Renewable Energy has been the step-child of energy policy, which has been dominated by Energy Efficiency (EE). This emphasis on EE is really a relic of the energy crises of the last century, when it was thought the cost of energy and energy independence were the issue, and not so much the environmental dimension. Times have changed. Reducing Green House Gas emissions (GHG-emissions) now has taken center stage. Renewable Energy (RE) is the only path that will get us the reduction in GHG-emissions which are now generally seen as a priority. The simple truth is that Energy Efficiency is not a generating technology, it only improves the performance of whatever system you have, be it based on fossil fuels, or based on renewable energy, therefore, it is equally applicable to both. The only real choice is between Fossil Fuels (FF) and Renewable Energy (RE), and RE is what we want, not more FF, or for our addiction to FF to last longer.
In the public dialog, and in public policy, EE is mostly treated as an end in itself, which results in policies that achieve the opposite of what we want to achieve, assuming that a reduction of GHG-emissions is really our goal. The reason for this is simple. Our existing systems are overwhelmingly based on Fossil Fuels, and if you improve them with EE, you are throwing good money after bad by making FF economically more attractive. If we make fossil fuels cheaper to use, people will use more of them and will use them for a longer time, which is strongly regressive for climate risk. If the government is subsidizing EE without further qualification, they are subsidizing the fossil fuel industry, which is the opposite of what they want to do.
The only rational policy towards GHG-reductions is one that minimizes GHG-emissions through Renewable Energy, and leaves it to the Fossil Fuel industry and their customers to make their systems as efficient as possible. It is not rational to subsidize Fossil Fuels indirectly by subsidizing Energy Efficiency without qualification.
Renewable Energy Failure in NYC
Despite many signature projects that demonstrate what’s possible, New York City overall has fallen into the trap of prioritizing EE, hand in hand with state programs like NYSERDA, as well as various federal programs. Even worse, the NYC Clean Heat program diverted a large portion of the housing stock to natural gas for heat, in a laudable attempt to reduce particulates emissions and GHG-emissions, but by doing so missed the opportunity to begin the serious conversion to RE, which would have produced quantum advances in reducing GHG-emissions. As we now know, the switch from coal to gas, and from heavy fuels to gas, yield no reductions in GHG-emissions, except a displacement. So nominally NYC wins a little in the short run, but in the long run it is meaningless.
Typical EE projects yield 15-25% reductions in energy costs, mostly “savings” on fossil fuel bills, and these seem easily justifiable, however in many cases we are missing the opportunity for radical conversions to RE, which could easily produce over 50% reductions in GHG-emissions, and be financially successful for building owners, far more so than the EE projects that are now the norm. If proper capital budgeting were utilized throughout, it would become quickly apparent that in many cases integrated RE solutions for buildings have superior long-term economics, and PACE financing is a readily available vehicle to address the heavy up-front capital investment required for these projects. Simply put, every RE component we can retrofit in a building comes with a lifetime of no energy bills equivalent to the amount of energy it provides.
In the winter of 2014 New Yorkers paid the price for the massive shift to natural gas. Electricity in January 2012 was 7 cents/kWh (ConEd), in 2013 it was 13 cents and in 2014 it was 22 cents. Winter normally had low electric rates, now it has some of the highest rates of the year. New York City has become massively, recklessly and unnecessarily dependent on a single fuel: natural gas. Building resilience has been made infinitely worse as a result, while at the same time we’re spending money on improving building resilience. The single biggest thing we could do for building resilience is to stop converting buildings to natural gas, and encourage them to switch to renewable energy instead.
It’s all economics and finance
The problem is not technology, there are more options every single day, The big things that are holding us back are practicing proper economic and financial analysis, to understand how rewarding RE retrofits really are. Thirty years worth of free energy will beat out 15-25% energy savings in most projects, especially if there are integration opportunities that produce legitimate engineering synergies which compound the returns from individual technologies. That geothermal heat pump combined with a wind turbine, or solar PV, becomes an energy harvesting system, and hot water storage tanks are cheaper and more environmentally friendly than batteries.
The primary importance of economics and finance is driven home forcefully by the fact that the 2014 Draft New York State Energy Plan cites the inroads of solar PV on Long Island as a success. This is a success that is driven by Asset Backed Lending/Leasing based on marginal energy savings, and achieves shallow results, compared to what could be done if financial analysis were done right, and projects were engineered for the long-term. If property owners were to use proper capital budgeting techniques and did 30 year models, there is no way that 17% efficient solar PV should win over 98% efficient solar thermal installations. People are saving 10% on their electric bill, when with the same roof space they could do central HVAC and Domestic Hot Water for their entire property. This approach is more work, so it does not get done, but we as a society lose. Property owners who sign for these solar panels in most cases miss an opportunity for a major value enhancement to their properties.
C40Cities needs to prioritize renewable energy
I have submitted an Open Letter to C40Cities in hopes that this group will start addressing these issues, and not have the rest of the world repeat the mistakes that were made in New York. Appearances always deceive, and this case is no different: in the short run some reductions in GHG-reductions were realized, but because it all came from EE and from fuel switching, it merely extends the reign of fossil fuel and is therefore regressive with respect to climate risk in the long run.
Will New York become a leader in renewable energy?
Recently, I submitted an open letter to Governor Andrew Cuomo pertaining to the Green Bank. The Green Bank initiative could be coming at the right time for Mayor de Blasio, who has an interesting challenge. To his eternal credit, Mayor Bloomberg got climate change and energy policy the attention it deserved, but some key programs have been counterproductive, even if that is not widely recognized as yet. I have documented these issues with an open letter to Mayor de Blasio. Further clues are in my letter to C40Cities. Clearly, there is a big opportunity for the de Blasio administration to change course with some of the programs that have us going backwards instead of forwards. The opportunity for New York City to become a leader in this area is certainly there. Our infrastructure lends itself to rapid progress, but it will require the necessary regulatory changes to enable such developments, for besides bad financial analysis, regulatory hurdles are the principal brake on a breakthrough to clean energy.
Conclusion: Lasting Reductions in GHG-emissions from Renewable Energy
It is time to break the stranglehold of the fossil fuel era by pursuing renewable energy breakthroughs that are well within reach, but often ignored, because EE seemed “cheaper” and “easier.” Heretofore, we did not realize that the short-term reductions in GHG-emissions from Energy Efficiency would ensure long-term losses. Therefore, the time has now come to focus on creating the breakthroughs in renewable energy with projects that achieve in excess of 50% reductions in GHG-emissions, and New York City can certainly become a leader in the context of the C40Cities, much to the benefit of its citizens.