive energy plan. According to Church, COVID has raised new challenges, including financial troubles and a degree of complacency. People have other issues to deal with during the pandemic, and many are unfamiliar with the heating and cooling system industry, so they will wait until the last possible moment to comply with the code. People will generally wait to see how heat pumps work for other people before trying it for themselves. There is also a trust challenge, as people are unwilling to get work done by individuals they do not know or trust. Because of this, large scale education is needed, says Church.

John Ciovacco is the President of Aztech Geothermal and a Board Member of NY-GEO. According to Ciovacco, resources must be allocated between weatherization and heat pumps. He says taking combustion out of buildings is most important through heat pumps, emphasizing the effectiveness of ground source heat pumps, which will take out 80% of on-site energy. However, there are challenges to the widespread adoption of heat pumps. For example, water based pumps struggle above 120-130 degrees fahrenheit. Where heat pumps will not work, Ciovacco suggests air-sealing the building. He also stressed that the building sector has to electrify through stepwise signals in the marketplace. Ciovacco liked the idea of replacing leak-prone pipes with geothermal systems, to incentive utilities to get them to cover the cost. He also mentioned that NYSERDA has put a map together to help identify low to moderate income areas.

Thank you to our sponsors, AECOM and ConEdison, for helping to make this event possible.

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