It has been about six years since an Environmental Defense Fund (EDF) staffer first looked out the window in our New York City office, saw black smoke coming from a building’s chimney, and wondered what it was. This concern led to EDF’s Bottom of the Barrel report, which determined the smoke was caused by No. 6 heating oil. A highly polluting fuel source, No. 6 heating oil is hugely harmful to public health and the environment – not to mention, bad for building efficiency. This led to a citywide regulation to phase out No. 6 and No. 4 heating oils, and to create a program called NYC Clean Heat to help buildings switch to cleaner fuels.
And now, New York City is free of No. 6 oil.
Last week, Mayor Bill de Blasio and the Department of Environmental Protection (DEP) announced that all 5,300 buildings that were registered as burning No. 6 heating oil in 2011 have converted to a cleaner fuel. This historic moment for New York City means cleaner air (soot pollution has decreased more than 50 percent) and a healthier city: 210 premature deaths and 540 hospitalizations will now be avoided yearly. It’s not often you see an environmental issue that is so quantifiable, or one where you can say it’s been completely achieved.
NYC Clean Heat, a program EDF and the City of New York developed and implemented in partnership, was crucial in this achievement. It reached out to buildings and helped them through the process of converting to cleaner-burning fuels, like Ultra-low Sulfur No. 2 oil, natural gas, steam, or biodiesel.
But while we’ve closed the door on No. 6 oil, there is still plenty of work left to do.
A fair number of buildings are still using No. 4 heating oil, the next dirtiest fuel grade. The good news is, they will be targeted with the new NYC Retrofit Accelerator program. This program uses the same model as NYC Clean Heat, but with an expanded focus to improve building-wide energy efficiency, not just heating oil. Many buildings in New York City are required to perform energy audits and benchmarking, but need additional encouragement to act on the recommendations they receive. The Accelerator will provide technical assistance and information about financing, as buildings take on everything from lighting to full-building retrofits. The program is expected to reduce citywide greenhouse gas emissions by almost one million metric tons and save New Yorkers an estimated $350 million in utility costs annually by 2025. This is essential in achieving the mayor’s commitment to reduce citywide greenhouse gas emissions 80 percent by 2050, since about three quarters of New York City’s greenhouse emissions come from energy use in buildings.
The program that made NYC Clean Heat a success is one we believe can serve as a model for cities around the U.S. – maybe even around the world. Many cities and states have resources and incentives for energy efficiency, but getting the work done can be a complex, daunting process for buildings. This program makes it as easy as possible for building owners and operators to upgrade to clean energy sources. Let’s build on NYC Clean Heat’s successes and mobilize the rest of the country (and world) to do the same.