Building Electrification Lessons from New York State’s “Climate Policy Laboratory”

September 15, 2021
 | 
Alex Apter
 
& Noah Goldmann

5 national insights drawn from state-based experience


The Financial Times recently devoted its entire Moral Money newsletter to “Lessons that can be learned from New York’s climate policy laboratory,” offering a critical reality check of a state often praised for its climate policy. BlocPower is well-positioned to affirm much of the FT’s analysis and offer specific policy recommendations to build on New York’s ambitious agenda. 


New York has over 4,300 megawatts of offshore wind in production and continues to rapidly increase solar capacity, but greening the state’s electricity supply might be the (relatively) easy work. Scaling and connecting clean power does nothing to limit emissions from fossil-fuel-burning furnaces and boilers in buildings, which represent 13% of greenhouse gas emissions nationwide. Although BlocPower has completed over 1,200 projects addressing this need—combining air source heat pump installation with comprehensive green retrofitting—New York City alone contains over one million buildings.   


Anne Reynolds, executive director of the Alliance for Clean Energy New York, observes that the state is “much further along in achieving its electricity goals” as compared to its more complex and expensive goals to decarbonize buildings. While local governments inch towards legislation banning natural gas hookups in new construction, these laws often fail to adequately incentivize electrification of existing buildings.  



Communities and buildings most in need of green retrofits remain underserved


The FT’s Andrew Edgecliffe-Johnson writes that although “New York has some of the boldest targets in the US for cutting carbon emissions and boasts the country’s largest green bank,” it remains “a long way from convincing activists that it has found the recipe for stimulating the public-private response the climate challenge demands.” 


Existing electrification programs and incentives skew heavily towards projects most likely to generate financial returns: projects with low credit risk and without structural deficiencies like mold, asbestos, or electrical failings. This raises serious issues of environmental justice, as older buildings (more likely to be occupied by low-income and Black and Brown communities) are locked out of needed upgrades. Even the New York Green Bank has struggled to find “win-win projects that efficiently decarbonize the economy, benefit the poor and generate returns,” according to the FT’s Lee Harris. 


BlocPower’s work centers on this challenging but crucial intersection of building electrification and environmental justice. Through programs like Community Retrofit NYC—in which BlocPower successfully retrofitted over 500 multi-family residences in low-income Brooklyn communities—we have proven that climate technology and a green economy can and must benefit underserved populations, who are most likely to face high energy burdens and the negative health effects of indoor air pollution. And we have repeatedly identified, financed, and completed one-off, win-win projects—from the Bright Light Baptist Church in Brownsville to an affordable co-op in Bedford-Stuyvesant. 


Drawing on the Financial Times and our own experience in New York State, BlocPower knows what it will take for the United States to match and improve on New York’s climate leadership. 


Five “lessons learned” to catalyze this nationwide decarbonization effort:


Recommendation 1: Targeted, aggressive electrification incentives that prioritize the needs of low- and moderate-income (LMI) communities
  • Electrification targets, and the programs and incentives created to achieve them, should be crafted with the intersection of climate, energy, and equity in mind. Specifically, incentives should provide significant point-of-purchase price relief for heat pumps and other big-ticket items and be stackable with other local, state, and federal programs. Cumulative incentives (once stacked) should total 30-50 percent of total electrification project costs (including all necessary ancillary work and pre-weatherization measures) in order to scale electrification rapidly and meet the needs of LMI communities. 


Recommendation 2: Resources devoted to trust-building interventions and community education
  • Electrification initiatives should unite policymakers, building owners, tenants, utilities, contractors, and community organizations under the common purpose of retrofitting buildings to be greener, healthier, and smarter. Community Advisory Boards, which bring together stakeholders and offer insight into community needs and values, should play an important role in uniting stakeholders and building trust. In BlocPower’s experience, successful community-wide electrification efforts often begin with highly visible “lighthouse projects”—like municipal buildings, community centers, and houses of worship—that demonstrate programmatic capacity to switch from fossil fuel-burning furnaces and boilers to heat pumps and to increase comfort without raising costs. 


Recommendation 3: Standardized building emissions reporting paired with investments in energy usage data collection and transparency 
  • Electrification policies should be grounded in increased transparency and disclosure requirements around building energy use and emissions. These requirements better inform all stakeholders on the climate and health risks of fossil fuel-powered space and water heating. As a result, the requirements also increase demand for energy efficiency and electrification upgrades like heat pumps. Additionally, detailed and accessible data lowers project costs and enables value-adding software analysis.


Recommendation 4: Investments to remedy starting-line disparities, especially the digital divide 
  • Bridging the digital divide is paramount to the introduction and use of emerging electrification technologies. Underlying infrastructure, especially high-speed internet connectivity and access to suitable devices, is a key component to the clean energy transition. In order to prioritize LMI communities within electrification rollouts, electrification initiatives should ensure that LMI communities have equal and affordable access to internet services. 


Recommendation 5: Investments in clean-energy workforce development
  • Localized and inclusive workforce development is a crucial step towards an equitable clean energy transition. Electrification policies should commit to sharing the value created by the clean energy economy with those in need of meaningful, living-wage jobs. These jobs should include not only solar or heat pump installation and related green retrofit activities, but also manufacturing and maintenance. Workforce development should be focused on LMI communities that have been historically excluded from wealth-building opportunities, including women, people of color, and formerly incarcerated individuals.


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More from BlocPower


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  • View examples of successful BlocPower projects in New York 



The views and opinions expressed in this blog post are those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect the official policy or position of BlocPower.


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