Energy managers from Washington, D.C., Boston, and New York City came together at The Yale Club of New York City in March 2019 for an OurEnergyPolicy energy leaders luncheon. They discussed how each of their cities are navigating local issues on the path to decarbonizing their energy systems.
Richard Kauffmann, who is the chairman of NYSERDA and well-known for his recent role as “Energy Czar” for New York Governor Andrew Cuomo, moderated the discussion. He prompted the panelists—Tommy Wells (Washington, D.C.), Susanne DesRoches (New York City), and Bradford Swing (Boston)—to share their goals, along with the energy policies and initiatives their cities are pursuing.
“Especially as cities have gotten more involved in climate change, it’s clear that cities are the problem, and cities are the solution,” said Tommy Wells, Director of the Washington, D.C., Department of Energy & Environment.
Wells explained how cities can take two different approaches to address climate change in their primary role as energy consumers: (1) use less energy and (2) make green energy a larger percentage of the energy they do use. “It’s a virtuous cycle,” Wells said. “The more you shrink [the amount of energy you use], the larger your renewables get as a portion of the pie.”
To reduce Washington, D.C.’s energy use, Wells and city government spent several years gathering benchmarking data from city buildings. They then updated the city’s building codes to require certain energy efficiency standards for new and retrofitted buildings. To increase the city’s share of green energy, Washington, D.C. recently passed a law requiring it to use energy generated 100% from renewable sources by 2032.
The city also took several actions to move toward total decarbonization in the electricity and transportation sectors. In the electricity sector, Washington, D.C. signed a 20-year contract to supply one third of its energy use in government buildings and schools from a wind farm in Pennsylvania. Wells said the city is looking for additional direct purchase opportunities of renewable energy but also purchases renewable energy certificates (RECs). Washington, D.C. has also improved its financial structures for renewable energy purchases by raising $100 million for green banking.
In the transportation sector, Wells said he is prioritizing “rockstar public transit and electrifying it.” The city has also updated its building codes to require that new buildings put in electric vehicle charging infrastructure. Wells and his team are still considering how to allocate public space for car sharing.
The population of Washington, D.C. is undergoing its greatest period of growth since World War II, Wells noted, and he and others are working to determine how the city can meet energy demand while still decreasing its carbon footprint.
New York City, NY
New York City is also experiencing population growth, with a population of 8.5 million that is expected to grow to 9 million by 2050. Susanne DesRoches—who is the Deputy Director of Infrastructure and Energy at the New York City Mayor’s Office of Recovery & Resiliency and Office of Sustainability—said New York City’s approach is similar to Washington, D.C.’s in that they are working concurrently toward making their energy use more efficient and more renewable. The city has also prioritized benchmarking and building mandates, and Governor Cuomo recently increased the state’s renewable energy target from 80% to 100%.
However, New York City faces a few unique constraints. The city has a capacity rule that 80% of the city’s peak load must be provided by generating sources within the city, but current transmission lines do not extend far enough to bring in new renewables. For New York City to change its renewable power mix, DesRoches said, “We would need a sea change of how to get power into the city…. We have a big hurdle.”
New York City is looking into ways to bring offshore wind power in from the south of the city and to bring other renewable electricity in from the north, which is only possible with additional transmission lines. She said she and her team are placing priority on cost-effective options that would bring in new transmission and new renewables. They are also looking to increase their solar power capacity, but they would need 7 gigawatts (GW) of distributed solar generation on buildings to reduce their energy demand, and going from their current 150 megawatts of solar capacity to 7 GW is a big leap.
DesRoches said New York City is considering community choice aggregation as a way to change the city’s proportion of renewables. However, they would need to find an arrangement that both meets their goals while changing the actual sourcing of New York City’s electricity to renewables rather than using renewable energy offsets.
In the transportation sector, New York City is committed to electric vehicle fast-charging hubs and has already launched pilot programs. DesRoches said they plan to launch five fast-charging hubs by the end of the year and eventually 50 across the city. They are using data and public feedback to determine optimal charging locations.
DesRoches said New York City’s air quality has been rapidly increasing, due to a mandate that has phased out the use fuel oil in boilers. When asked, she said she considered a mandate necessary in this case and did not think an incentive or other market-based policy would have produced the same results. She said New York City is also pursuing changes to incentivize retirement of plants in the city that are not economical, in order to enable opportunities for new generation.
Like New York City but unlike Washington, D.C., the City of Boston, Massachusetts, cannot make energy policy decisions in areas of state jurisdiction. Building codes and a renewable portfolio standard are determined on the state level. This can leave city officials feeling quite constrained, said Bradford Swing, Director of Energy Policy and Programs in the Boston Mayor’s Office of Environment.
Despite these limitations, Boston has been active in its decarbonization efforts. Mayor Martin Walsh pledged Boston to be carbon-free by 2050, and in January, the city released Carbon Free Boston—a report by the Boston University Institute of Sustainable Energy on analysis of policy choices to achieve carbon neutrality and their relative costs. Boston is exploring opportunities to invest in offshore wind power projects off the coast of Massachusetts and to make other power purchase agreements (PPAs) and virtual PPAs, Swing said. The city is also entering into a community choice program, which will increase the renewable energy in the electricity supply for all residents unless they opt out. Swing said Boston also purchases some renewable power through RECs.
On the energy efficiency side, Swing said Massachusetts has very robust utility-administered programs and has pioneered energy efficiency programs focused on renters. Boston has also performed thousands of state and federally funded home weatherizations, although he said getting a satisfactory return on investments from these efforts was challenging and the programs were eventually discontinued.
The city has also been working to integrate green building requirements into its zoning code and plans to integrate water, sewer, and energy infrastructure for parts of the city. In addition, Boston is conducting feasibility assessments and master planning for district energy and microgrids, and is hiring advanced systems energy planners. Swing said Boston is also working to determine how the decarbonization efforts on many of its college campuses can permeate into energy systems in other areas of the city.
Resiliency & Other Issues
Wells, DesRoches, and Swing touched on several other special concerns for energy in their cities. DesRoches said energy burden is another important issue that New York City takes into consideration in its energy policy. Almost half of New York City residents live near the poverty line, she said, and there is significant inequity in who bears the brunt of energy costs.
Wells mentioned how construction materials are part of the energy use picture. Boston is a steel and glass city, and in Washington, D.C., buildings are constructed with a lot of concrete. He said they are pushing aggressively to incentivize building with timber because it enables buildings to be built faster and there is sufficient supply while still sustainably managing the region’s forest.
Swing explained the tension between Boston’s efforts to decarbonize and its priority to improve the resilience of its infrastructure and energy system. He said after an incidence of downtown flooding, the mayor would ask him, “Where is my resilience, Brad?” He said climate activists have been very concerned with any change in natural gas distribution infrastructure but that the city still needs the resiliency benefits of natural gas now. Although Boston has made great strides to decarbonize, the challenge is that carbon neutrality runs counter, in the long term, to policies that Boston adopted to improve the city’s resiliency with district energy microgrids.
“The reality is, if we are going to have islandable resilience within these districts of the city, there is going to be natural gas-fired cogeneration,” Swing said. He said that decarbonizing while maintaining resilience is going to be a transition for Boston and raises the question of how to best make that transition.
OurEnergyPolicy was pleased to host all three panelists for this constructive discussion on city energy policies.