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Moving New York City toward sustainable energy independence

How creation of an Energy Shortage Plan will prepare the City for energy price volatility and accelerate the long-term transition to energy sustainability

From the announcement:

...The newly released Sierra Club report, “Moving New York City toward Sustainable Energy Independence” [PDF] asks the PlaNYC initiative to address this issue, and urges the City Council to resurrect the bill, drafted in 2004 by its own Environmental Committee, which would create a City energy shortage contingency plan. San Francisco and Portland, Oregon have already passed similar bills, and are already developing their plans.

The report recommends creating such a plan in the short term, and over the long term, rapid deployment of decentralized, renewable power, and other measures that will enhance PlaNYC 2030 implementation. By cutting energy costs, creating jobs, and slowing global warming while buffering the impact of energy shocks, the approach is a win-win solution. New York’s example could lead the U.S. toward energy independence. We don’t have to wait for future disasters, let’s start moving beyond oil today. The full report is available online at

Report Summary

Fuel prices have been stable and low, but we're entering an era in which prices are rising and will be more volatile. As we've learned from the oil shocks of the 1970s and the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina, prices can skyrocket when even small amounts of oil are taken off the market. And with rising energy demand, accelerating depletion of world fuel supplies, decreasing spare production capacity, and heightened political instability, especially in the Middle East, oil price shocks are inevitable.

Our use of oil is now widely described as an addiction, and energy independence is increasingly recognized as the solution. Both short-term and long-term efforts to conserve energy and develop alternate fuel supplies are necessary if we are to begin moving New York City and the U.S. toward energy independence. Long-term transitions have been the focus of discussion until now, but an international crisis or natural disaster could trigger a fuel price shock tomorrow. Planning for the City's long-term sustainability should anticipate such disruptions.

This report will lay out a roadmap of pragmatic steps towards a sensible energy future, starting with creation of an energy shortage contingency plan, briefly considered by the City Council in 2004, based on a report by Council staff, with legislation already drafted. Similar plans are being created now in Portland, Oregon and San Francisco. A Portland task force has issued a draft report with eleven recommendations for reducing oil use.

By addressing this issue, New York City can be a national leader in energy preparedness. As secondary measures, the report looks within long-term efforts to make the City more sustainable for initiatives that can conserve energy in a hurry. By prioritizing them for prompt implementation, the same investments also buy greater resiliency in the face of temporary disruption.

City agencies, civic groups and businesses working together on the plan will find where to cut energy costs while boosting green manufacturing and service sectors, slowing global warming, and paving the way for next steps toward sustainability. Local advocates have already identified a host of innovations for using energy more efficiently in transportation, buildings and urban design.

Transportation accounts for most fuel use. Initiatives to increase use of mass transit and reduce reliance on cars will enhance our comfort and air quality, while making the City more resilient to fuel price shocks. Support is growing for more express bus routes, changing street parking rates, and congestion pricing. Maximizing regional use of electric streetcars, rail networks and buses would reduce car use even further.

Making new buildings more energy efficient will cut fuel use and costs, but for big savings we need to retrofit the enormous stock of older buildings. Simple acts such as caulking cracks, replacing old refrigerators, switching to high efficiency lights, tuning up boilers, and installing solar water heaters can lead to significant energy savings. When a concentrated public education campaign combines them all, as is being done on an entire block in the Lower East Side, energy savings of 30% can be achieved.

Right now, solar and wind provide only a tiny fraction of our electricity needs. Lots of small solar electric and thermal power systems on top of houses and buildings, and larger solar and wind systems in rural areas can take pressure off our overstretched electric grid. To grow the renewable energy market in New York, we need to expand net metering, which allows owners of these systems to both use and produce electricity on the utility grid.

To implement the massive changes needed in our national energy economy, visionary Federal leadership is essential. The Boxer-Sanders bill, perhaps the most effective of the climate change bills in Congress today, deserves support as an initial step. Yet it and other measures being considered don't go far enough. A plan that does is Energize America, whose twenty points enable the U.S. by 2020 to reduce both oil imports and greenhouse gas emissions by 50%, generate 25% of our electricity from renewable sources, create 2,000,000 new energy-related American jobs and save 1,000,000 at-risk automobile industry jobs. New York City 's leadership will help make it happen.


I. Prepare for fuel volatility

Unlike power outages that can be resolved quickly, sudden fuel price spikes to $4 or $5 per gallon could affect business, trucking, heating, commuting and delivery of city services for weeks or months. An energy shortage contingency plan would prepare for such disruptions by educating City staff, the business community, and the public on energy conservation measures that could be implemented instantly. To create such a plan, City officials and energy experts would determine the vulnerability of City operations to energy insecurity, compile ways to cut energy use quickly, and set stages for emergency responses and action guidelines in each.

NYC Council Environmental Committee made the case for an energy shortage plan in a 2004 report, and drafted legislation to begin its creation. No further action was taken after a hearing in 2004. This initiative is needed now more than ever and should be revived immediately.

A pair of International Energy Agency reports suggests measures to have ready for emergencies. Saving Electricity in a Hurry reviews government measures to quickly reduce electricity consumption. Saving Oil in a Hurry suggests:

•  highway speed limits
•  increased fuel taxes
•  reduced fees for public transit
•  car pooling
•  driving bans
•  telecommuting
•  compressed work weeks of fewer but longer days

A report by the leading engineering firm Parsons Brinkerhoff explores how energy shortage planning, based on the IEA models, could be applied to the Puget Sound metropolitan area.

Many civic and business stakeholders can be involved in creation of the plan through interactive community planning forums, such as those conducted after the events of September 11, 2001 through the Municipal Arts Society. Each sector has unique energy needs, opportunities and resources. Industry-specific task forces will bring practical business experience to the planning process and can help guide private efforts.

II. Accelerate long term transitions in transportation, buildings, and electric generation

Over the long term, transition towards energy independence will require major changes, in transportation, buildings and electricity production, creating economic development opportunities. State policy should expand to supporting growth of clean technology companies already within the state and attracting new ones. Building strong public support for emergency energy conservation will grow those markets, while reducing energy vulnerability. Cost-saving through energy efficiency will appeal to everyone.

A. Making transportation more efficient

Over the long term, reliance on fossil fuels for transportation must be reduced. Simultaneous national crash programs in vehicle fuel efficiency, coal liquefaction, oil shale and enhanced oil recovery, even if started immediately and funded massively, can address only part of future fuel demand. Likewise, biofuel production is currently limited, and with its constraints cannot be the only solution. Most replacement of fuel demand will have to come from greater efficiency in vehicle design, transportation systems and change in consumer habits. For example, off-peak electricity from renewable sources could power 84% of the country's 220 million vehicles if they had plug-in hybrid electric technology, but this solution is not presently ready.

Centering urban design around transit, not cars

Fuel efficiency and conservation can be built into planning decisions through transit-oriented development, which encourages compact, mixed-use, pedestrian-oriented development near new or existing public transportation infrastructure. Transportation initiatives for New York City to explore include:

•  removing hidden subsidies for driving cars
•  adjusting parking fees
•  increasing bus service, especially express bus and Bus Rapid Transit
•  installing electric streetcar and light rail systems, like Vision 42
•  implementing congestion pricing
•  encouraging use of ride sharing systems
•  building more intercity passenger and freight train capacity

Auto-Free NY's four-year plan to maximize use of subway and rail includes:

•  lowering transit fares
•  upgrading bus service in neighborhoods far from subway stations
•  increasing service and integrating fares among Metro North, NJ Transit, LIRR and NYC subway systems, using Penn Station as a hub
•  replacing existing toll booths with automated nonstop tolling systems
•  closing Manhattan 's busiest pedestrian streets to motor vehicles and supply with streetcars, including Broadway, 42nd Street, and a grid in Lower Manhattan

Nearly 99% of goods shipped to the City arrive by truck. Anything interfering with the stream of trucks carrying food and other goods into the City would cause major problems. Moving more freight by rail, whether oil or electric powered, offers multiple benefits. Electric streetcar systems have been launched around the U.S., and can be run on solar or wind power.

Higher transportation costs will alter the economics of agriculture and manufacturing. In the U.S. food usually travels 1,500 to 2,500 from farm to table. Many elements of food production and shipping are energy-intensive, so rising oil prices will make local agriculture more competitive with large-scale agribusiness. Regional farming can be supported by institutions through wholesale purchases, and individually by shopping at green markets or gardening. World War II era Victory Gardens produced much of America's vegetables.

B. Increase energy efficiency in buildings

New York City's new green building law will ensure that some new buildings will meet high standards of energy efficiency, but the vast majority of existing buildings are chronically wasting energy. Before considering installation of solar PV systems, buildings should start by minimizing energy waste:

•  Replacing low efficiency incandescent light bulbs and older model fluorescent tube lights with compact fluorescents lights (CFLs).
•  Upgrading old refrigerators to new efficient models.
•  Installing motion sensors to turn off lights in vacant rooms.
•  Getting building energy audits, carrying out recommended repairs and upgrades, installing insulation, and plugging leaks.
•  Training residential building staff in proper heating system maintenance for savings of up to 40% in heating fuel used.
•  Installing solar hot water heating systems, cheaper than PV.

C. Use renewable power to meet electricity needs

The electric grid, already at risk from weaknesses that triggered the Northeast blackout of August 2003 and the Queens outage of July 2006, faces further strain with rising demand. While most recently built power plants are designed to burn natural gas, many experts contend North American natural gas supplies have already peaked. We will be more dependent on liquefied natural gas (LNG) to meet future needs, to be imported from extremely expensive facilities that have not yet been built and will be especially vulnerable to supply disruption. Theoretically, either domestic solar or wind resources could meet all U.S. electricity needs, without LNG, coal or nuclear power. Solar photovoltaic (PV) systems are the largest potential source of renewable energy within the City. Recommendations from the Bronx Community College Center for Sustainable Energy, New York City Apollo Alliance and others include:

•  regulations increasing long term renewable power purchases by grid operators, City agencies and large private users
•  stable and consistent government incentives and tax credits to level the playing field with heavily subsidized traditional power sources
•  net metering to allow on-site renewable energy producers to sell surplus power back to the grid would make installation of solar PV systems on large commercial roofs profitable
•  removing unnecessary interconnection & code requirements
•  remove or raise current caps on size of PV systems
•  incentives for greater energy efficiency in City housing & schools • creation of a carbon tax

Organizations that have signed on so far include: American Littoral Society NE Chapter, Asthma Free School Zone, Carbon Tax Center, Hudson River Sloop Clearwater, Nos Quedamos, NY Divinity School, the Pace Energy Project, Sane Aviation for Everyone, Sustainable South Bronx, The Gaia Institute.

Download the entire report here (Adobe Acrobat required)

Dan Miner is energy committee chair of the Sierra Club NYC Group
and Coordinator of Beyond Oil NYC.

© Copyright 2007

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