Urbanization, Efficiency, and New York City

new york city
Gita Subramony for Zondits, May 7, 2015. Image credit: tpsdave

Discovery News recently posted a news item on a recent study that examined energy use across the world’s largest megacities. The study defined megacities as those with populations of 10 million or more. Though the article did not comment on the details of the study’s methodology, it did call out New York City as one of the biggest energy hogs, especially in comparison to Tokyo, London, and Paris.

According to the study, NYC residents, on average, consume 24 times the amount of energy that residents of Kolkata, India do. However, a figure like this is essentially meaningless due to climate differences and socio-economic factors. NYC’s climate requires much more heating that Kolkata’s, and a greater portion of Kolkata’s residents live in extreme poverty. A more useful idea is to compare Tokyo with NYC. The article suggests that Tokyo reigns supreme with energy and water conservation.

Though the Big Apple ranks low internationally for energy efficiency, NYC is high on the list of the most energy efficient US cities. Population density that supports public transit and apartment living helps reduce energy consumption per capita. Walkability, the subway, and the city’s ever-controversial bike lanes help residents reduce dependency on gasoline to power automobiles. Additionally, densely populated residential areas help reduce energy consumption in homes. The real estate is so expensive here that most residents can’t afford more space than they really need; less apartment space per person translates into less energy needed to operate the space. As a result, NYC residents on average consume 4,700 kWh per household compared to the US average of 11,000 kWh per household.

Additionally, NYC is improving its energy efficiency. According to the NYC Economic Development Corporation, energy consumption in the city declined by 7.9% from 2005 to 2011 and greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions were reduced over the same period. Although this trend might be partially attributable to the economic slowdown, on the whole US economic growth is becoming increasingly decoupled from energy consumption.

Although NYC wins the efficiency race compared with other US cities, the megacity study indicates, if anything, that we can do more. NYC should continue to improve its public transit system and maintain safe and active pedestrian and bicycling infrastructure. In addition, there is still a lot of work to be done to improve energy efficiency in our new and old buildings, especially in the large commercial and multifamily residential sectors.

New York City is beginning to lay the groundwork for a robust energy efficiency policy. Currently, buildings of a certain size must comply with local laws that require energy benchmarking and energy auditing. There have been rumors that the city might even expand this law to smaller buildings.

The city is also realizing that energy efficiency needs to be adopted at all levels of the socio-economic spectrum. The New York City Housing Authority (NYCHA), North America’s largest public housing authority, recently received a grant of $100 million from the US Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD)to make energy efficiency improvements to its housing portfolio, which includes 2,563 residential buildings. These types of improvements are not only a win for the environment, but they will help reduce operating costs for the authority.

If the city is truly serious about reducing GHG emissions by 80% by 2050, it will have to accelerate these initiatives and motivate building owners and operators to get serious. The city should continue to reduce energy consumption in the buildings it owns, incentivize net zero energy building for new construction, and further assist existing buildings with energy efficiency improvements. In addition, on-site generation will become an important city energy resource. Streamlining the permitting process for solar arrays, combined heat and power systems, and battery storage systems will be another set of policies for the city to look at. Many of these strategies are outlined in the de Blasio administration’s new version of PlaNYC, One City Built to Last. Although the city is making leaps and bounds towards greater efficiency and environmental sustainability, there is still a long way to go to becoming internationally recognized as an efficient megacity.