By Christian Bergland, Building Energy Exchange

At the Building Energy Exchange’s (BE-Ex) May 22nd Climate Mobilization Act (CMA) event with the Mayor’s Office of Sustainability (MOS) and the New York City Retrofit Accelerator, MOS Deputy Director John Lee highlighted the critical role building electrification and grid modernization are set to play in the achieving the City’s goal of carbon neutrality by 2050. Local Law 97, arguably CMA’s most ambitious component, places increasingly stringent limits on building emissions, with the first compliance period commencing in 2024. Long term, meeting the bill’s emissions reduction mandates will encourage buildings to move away from on-site fossil fuel combustion and towards building systems powered by renewably-sourced electricity. But what exactly does building electrification entail, and why does it offer such significant carbon reduction benefits over the status quo?

Building Electrification

Simply put, electrification involves converting building systems (heating, hot water, cooling, ventilation, etc.) from being powered by fossil fuel combustion to grid electricity. Currently, New York City’s building-based carbon emissions – the city’s largest source of emissions – result from fossil fuel-burning power plants, boilers, furnaces, and hot water heaters. The process of shifting away from this paradigm varies in complexity, depending on the building systems being addressed. Some solutions are relatively straightforward, like switching from gas to electric cookstoves. The New York Times recently addressed the stove issue, informing readers that their gas stoves are “bad for [them], and the planet”. Other electrification measures, such as converting from natural gas-fired steam heating to electric heat pumps, can be significantly more challenging, disruptive, and invasive (check out our Tech Primers for more information).

Notwithstanding the challenges inherent in electrification retrofits, they can offer tremendous benefits beyond carbon reduction. Both the Rocky Mountain Institute and the Natural Resources Defense Council have found that in many cases, building electrification results in reduced lifetime costs relative to continued fossil fuel use. In addition, electrification offers localized health benefits, removing harmful air pollution from our neighborhoods. This issue is particularly important in New York City, where air pollution represents a significant health risk. Building electrification promises to benefit building owners, tenants, and communities, in addition to the environment.

But electrifying buildings is only the first step. Electrification in the context of a fossil fuel-powered electric grid offers some benefit relative to on-site fossil fuel combustion due to the efficiencies inherent to heat pumps, but maximizing electrification’s carbon reduction benefits requires a dramatic shift in how we generate and distribute electricity.

Shifting to a Renewable Grid

The process of shifting to renewable energy sources should be familiar to many readers. Solar photovoltaic (PV) panels on residential homes, a rarity a decade ago, are now a common sight throughout the country. New York State is a leader in this area, with over 100,000 residential solar installations and nearly 10,000 people employed in the solar sector. Local Laws 92 and 94, the sections of the CMA legislation mandating that certain buildings be covered in either green roofs or solar PV, should push further expansion of rooftop solar in New York City. Recognizing New York’s success in this area, decarbonizing our grid – and thus our buildings – requires efforts well beyond simply installing solar panels on our rooftops. A systemwide shift to renewable energy involves developing and accessing significant utility-scale renewable energy resources, including solar, wind, and hydro, alongside a storage infrastructure to maximize the utility of those resources (more on this below).

Contributing to the need for large, utility-scale renewable energy resources is the looming 2021 closure of Indian Point Energy Center, a nuclear facility located roughly an hour north of New York City. While nuclear energy comes with environmental concerns of its own, Indian Point currently accounts for approximately 20% of New York City’s electricity needs, all carbon-free. With the plant’s approximately 2,000 megawatts (MW) of capacity going offline, there exists a pressing need to add carbon-free resources to our grid.

New York is making significant strides to address these challenges, fashioning a more sustainable grid in the context of State and City carbon drawdown commitments and Indian Point’s closure. This approach is two-pronged, including the development of New York State-based renewable energy resources – primarily solar and wind – and improved access to carbon-free hydroelectricity from Quebec. Local Law 97’s allowance for the purchase of renewable energy credits (RECs) to offset emissions from building electricity use should help spur demand for locally produced renewable energy, given that those credits are limited to energy that is deliverable to New York City’s energy zone (Zone J). New York State has made significant progress in this area over the last fifteen years, particularly in terms of wind and solar, evidenced in the below chart:

While much of New York’s utility-scale renewable development is located Upstate – in large part due to the significant space requirements inherent in such projects – growth of Downstate renewable capacity is critical to decarbonizing the grid and realizing Local Law 97’s carbon reduction goals. The Northeastern United States is blessed with some of the windiest seas in the country, and the state is betting heavily on this resource, investing in jobs training, port infrastructure, and grid improvements to support the expansion of offshore wind energy. With the New York State Offshore Wind Master Plan aiming to install 2,400 MW of capacity by 2030 and a whopping 9,000 MW by 2035, more than making up for the retirement of Indian Point’s 2,000 MW.

Local Law 97’s carbon reduction goals also envision accessing renewable energy resources outside of New York State, especially in the near-term. In particular, hydroelectricity from Quebec is expected to make up a significant share of our electric mix in a successful Local Law 97 implementation. In announcing the CMA, Mayor de Blasio specifically called for sourcing Canadian hydropower to meet the City’s zero-carbon goal for City-owned buildings. Utilizing Quebec-sourced hydroelectric capacity to meet carbon reduction mandates requires completion of the Champlain Hudson Power Express, a high-capacity transmission line carrying electricity south along the Hudson Valley. The project’s completion will significantly increase New York City’s supply of carbon-free Quebec hydroelectricity, helping the city meet its mandated clean energy needs.

Grid Modernization and Storage

Understanding the interrelated issues of base load, peak load, and intermittency is crucial to understanding our future grid mix. “Base load” refers to the electricity needed to meet the grid’s basic electricity demands. Historically, this has been supplied by power plants – often coal fired – running 24/7. “Peak load,” on the other hand, refers to the electricity needed when grid demand is at its maximum (think hot summer evenings when everyone is running air conditioning). In New York City, peak load power is typically supplied by local gas-fired power plants. “Intermittent” power sources, meanwhile, are those that cannot produce power around the clock.

Not all renewable energy sources are created equal. Hydroelectricity represents an excellent source for base load power, as water does not stop running and supply is extremely consistent. Alternatively, solar and wind are by their nature intermittent. Solar panels stop producing electricity every night when the sun goes down and are less productive in cloudy weather. Wind, likewise, fluctuates in strength, and along with that come concomitant fluctuations in electricity generated by wind sources.

Moving towards a grid powered primarily by renewable energy sources requires solving for base load, peak load, and intermittency, with the latter two issues being particularly challenging. Unlike gas, coal, and oil, we lack the ability to simply fire up the sun or kick up some wind as needed, and both solar and wind may produce electricity at times of low demand, minimizing its utility.

Thankfully, this is an area where technology is evolving to fill a need. Battery storage already offers a financially viable solution for shifting some peak demand to stored power, according to McKinsey, and is projected to become more cost-effective in the coming years. Extensive storage as a critical grid component represents an opportunity to manage both peak demand and intermittency. Electricity produced by intermittent sources at times of low demand, such as wind generated at night, can be stored in batteries and released as demand peaks. While we cannot control when the wind blows, batteries can allow us to control when electricity produced by wind is released to the grid.

Microgrids represent a step beyond battery storage, with localized areas producing and storing their own electricity, thus allowing for partial or complete grid independence. The City has multiple ongoing microgrid pilot projects, including: Marcus Garvey Village in Brownsville; Brooklyn Microgrid, in Gowanus, utilizing blockchain technology to allow grid-connected entities to buy and sell power amongst each other; and, most prominently, Hudson Yards, where a microgrid allows for the development to connect to the grid as needed, based on its own power generation.

In a microgrid, localized renewable energy production and battery storage allow for increased flexibility and resilience, ideally minimizing the need to draw on grid power, particularly at times of peak demand. Microgrids are complex and evolving, with intricacies beyond the scope of this blog post, but the important takeaway is that the we are advancing beyond the traditional grid model of large, fossil fuel-fired plants supplying base power while pumping carbon into our atmosphere, supplemented by more flexible fossil fuel-fired plants supplying peak power while also pumping carbon into our atmosphere.

Moving Forward

Grid modernization is a complex and rapidly evolving development, reliant on significant State, City and private sector stakeholders.  Nonetheless, it has clear imperatives and is a critical part of our regional climate solution.  At BE-Ex, we can help building owners plan for this new future and identify optimal pathways to convert their building systems to grid electricity. Check out our Tech Primers to learn more about what might work for your building.

Outside of the Building Energy Exchange, the New York City Retrofit Accelerator offers building owners free advisory services to streamline the building improvement process, including retrofits focused on electrification. Building owners in need of financing assistance for an electrification project can work with New York City Energy Efficiency Corporation, a non-profit specialty finance company geared towards providing custom-tailored solutions to lose financing gaps for clean energy projects.

Have more questions? Visit our Climate Mobilization Act Series portal.

Interested in New York State’s renewable energy initiatives? Read our guest insight by NYSERDA on the recent Climate Leadership and Community Protection Act (CLCPA).


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