QR Code

Building towards a low-carbon grid

Grid-friendly buildings can help New York meet climate targets.

Original publication by Urban Green Council • May 20, 2020

Statewide climate targets are driving New York to a low-carbon electrical grid, which will encourage widespread electrification of building systems. For this to work, buildings will need to adapt by storing energy and shifting loads. At Urban Green Council’s February 27 event, Grid Friendly Buildings, expert speakers and stakeholders gathered at 32BJ to discuss emerging strategies for buildings.

The downstate grid

The downstate grid is incredibly carbon-intensive—70 percent of its electricity is generated from fossil fuels. But last year, New York State mandated 100 percent carbon-free electricity statewide by 2040, meaning that more renewable energy will soon feed into NYC. Traditionally, the state’s grid has operated unidirectionally, where electricity travels from power plants to buildings. But a renewable-dominated grid will change this paradigm. The grid’s power will become more intermittent and buildings may have to act as batteries, storing energy and feeding it back into the grid.

What are grid-friendly buildings?

Grid-friendly buildings employ strategies to reduce peak demand and store energy. This concept is gaining momentum: in 2020, the New Buildings Institute—in partnership with the U.S. Green Building Council—launched the GridOptimal Buildings Initiative, a standard that indicates how grid-friendly a building is. As event panelist Ralph DiNola (New Buildings Institute) explained, this initiative identifies and promotes building strategies that: lower demand through efficiency, shift energy consumption away from load peaks, reduce building energy use in response to short-term grid shortages, and use or store energy when there is excess available.

The development of the GridOptimal Buildings Initiative has many lessons that apply to the NYC grid system, explained DiNola. Policies and programs at the city and state level, including Local Law 97, NYSERDA’s Real Time Energy Management program, and utility demand response programs, will drive buildings to adopt grid-friendly behaviors.

Start now: Opportunities and barriers

NYC’s buildings can become friendlier to the grid now by shifting electricity use away from peak demand periods (when the grid is facing high demand and electricity tends to be more expensive and carbon-intensive). Building retrofits can help reduce heating and cooling energy demand, and affordable technologies like smart meters enable facilities teams to shift their electrical loads. According to Chris Wetzel (Jaros Baum & Bolles), thermal storage systems are another commercially available option to shift demand. These systems produce ice during the night (off-peak) and use it for air conditioning the next day. They save money by reducing demand charges, but it’s unclear if they’ll lead to long-term carbon reduction. 

Battery storage is another cost-effective solution to store off-peak energy, but Wetzel notes that buildings looking to implement battery technologies can face regulatory challenges, pushback from the fire department and a shortage of system options that are suitable for NYC. Addressing these barriers in the coming years will help smooth the transition to a greener grid.

Continuing the conversation

We cannot achieve our climate goals without delivering more renewables to NYC. With our Greening the Grid series, Urban Green is driving this conversation forward and identifying solutions for our grid and buildings. Our conference in June of 2020, Unlocking the Grid: Getting Renewables to NYC, tackled how we can transform NYC’s electric grid over four sessions. Regulators, renewable energy developers and industry experts shared how they are overcoming existing barriers and paving the path for a cleaner grid.

Further Reading

Decarbonizing Finance to Combat Climate Change

NYC Comptroller Brad Lander joined John Mandyck for a conversation about his net zero plan and how finance can be a lever for decarbonization.


Zoning for Decarbonization

Proposed amendments to NYC's zoning resolution would modernize the zoning code and make it easier for the city to meet its climate goals.