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New Yorkers begin to see how much they have to lose from climate change

NEW YORK -- Lowering the energy consumption of the Empire State Building may seem bold and significant -- and it is. But the real challenge lies among the city's lesser-known buildings that extend into the horizon, to the north and south and in adjacent boroughs. Unless New York can lower its $15 billion annual energy bill and show the world that there are successful ways to reduce greenhouse gas emissions, it could find itself teetering on the edge of disaster indefinitely.

Compared with other city dwellers, the average New Yorker is not an energy wastrel. This is largely driven by the heavy use of public transit, low automobile ownership and smaller living spaces. As a result, he or she emits far less carbon dioxide per capita than a resident of just about anywhere else in the country -- an indirect consequence of New York's high density.

This has put the million-plus buildings that populate the city at the center of plans to reduce emissions and better manage New York's energy needs.

While a great opportunity, buildings also present a significant burden. They sit on a complex network of tunnels, tubes and wires, an aging infrastructure, mostly underground, that provides them with electricity, water and natural gas. Much of this system has also been continuously upgraded and operated for a hundred years or more.

It is the combination that makes New York peculiar. Nowhere else in the country can compete with its population density while simultaneously matching its age, mass transit system and geographical restriction. Boston may be old, but it is small. Los Angeles may be populated, but it is still car-dependent and able to expand. For this reason, New York tends to look overseas for ideas or to conduct its own experiments in sustainability.

In August 2008, New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg (I), with funding from the Rockefeller Foundation, brought together a team of climate scientists, engineers, insurance analysts and legal experts to assess the risks to the city posed by climate change and make suggestions for adaptation. The New York City Panel on Climate Change, or NPCC, was modeled on the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change. The NPCC's final report, issued this May, offered an assessment of an overwhelming situation.

A city with much at risk

Rae Zimmerman, a professor of planning and public administration at New York University and an NPCC member, said that many parts of the city's critical infrastructure are at risk from the effects of climate change. A major concern, she said, is sea level rise. "A lot of infrastructure [in New York City] is already in low-lying areas and below the level at which a lot of things already flood," she said. "You're not only talking about the main facilities like trains and roads but also a lot of the access points," like stairwells and underground backup facilities.

Many of the city's power plants, which are traditionally positioned on or near shoreline, are at risk of flooding. Several subway stations also face similar risks and are difficult to adapt. Techniques to avoid flooding include building storm surge barriers and elevated platforms. Many of these facility upgrades are being slipped in during the normal maintenance cycle, Zimmerman said.

Much like the rest of the country, New York was swept up in a construction boom fueled by an ever-expanding housing market. As the bottom fell out of the economy, though, new construction in the city dropped precipitously.

The New York Building Congress, a real estate and construction trade group, wrote in a recent assessment that with the exception of work in the World Trade Center area and a building in Queens, "new office construction is at a virtual standstill." However, it went on to say, "this sector is subsisting on work generated by companies that are either renovating in place or relocating to other existing space."

New "green" construction could have helped the city, but only marginally. The major challenge is what has already been built. For example, there are 4,500 buildings operated by city government, many of them schools. They consume 1,000 megawatts annually, said James Gallagher, senior vice president for energy policy at the New York City Economic Development Corp. (The NYCEDC is a nonprofit, and although it is not an official government agency, the mayor makes several appointments to its board.)

Awareness of climate change slowly builds

The city was awarded $16 million from the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act, with which it plans to create a revolving loan program for building owners looking to retrofit their properties, beginning early next year. There is more motivation to address climate change in New York City, said Gallagher. "New York City has a lot to lose from climate change," he added, and New Yorkers seem quite aware of the situation.

According to a survey conducted in late 2007, led by the Center for Research on Environmental Decisions at Columbia University, a clear majority of New York City residents were concerned about climate change and believed the government should motivate solutions.

The survey found that a majority of New Yorkers were convinced not only of climate change's dangerous potential but also that city government should require building owners to upgrade their properties. A follow-up survey has not been conducted.

About three and half years ago, Bloomberg announced PlaNYC 2030, an ambitious environmental program aimed at cutting greenhouse gas emissions by 30 percent of 2005 levels by 2030. The program is operated almost entirely out of the mayor's office and other executive agencies. Initiatives like PlaNYC, Gallagher said, develop and can be effective due to "leadership from the top which permeates through every city agency."

However, it also means that, ultimately, much of PlaNYC will hinge on the commitment of future mayors.

Last December, the New York City Council passed four bills on buildings efficiency, codifying at least part of Bloomberg's PlaNYC as local law.

Proposed in April 2009, the laws require owners of large buildings to maintain an annual benchmark analysis of their energy and water consumption, complete a comprehensive energy audit every 10 years and upgrade lighting systems.

Some landlords still don't get it

The most promising components of the efficiency laws are the benchmarking and auditing provisions, said Richard Leigh, director of research and advocacy for the Urban Green Council, the U.S. Green Building Council's New York chapter. After paying the mortgage and dishing out salaries to their staff, the burden of the energy bill comes in a distant third for many building owners, Leigh said.

The benchmarking law will give building owners an awareness of their overall energy consumption, while the audit will help them identify ways they can reduce their consumption.

Part of the auditing process for each building will include a list of energy-efficiency measures that can be implemented in a cost-effective manner, along with an estimated payback period. A lot of energy, Leigh said, can be saved by plugging "gigantic leaks" in a building's antiquated heating, cooling and air flow systems through better equipment and training.

"It's a piece of cake to walk into almost any building and find 20 percent in energy savings," he said. "All over this great city, there are heating and air-conditioning systems running at the same time."

A provision that would have made the audit recommendations mandatory was stripped a week before the laws were passed, after considerable pushback from developers and real estate firms. The reason, they argued, was the sour economy. In an interview with The New York Times, Stuart Saft, chairman of the Council of New York Cooperatives and Condominiums, put it frankly: "Come back in five years when we're past this recession. At this point it's a slap in the face."

Which will change the most, technology or behavior?

Some of the city's biggest real estate firms have opted to retrofit their properties on their own, in part, to stay ahead of inevitable regulation and be innovators at the same time. In some cases, the demand for sustainability comes from their tenants.

An unexpected "green" motivator for building owners has been pressure from their law firm tenants. Competing law firms will use green buildings as a recruiting tool for members of the younger generation of lawyers who are interested in innovative work spaces.

According to U.S. EPA, Los Angeles leads the nation in buildings labeled by Energy Star, the agency's efficiency program. Falling in behind other cities like Chicago and Houston, New York ranked 10th in its number of Energy Star buildings. But while New York only had 90 energy-saving buildings -- less than a third of those found in Los Angeles -- the utility savings from the newly constructed or renovated buildings differed by a mere 6 percent. Owing to the age and size of many of its buildings, per square foot, New York had the greatest energy savings of any city in 2009.

But Stephen Hammer, senior adviser of the Urban Energy Program at Columbia University's Center for Energy, Marine Transportation and Public Policy, asks: With all of this innovation, renovation and energy efficiency benchmarking, are we posing the right questions?

"How far can technology take us, and how much has to be behavioral?" said Hammer, who also works with clean energy projects in China.

He commended Bloomberg and the City Council for passing much-needed building efficiency legislation. "We need to be doing everything and asking this very fundamental question," added Hammer. "When should I turn the thing off and just get by with less?"

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