Green New Deal Races to Clean Up NYC — and Its Data

This photograph from a brochure depicts two residential towers and an 18-hole golf course at North Shore Towers, a gated community in Floral Park, Queens. The same brochure touts the “natural gas fired diesel engine generator” that makes the complex energy independent.

MANHATTAN (CN) – In the quiet neighborhood of Floral Park, Queens, one gated community weathered two historic New York City blackouts, power intact, thanks to an exclusive amenity in its hangar-style basement.

The North Shore Towers complex boasted private access to a natural-gas plant built on diesel engines installed in the early 1970s, capable of supplying up to 7,500 kilowatts of energy and operated by GI Energy.

If the most recent publicly available data from New York City is to believed, however, this luxury came with an enormous carbon footprint. A spreadsheet from Mayor’s Office on Sustainability says North Shore Towers spewed more than 20.9 million metric tons of carbon dioxide in 2016, more than seven times the 2.7 million metric tons of CO2 emissions reported that year by New York’s public utility, Con Edison.

As New York is set to put price tags now on greenhouse gas emissions, part of a stimulus package heralded as the Green New Deal, emissions of this size could devastate North Shore Towers.

There’s just one problem. “The number is way off,” Bob Vogel, from the management company at North Shore Towers, said in an interview.

Sal Castro, the chief engineer at the co-op, tried earlier this month to call attention to the glitch.

Emailing an administrator at Energy Star’s Portfolio Manager, a federal program launched by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, Castro noted that the database appears to have misinterpreted the abbreviation MCF. While commonly accepted in the industry to denote a thousand cubic feet, the database read the “M” as a million.

“I still believe there is an error in the way the system multiplies MCF to get to BTU’s,” Castro wrote to the administrator on May 1, using an abbreviation for British thermal units. “I think factor may be off by 1000. But I am OK for now if no one else notices.”

Extrapolated from data provided by the Mayor’s Office of Sustainability, this graphic shows the carbon footprints and square footage of five notable New York City buildings. The data here includes more accurate, internal city numbers. (Chart by ADAM KLASFELD/Courthouse News Service)

In fact, the grossly inflated data point sticks out like a sore thumb on a public spreadsheet listing more than 11,000 New York City buildings larger than 50,000 square feet.

Former Mayor Michael Bloomberg mandated the creation of this database a decade ago in signing Local Law 84, part of a larger package known as the Greener, Greater Buildings Plan in 2009. Putting a wealth of information onto New York City’s Open Data Portal, this legislation allowed journalists, academics, researchers and any others so inclined to access the energy-use information of tens of thousands of the city’s largest buildings. The user-friendly presentation could then be sorted, filtered, analyzed and mapped, instantly.

For more than a decade, this system relied on self-reporting, and North Shore Towers held the mantle in 2016, the most recent year for which data is available, as the dirtiest building by far in any of the five boroughs. Every Manhattan property combined in the same data set emitted a combined total of 24.2 million metric tons of carbon dioxide.

The Mayor’s Office of Sustainability independently corroborated that North Shore Towers’ actual emissions are much more in line with a property of its size, which includes three 34-story residential towers, an 18-hole golf course, a movie theater and other amenities. 

On-call power is critical for the co-op to cater to the medical needs of its elderly residents, and the in-house gas plant kept the lights on at the sprawling complex through the great blackouts of 1977 and 2003.

But the experience of this gated community points to a broader concern.

An Energy Star support staffer explained to Castro why the database uses terminology at odds with many in the industry.

“We needed to pick one standard for consistency,” staffer Matt Yearword wrote to Castro.

“We couldn’t have the ‘M’ stand for thousand in Mcf and the ‘k’ stand for thousand in kBtu,” he added.

North Shore Towers was the most dramatic — but hardly unique — example of unreliable environmental data. Cleaning it will facilitate an important facet of New York City’s Green New Deal initiative, which takes effect for the first time Friday.

The Solow Building, an architecturally distinctive tower of concave glass standing next to the Plaza Hotel in Manhattan, was erroneously listed as the second-dirtiest building — and also a larger producer of greenhouse gas than Con Edison.

While a Solow administrator did not respond to a request for comment, the Mayor’s Office of Sustainability acknowledged that the figure was likely wrong.

“We looked at the Solow Building, and it appears that the energy consumption data they submitted is far outside of what would be the statistically expected norm and therefore may contain errors,” a spokesman for the office said, insisting upon anonymity.

The spokesman added that recently enacted legislation, Intro 1253, would correct the problem by having an independent engineer verify emissions information before submitting to the Department of Buildings. 

Since City Hall approved that measure this year on April 18, all public emissions information before its enactment has been less reliable, self-reported data.

Con Edison published this graphic showing its efforts to reduce greenhouse gas emissions. This chart shows that the utility produced roughly 2.7 million metric tons of carbon dioxide in 2016, an improvement by more than half from a decade earlier in 2005.

Getting an accurate portrait of New York City’s carbon footprint will be crucial to the success of the Green New Deal’s ambitious goal to achieve total carbon neutrality by 2050. The OneNYC program intends to cut beef purchasing in half to reduce emissions from cattle in factory farming, introduce congestion pricing to reduce traffic in Manhattan, improve the city’s long-declining subways and expand public spaces.

Announcing his presidential run on Thursday, Mayor Bill de Blasio has presented his version of the Green New Deal as the bellwether enactment of an idea in the mainstream of the Democratic Party. 

Its vision of a carbon-neutral metropolis is also a strong rebuke to President Donald Trump, who denies the overwhelming scientific consensus on climate change and has announced his intention to pull the United States out of the Paris climate agreement.

Trump’s extensive real estate portfolio of carbon-guzzling glass towers made him a natural foil to the program’s buildings initiative. The energy inefficiency of Trump’s shiny towers illustrated why de Blasio put forward his so-called ban on glass and steel skyscrapers, which encourages more eco-friendly building materials but does not include a prohibition.

New York City commonly touts the statistic that 70% of greenhouse gas emissions come from buildings. That number comes from the NYC Greenhouse Gas Inventory, which appears to operate from far more conservative data than publicly available spreadsheets. The 2016 spreadsheet indicated that New York City buildings pumped out more than 51.1 million metric tons of carbon dioxide, but the city’s internal data shows a more modest output.

“Energy used in our buildings generated 34.4 MtCO₂e in 2016,” the most recent inventory states, abbreviating millions of metric tons of carbon dioxide. 

Taken from New York City’s 2016 inventory of greenhouse gas emissions, this chart shows that New York City buildings produced 34.4 metric tons of carbon dioxide that year, a figure that the city says accounts for 70 percent of all of its emissions.

The Mayor’s Office of Sustainability agrees that the problem goes far beyond Trump, who might face at least $2.1 million a year in fines if his buildings do not become more efficient by 2030. (That figure, which leaves out many of the president’s other New York properties, is likely an underestimate.) 

Barring substantial energy efficiency improvements before 2030, the Time Warner Building — home to CNN’s New York studios — and Mount Sinai Hospital could face fines of $5.5 million. The building that houses Google, located at 111 Eighth Avenue, would face a $4.3 million fee.

In a phone interview, a Google spokeswoman emphasized that the company has purchased renewable-energy credits to achieve carbon-neutrality since 2017. The company has not yet committed to asking the building owner to clean up its act.

Mount Sinai and CNN did not immediately respond to requests for comment, but it should be emphasized that the buildings facing the biggest fines also represent some of the city’s largest properties by square footage.

Greening New York City will mean cleaning the information that regulators rely upon, a task City Hall made possible by having an independent engineer verify this information for the first time this year.

OneNYC, as the city calls its Green New Deal, places such an emphasis on data that it announced its goals in a spreadsheet listing more than 130 indicators of success. These goals include both environmental initiatives and broader goals, in keeping with the national model and the historic analogue by Franklin Delano Roosevelt. 

Extrapolated from data provided by the Mayor’s Office of Sustainability, this graphics show the possible fines of five notable New York City buildings. The data here includes more accurate, internal city numbers. (Chart by ADAM KLASFELD/Courthouse News Service)

In an age of rising sea levels, the city aims to expand flood insurance policies to 55,700 residents and upgrade more than 7.6 million square feet of buildings for flood risk.

New York City has an antiquated combined sewer-overflow system that mixes sewage and rainwater during heavy precipitation, dumping filth into the surrounding waters. The city now aims to capture the rainwater before it enters the system up to 78% of the time and improve its air-quality ranking from fifth in the country to first.

As of last year, 28% of city residents had access to free public WiFi within an eighth of a mile from their homes. The plan aims to cover all streets, sidewalks and public transportation by 2025.

The city wants to create roughly 500,000 new jobs by 2040, up from 4.396 million to 4.896 million.

Mayor de Blasio even has his “Vision Zero” program to eliminate motor-vehicle fatalities on his master list of Green New Deal ambitions. The spreadsheet shows that 214 people died in collisions last year and lists a target value of “0.”

The city declined to specify a target year for that goal.

“None stated,” the spreadsheet says in that field.

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