Taking on the climate challenge – a New York City perspective

The climate discussion often tends to be very much focused on topics such as transportation and food production. And rightly so, these are important areas, but we also know that about 40% of the energy consumption world-wide is related to our buildings. So what better place to get a grasp of this part of the challenge and what we can do to solve it, than attending New York City Climate Week. With the sheer size of the city and its iconic landscape of skyscrapers, and the gathering of policy makers and experts from around the world, this is a very interesting place to get inspired and share knowledge.

After visiting the Climate Week and participating in a number of discussions about decarbonizing buildings, a number of things stand out.

Ambitions on the rise – on a global scale

First, I am happy to notice the very high ambitions of New York in solving the climate crisis. Sometimes we think North America and Europe are more different than similar, especially looking at the sustainability efforts in the Nordic countries of Europe – but there are clearly many stakeholders in the US with very similar ambitions. New York State has set high ambitions for decarbonization in policies and regulations, both in the short and long term, very much similar to that of many countries in Europe. There are also organisations like NYSERDA and Building Energy Exchange contributing ambitiously, as well as the many real estate owners and consultant engineers that was participating in the discussions.

The practical obstacles

With New York City having billions of square feet of real estate, making up 70% of the city’s greenhouse gas emissions, moving fast towards sustainable buildings is crucial. Most of today’s buildings will still be there in the decades to come, making low-carbon retrofits absolutely essential. But implementing such retrofit solutions are complex. The good news is that these are well understood by all stakeholders involved. The bad news is that there are no silver bullets.

A few examples of the obstacles we face:

  • The infrastructure of many of the existing buildings is not easy to convert to the future solutions – from a NYC horizon looking especially at factors such as steam heating through old low pressure piping, decentralized direct expansion cooling and the lack of ducting for balanced ventilation with 100% fresh air supply and heat recovery.
  • New York City has one of the highest rent levels in the world, meaning every extra square foot needed for HVAC will no longer generate rental income, and thus a negative part of any ROI calculation.
  • The many high-rise buildings means there are many tenants all on different lease periods, and it is very difficult to empty a building for any refurbishment, not to mention the very high loss of revenue for emptying any space, again, given the high rent levels.

Where to look for solutions

I find that the only way forward is to look at a broader perspective, addressing both the energy and the indoor environment. It will also call for innovative solutions, which I think requires collaboration across the value chain with real estate owners, consultant engineers as well as product and system suppliers, like Swegon, working together.

I am convinced that the future solutions, also for the high-rise buildings in New York City, inevitably must be that what we currently apply in new-build. We just need to find the right solutions, applications and forms for implementation. The good news is that there is well-tested technology already available to do the job:

  • Hydronic solutions for cooling and heating with chiller heat pumps using increasingly environmentally friendly refrigerants, ideally natural like propane
  • Low temperature hydronic distribution and terminal units, utilising all the benefits of induction with beams for ventilation, cooling and heating
  • Decentralized ventilation solutions supplying 100% outside air with effective heat recovery via DOAS (dedicated outdoor air system), avoiding the current high level of energy waste, while still being space efficient
  • All controlled by effective solutions for demand control, further improving the Indoor Environmental Quality (IEQ) for the tenants while significantly further reducing energy consumption, where tenants can also see and control the indoor climate for themselves

Implementing such solutions will undoubtedly both satisfy both the decarbonization ambitions AND provide a significantly better indoor environment for tenants. This will in turn improve tenant satisfaction, motivate higher rent levels, and ultimately significantly increase the value of any property. This is easy in new-build and in the rare cases where an entire building can be emptied. The challenge that stays with me is how we can help get these solutions into all other buildings. I don’t have the answer yet, but we take on the challenge.