After Pandemic, New York’s Buildings Face Daunting Decarbonization Mandate

Saturday marked the one-year anniversary of the passage of perhaps the most ambitious law ever adopted by a U.S. city to reduce planet-warming emissions from buildings.

Local Law 97, one of 10 bills in the sweeping Climate Mobilization Act, requires New York City’s 50,000 largest buildings to reduce their carbon emissions by 40 percent by 2030 and by 80 percent by 2050. Owners of noncompliant buildings face the prospect of multimillion-dollar annual fines beginning in 2024.

When the legislation passed, progressives on the New York City Council called the package of bills “the largest single carbon-reduction effort that any city, anywhere, has ever put forward.”

With New York sheltering in place and the city’s office buildings largely empty of workers, electricity demand in New York City has declined by as much as 18 percent compared to typical levels. When life returns to some semblance of normal and electricity demand rebounds, the first emissions compliance deadline still looms for New York City’s building owners.TOP ARTICLES

Greentech Media recently checked in with some key members of New York City’s buildings community to get an update on the implementation of Local Law 97 and how building owners are preparing to comply with the law.

Building energy audits: Little more than a good start

Local Law 97 is not New York City’s first attempt to tackle emissions from buildings, which are responsible for nearly 70 percent of the city’s greenhouse gas emissions.

2009’s Greener, Greater Buildings Plan included requirements for energy-use data reporting, regular energy audits and retro-commissioning, and lighting upgrades. But the impact has been modest.

Researchers at NYU’s Marron Institute recently published a review of 2011 to 2016 data for 4,000 buildings finding that the city’s mandatory energy audits resulted in energy use reductions of 2.5 percent for multifamily residential buildings and 4.9 percent for office buildings.

“Mandatory audits, by themselves, create an insufficient incentive to invest in energy efficiency at the scale needed to meet citywide carbon-reduction goals,” wrote the co-authors.

In an interview with Greentech Media, John Mandyck, CEO of the nonprofit Urban Green Council, agreed. “The energy audits were meant to raise awareness and draw attention to the opportunities for energy efficiency. They weren’t by design a mandate to do upgrades.”

The building provisions in the Climate Mobilization Act of 2019 are much more aggressive.

Under Local Law 97, buildings larger than 25,000 square feet are required to meet emissions caps beginning in 2024. The 50,000 covered buildings — out of 1 million total buildings in New York City — account for about 60 percent of both the city’s floor area and building emissions.

Rent-controlled units, affordable housing and houses of worship are sent down a separate compliance path with a required list of some 60 prescriptive measures such as LED lighting, control valves for radiators and leak sealing.

Twenty percent of buildings subject to the emissions cap may be out of compliance in 2024, and up to 75 percent when the cap tightens in 2030.

“The policy intention is the worst-emitting 20 percent of the buildings have to act first,” said Mandyck.

Cap and trade for buildings?

Among the measures building owners can embrace to stay under the emissions caps are energy retrofits, procurement of renewable power, and, if approved by policymakers, carbon trading. Local Law 97 required that a study be completed by January 2021 on how a cap-and-trade program for buildings could work in New York City.

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