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The NYC Bureau of Sustainability (w/ Laura Popa)

Published December 15, 2022

The New York City Department of Buildings recently created the Bureau of Sustainability, led by newly appointed Deputy Commissioner for Sustainability Laura Popa, a former member of the Urban Green Council Board of Directors. DOB’s first-ever climate-focused bureau will direct the department’s sustainability and energy efficiency initiatives, including the implementation of LL97.

On December 15, 2022, Laura joined Urban Green Live to discuss the bureau’s work, its priorities for the coming months and what it all means for the buildings industry.

Key Takeaways

The Bureau of Sustainability is the first dedicated bureau at the Department of Buildings (DOB) focused on sustainability.
-> Its mission includes spearheading climate, energy efficiency, and sustainability initiatives.
-> A primary focus is implementing Local Law 97 (LL97), aimed at reducing building emissions.

Local Law 97 is a significant legislative effort focused on reducing building emissions in New York City.
-> The DOB is tasked with implementing the law, which involves creating rules, educating building owners, and providing resources.
-> The law includes provisions for calculating building emissions, the use of renewable energy credits (RECs), and addressing good faith efforts and penalties for non-compliance.

The DOB is placing significant emphasis on educating building owners about Local Law 97.
-> This involves providing detailed guidance on compliance requirements, emissions calculations, and the availability of renewable energy credits (RECs).
-> The goal is to ensure that building owners are well-informed and prepared to meet the law’s standards.


Laura Popa
Deputy Commissioner for Sustainability, NYC Department of Buildings

Laura joined the DOB after more than 22 years of public service as a legal and policy advisor at the New York City Council and the New York City Taxi and Limousine Commission. During her career in public service, she oversaw the development of legislation and policy at the City Council and directed the Council’s efforts to enact landmark legislation that supports citywide greenhouse gas emissions limits, the institutionalization of long-term sustainability and resiliency planning, and the expansion of clean and renewable energy. She also served on numerous advisory boards and task forces related to sustainability and was a member of the Mayor’s Commission on Gender Equity.

John Mandyck
CEO, Urban Green

John joined Urban Green Council in 2018 as its first-ever CEO. He capped a 25-year career as Chief Sustainability Officer for United Technologies Corporation having done business in 53 countries. He’s an Adjunct Professor at the University of Connecticut School of Business and also served as a Visiting Scientist at the Harvard University T.H. Chan School of Public Health. John is the founding chair of the Corporate Advisory Board for the World Green Building Council and a former board chair of Urban Green. He is co-author of the book Food Foolish and has published about sustainability in Harvard Business Review.


John Mandyck: What falls under the new Bureau of Sustainability?

Laura Popa: All of the energy code enforcement falls under the new bureau, the existing sustainability laws, the benchmarking, the auditing and retro-commissioning, and the lighting retrofits. One of the things we’re trying to do is align the current sustainability laws with LL97. We’re trying to make it so there aren’t lots of different reports due, etc. we want to make it easier for building owners.

We are also figuring out how LL97 interacts with the benchmarking, the auditing and retro-commissioning bill; I have a memo waiting for me to review on how we can better align those. That’s exactly the type of thing that may require certain law changes at this point. When we wrote those, it was a really long time ago, so that’s what we’re looking to do. We’re also kind of looking at alternative energy, but we haven’t really had the bandwidth and so we’re hoping the Sustainability Bureau has the bandwidth for alternative energy projects.

John Mandyck: Intro 237 may require buildings over 10,000 square feet to benchmark. Is this any reasonable indicator that Local Law 97 could also apply later to these buildings?

Laura Popa: I can’t speak for the city council. That is a city council decision. All of these laws were passed by the city council. It’s not something the DOB could ever do on their own.

John Mandyck: DOB doesn’t have the authority to change the threshold?

Laura Popa: No, that is on the city council. I will say this, the NYSERDA and Con Edison programs don’t limit their services to buildings that are covered by LL97. I can’t emphasize that enough. In fact, a lot of money that’s been drawn down from NYSERDA, for example, has gone to electrify single family homes. I encourage all buildings, regardless of size, to take advantage of the NYC Accelerator program. It’s not a mandate, it’s just something that can be of assistance to save on your energy bills.

John Mandyck: The next question is about waste generated by tenants. Recycling, organics, containerization, all hot button issues. How is the DOB involved?

Laura Popa: We are not involved in waste generation. I’ll speak more broadly about NYC because our long term city sustainability plans have addressed waste. Waste is incredibly important. it’s a fairly good chunk of the city’s emissions. I know the administration is focused on waste management, reducing waste, and cleaning up the city. I think I’d say more to come on that in the new PlaNYC, but yeah we don’t really have much to do with waste and that’s certainly not my bureau.

John Mandyck: Is the discussion about RECs different from the 10%?

Laura Popa: Yes, RECs are the renewable energy credits, and the law ensures that it’s about renewable energy that’s delivered into Zone J which is like what feeds into New York City. An offset is different from a REC which is also why RECs only apply electricity. An offset is just a separate item that has nothing to do with potentially New York City, which is part of what makes it controversial. There’s not a lot of clear definition around what an offset is, unlike a REC. The difference is that the law provides for up to 10%, potentially in offsets. The law doesn’t currently limit RECs. We have to. We have to finish figuring out both, but we’re certainly much further along finishing up figuring out RECs.

John Mandyck: Okay, great. Next question. Any update on carbon trading rules?

Laura Popa: There is no update on carbon trading rules. The city did a report, and there is nothing right now that DOB is working on related to carbon trading.

John Mandyck: Is there any information on energy consumptions and penalties or credits? I understand that battery storage technology reduces CO2 emissions by curbing peak demand, so maybe just your thoughts on time of use.

Laura Popa: Time of use is important because it supports energy efficient operations. We are trying to make the ability to calculate time of use simpler. That requires working with the state and NYISO to get that done. In our first rule we have deductions from emissions for energy storage in certain cases, so I would encourage the individual to look at our rules and if they have further questions to email us.

John Mandyck: What aspects of the CLCPA plan are of primary interest, what are you looking for next at the state level?

Laura Popa: CLCPA is fantastic for the city and for climate change. We are looking to be carbon neutral by 2050, and that is certainly spurred by the state’s goals. We need to reduce our emissions and electrify, but we need the state to decarbonize the grid and make the grid clean and renewable. We really are looking, at the state level, for more clean, renewable energy to come into New York City coinciding with our law. We already set the emissions limits for the city, we need cleaner energy in New York City.

I also will mention NYSERDA. They’ve been an incredible partner to us. They’re helping us with the REC study. They’re helping us look at industrial uses and metrics. We’re working with them on a possible energy efficiency metric to overlay over the carbon metric. This is something that law asks us to look at, so they’re our partner with that.

John Mandyck: Next question here is about smaller buildings. Is the Bureau focusing on ways that you can reduce energy or carbon in buildings under 25,000 square ft?

Laura Popa: Our energy code group and staff is definitely focused on helping all buildings, regardless of size, reduce their footprint. That is incredibly important. As far as our mandate goes, we are focused on the bigger buildings with LL97. But again, the Accelerator program is available to help everyone.

John Mandyck: How are DOB and FDNY working together to advance the feasibility of indoor energy storage?

Laura Popa: There has been collaboration with FDNY for several years now. The Mayor’s Office of Climate Environmental Justice is spearheading that. When we have interagency collaboration oftentimes a mayoral office is a good steerer, so that is ongoing. We’re always trying to find ways to make energy storage easier for buildings. Existing buildings always have that issue of where the spaces and where it’s safe to put, and so we continue to work with FDNY on that.

John Mandyck: There are buildings that could meet the energy code that would be out of compliance with Local Law 97, right? What are your thoughts on longer term energy code carbon, are we moving to a world eventually where these two come together?

Laura Popa: I think so. The policy to address emissions or to do an emissions metric was set out by the council. But as I said earlier, we can’t just reduce emissions, we need to make buildings more energy efficient. There has to be some alignment there. Also I mentioned the energy efficiency overlay metric, which is something that we’re working on. I know that people have been asking for one metric, and I don’t know when that will be yet, but I see it happening for sure. I just don’t know when.

John Mandyck: Are there details about Local Law 97 building owners, how will they report their emissions to be aligned to benchmarking reports?

Laura Popa: We’re trying to work on a system where it’s easy. In an ideal world, there’ll be one report. I’m not saying there’s going to be, I’m just saying ideally a 97 benchmarking, lighting auditing, retro-commissioning, is done. There’s always caveats to that. The auditing bill doesn’t apply to buildings 25 to 50,000 square feet for instance.

Also in 97, you have to remember that it applies differently to different building types. For example, affordable housing doesn’t have to do a yearly report for 97, but we certainly still need benchmarking data from those groups. Based on what building type applies to 97 and the application of all other sustainability laws determine what’s the easiest way. That’s our goal, what’s the easiest way for building owners.

John Mandyck: A case can be made that due to New York State’s aggressive plans for carbon free power, the purchase of RECs over this period will not result in more greenhouse gas emissions reductions while building improvements would. So the question is, is this part of your discussion with NYSERDA?

Laura Popa: Yes, understanding the RECs market is part of our discussion. I believe RECs aren’t even available till late 2026. I think that’s the latest, so RECs don’t even come into play for the first compliance period. The first 20% are due to comply in 2024, so that’s also in our consideration. We certainly want localized air quality improvements, and so there has to be a balance. That’s what we’re seeking.

John Mandyck: Is the department or the city thinking through a process of updating our resiliency codes, or what’s the process of thinking through future resiliency codes?

Laura Popa: I think the city is looking at their own capital planning, and how we build all of the infrastructure in the city with a view towards ensuring that it’s all about resiliency and sustainability. That is a primary goal for the city.

After Sandy, we convened with Urban Green’s Building Resiliency Task Force, and we came up with many recommendations that were put into law around those issues. I’d say if we did that, that would be a joint effort with the council, because they’re the ones who would have to change the law. Again, DOB is the implementer. We can enforce rules, but we can’t change policy.

John Mandyck: What type of workforce development do you think is important when it comes to Local Law 97?

Laura Popa: This is one of those issues where you’re waiting for the market to drive and the mandate to drive what needs to be done. Local workforce development is very important for New York City. One challenge with these types of jobs is that it requires a lead time for training. Another thing around it is as we move towards electrification, is the workforce there to do the type of work we need them to do? And you need to have the workforce available to maintain afterwards too. I think it’s important to work with the industry, working with NYSERDA, working with our agency partners, and watching the market

John Mandyck: You mentioned electrification. Is there a role for the DOB to accelerate electrification beyond Local Law 97?

Laura Popa: I’m going to have to talk about it in terms of LL97. Some of the advisory board discussion centered around how to incentivize electrification, so one thing we’re looking at is how we can reward early adopters. Specifically using an incremental approach because you can’t turn over all your systems at once. I think that is certainly a way that the DOB can support electrification. Then there’s how we in the city are trying to draw down incentives with the state and with IRA funding. That would be brilliant. I think it’s a combination of financial incentives and LL97 compliance.

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