Is Electrification Just an Electri-Fiction?

Our 2017 Conference, It’s Electrifying: Exploring NYC’s Climate Plan to Electrify Buildings, was held on October 4. This blog post recaps session one, Electrifying the Building Industry. Stay tuned for our recap of session two, Transforming Building Systems, and click here to learn more about the event.

NYC’s 80x50 is an ambitious goal that we now have a little over 30 years to figure out. At Urban Green’s Conference on October 4th, two panels discussed if, when and how we might wean buildings--and the grid that feeds them--off fossil fuels to help reach that goal. Central to this discussion was the idea of adopting a “no regrets” strategy by pursuing practices that offer real and immediate environmental, social and economic benefits, and leave us at least no worse off. Could building electrification be one of these strategies? The answer seems to depend on whom you ask.

A TALE OF TWO GRIDS

Skillfully moderated by Charlotte Matthews of Related Companies, the first panel of speakers explored the challenges of making building electrification not only feasible, but actually beneficial in terms of carbon emissions. The first hurdle is to ensure the added demand on the power grid is met with cleaner electricity. While progress has been made upstate, Matthews referred to a “tale of two grids,” as NYC is still primarily dependent on fossil fuels, much of it fracked gas. Electrifying our heating and cooling systems without a greener grid in place could actually increase net carbon emissions and drive us further from 80x50.

So how does NYC go about this?

Janet Joseph of NYSERDA championed the development of offshore wind as a major producer, but also emphasized that no renewable energy source will present a one-size-fits-all solution. Echoing this sentiment, Chris Cavanagh of National Grid recommended we focus on where we need to be rather than where we have been when considering what strategies could be part of the solution.

John Reese of Eastern Generation spoke about the importance of adding transmission to the equation, despite its challenges. He pointed to the Champlain Hudson power express line, which will bring hydro power from Canada right into Queens. Though the project is complicated, costly and took a decade to site, it represents an investment in clean energy and example of when “no regrets” means more than just efficiency.

And finally, once this energy is produced and transmitted, how can we distribute and store it to protect against variability and outages?

Margarett Jolly of Con Edison cited the need to integrate battery storage into the system, not only to increase the effectiveness of our renewable energy sources, but also to increase system reliability—to smooth daily and seasonal peaks in NYC. Overall, the consensus seemed to be that electrification will be a part of our climate solution, but only if we begin planning for it now and taking the steps to make it truly beneficial.

REACHING 80X50

It may not be the right time to electrify NYC’s building stock, but it is the right time to start planning with electrification in mind. Energy generation, transmission and storage each pose unique challenges that will require all hands on deck. The building systems of today need to be compatible with the electrification possibilities of tomorrow and future-proofed beyond that to adapt to an evolving energy landscape. This is no easy task, but cross-collaboration between sectors (and conferences like this) to generate discussion seems like a good place to start—because how we build and operate our buildings over the coming decades will determine if 80x50 is a story of close-but-not-quite, or a story of success.

About the authors

Rebecca Elzinga
Rebecca is the Technical Assistance Coordinator for Leadership & Group Development at City Parks Foundation. She previously interned at Urban Green.