by Yetsuh Frank, Managing Director, Strategy & Programs, Building Energy Exchange
Originally published in Building Energy Exchange Quarterly Report (Q2 2021)

In the last week of June, a number of us here at the Building Energy Exchange had begun coming back to the office several days a week. Having only about half the staff on site on any given day made for a surreal atmosphere, as if the year of the office being empty and silent had left a kind of ghost behind- the extra space serving as a subtle but constant reminder of the deep strangeness of the previous months. And then one afternoon the weirdness was amplified as the relative silence of the lightly occupied office was ruptured by our phones all sounding an amber alert.

We’ve had a lot of alarms in the last year and a half. Whatever part of our psyche absorbs trauma is fairly well bruised at this point–from the death of George Floyd and other police violence, to the serial climate catastrophes striking communities near and far, to the deadly march of COVID around the globe, mutating as it goes. It’s fair to say we were all a little tender when the amber alert sounded off around us. Although a little relieved that the alert didn’t involve a missing person, I was surprised to find it was an anxious note from the City of New York asking us to “Conserve Energy,” urging “all households and businesses to immediately limit energy usage.” Ignoring the churlish responses to this announcement that immediately dominated social media, two things stand out about this alarming alarm: it worked, and the future has arrived (slightly ahead of schedule).

 

 

On the first point, Con Edison sent the alert at 4:15 pm because, at around 4:00 pm, demand had breached 12,000 megawatts (MW) and was expected to peak around 12,300 MW between 5:00 and 6:00 pm–the typical time of day for peaks in this season. Following the alert, they reported that demand dropped back down below 12,000 MW. A reduction of 3% might not seem like much – however, the goal here was not dramatic energy savings but rather reducing that dangerous peak in demand that could bring the weaker portions of the distribution system to its knees, leaving swaths of communities without power. As a result of the amber alert, one of our highest ever peaks didn’t result in any brownouts.

As we electrify more and more of our systems, from building heating to electric vehicles, we can expect more such moments of alarm. A major component of preparing for this future is for the utilities to properly upgrade the electrical grid to improve resilience and deal with the intermittent availability of renewables. But buildings also play an absolutely critical role.

Consider that NYISO,* in their 2021 Power Trends report, forecasted several scenarios for future electricity demand and found that a “low load” scenario (with lots of electrification and significant efficiency measures) kept total demand in 2050 close to today’s levels, while the “high load” scenario (with lots of electrification but limited efficiency measures) was more than 40% higher. Put another way, without broad energy efficiency improvements across the state, peak demand will be more than 40% higher than it is today- an almost untenable scenario. The question that then presents itself is of course, which energy efficiency measures should we prioritize?

...without broad energy efficiency improvements across the state, peak demand will be more than 40% higher than it is today.Yetsuh Frank, Building Energy Exchange

Although everything is important–including new, far more efficient equipment like appliances and heat pumps–it is abundantly clear that demand reduction is paramount. On the transportation side, this means that we all need to live closer to one another and work closer to our homes – close enough, in fact, that we don’t have to drive to get to work or to grab groceries. To reduce transportation emissions, we need to convert dirty fuel engines to electric. To reduce electricity demand, we need to reduce the miles we travel in vehicles. On the buildings side we see a similar set of needs. The most effective means of reducing demand here is through envelope improvements. The caliber of your building envelope–from the amount and effectiveness of your insulation, to the airtightness of your exterior–has a dramatic impact on your heating demand and an important but less significant impact on your cooling demand. The impact on heating demand will quickly become mission critical for our climate action plans; in that same NYISO report, it is estimated that winter peak demand (largely due to space heating) will exceed the summer peak around 2040–making our building envelopes one of the most important components of climate action.

This is one of the many reasons we have developed primers on the Passive House standard, available at BE-Ex Ed , as well as numerous other resources to help owners, engineers and architects improve envelopes, like our recently-launched Envelope Showcase exhibit and March panel event, Reimagining Envelopes. And it is the reason NYSERDA has made envelope improvements a central component of their new Low Carbon Pathways for Multifamily Buildings incentive program.

People hesitant to add renewables to the grid often point out that this will require more complicated management of resources, but we are already there–with the amber alert in June as exhibit A. As we build out our capacity to provide carbon free energy we must also do everything in our power to lower demand for same- and improving our building envelopes are at the heart of that effort.

* The New York Independent System Operator is the non-profit corporation responsible for operating the state electricity grid as well as administering the wholesale electricity market and long-term planning for both.

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