2007-08-15 – Energy Change – NY Sun

New York Sun
BY GARY SHAPIRO – Staff Reporter
August 15, 2007

Wherever one looks, the Empire State appears to be getting a little greener. Underwater tidal turbines submerged in the East River, geothermal homes in the Hudson Valley, an urban wind farm on a brownfield site south of Buffalo, and a solar building in Battery Park that reuses storm water are among projects changing the way New Yorkers meet their energy needs.

“We will see a greater role for renewable energy in New York overall” in the coming decades, the director of Pace Law School’s Energy Project, Fred Zalcman, said.

The director of the Urban Energy Project at Columbia University’s Center for Energy, Marine Transportation and Public Policy, Stephen Hammer, said the degree of change toward renewable energy in the next decade would ultimately depend on how aggressively the government imposed mandates or established incentives. He said that PlaNYC 2030, Mayor Bloomberg’s 127-part proposal to reduce greenhouse emissions, was one of the most comprehensive energy and climate plans ever written for a city. The plan would have “a ripple effect,” and other cities would pay attention, he said.

New York State has set 2013 as the date when 25% of all power used in the state should come from renewable sources. The director of the Alliance for Clean Energy New York, Carol Murphy, said that given the state’s abundant natural resources of wind, solar, and hydropower, the state could exceed that target. Governor Spitzer has likewise outlined a “15 by 15” plan to reduce New York’s energy demand by 15% by 2015. The lieutenant governor, David Paterson, this summer held the first meeting of the Renewable Energy Task Force, which hopes to spur clean energy companies to settle in New York.

The president of New York State Energy Research and Development Authority, Paul Tonko, said wind energy was the most economical resource compared to conventional sources.

The managing director of Putnam County-based BQ Energy, Paul Curran, said Denmark derives between 20% and 25% of its electricity from wind, but America derives less than 1% from that source. “There’s a lot of room to grow,” he said.

But wind, like nearly every alternative to oil, has drawbacks or complications. A founder of Riverkeeper, Robert Boyle, opposes certain wind turbines. He wants the state to issue siting guidelines. “They are not an absolutely benign industrial installation,” he said, noting that they have killed birds and bats, have destroyed pristine views, and intermittently block the sunlight. He said many of these 40-story “aerial Cuisinarts” envisioned for central New York State would be the largest structures between New York, Montreal, and Buffalo.

Underwater turbines generally draw fewer critics aesthetically. Regarding the six that Verdant has submerged in the East River, Mr. Hammer of Columbia University remembers a humorous moment at one presentation with before and after river views showing the same water with no difference. But a lifelong New York resident and fisherman since 1978, Laurie Nolan, said proposals for hydro-energy off Long Island have her concerned. She said a lot of work remained to determine what effects, including noise, there will be to the marine ecosystem. A member of the Mid-Atlantic Fishery Management Council, Ms. Nolan said the locations where turbines are placed become “closed areas” that are off-limits to commercial and recreational fishing.

Hydropower already accounts for about 17% of New York’s electricity needs. A professor at the University at Albany, Pradeep Haldar, said that New York was a leader in generating hydropower. While there are few future large-scale hydro projects left like Niagara Falls, every smaller-scale hydro project helps, he said. Mr. Zalcman said refitting existing hydro facilities with more efficient turbines would likely occur in the ensuing decade or so.

Mr. Haldar said he is optimistic about solar energy. He said that in the last 20 years, New York has installed 10 to 20 megawatts of solar power, but in the next decade would try to implement about 2,000 megawatts of energy from solar panels. By comparison, Germany last year alone installed 1,000 megawatts of solar, he said.

The director of a New York-based environmental nonprofit, WildMetro, David Burg, said he agreed with the ecological writer Barry Commoner’s view that nuclear power was like using a cannon to ring a doorbell. The chairman of the economics department of Brooklyn College, Robert Bell, who is the author of a book on energy, said that there were drawbacks to nuclear energy such as its “just-for-eternity inventory” of nuclear waste.

Nuclear energy is getting a second look from certain environmentalists. A Greenpeace co-founder, Patrick Moore, writing in the Washington Post last year, argued that in 40 years, used nuclear fuel retains only one-thousandth of its radioactivity. Mr. Moore and a former Environmental Protection Agency director, Christine Todd Whitman, co-chair the Clean and Safe Energy Coalition, which points out that nuclear energy produces no harmful greenhouse gasses.

The split among environmentalists comes down to whether one thinks the focus needs to be on carbon reduction by any means or whether the nuclear waste disposal problem and security issues ultimately outweigh other aspects of the issue, said Mr. Hammer of Columbia University.

One who believes in the future of biofuels is the 37-year-old founder of Innovation Fuels, John Fox, whose company was the first entrant in Pace University’s business incubator program. Now headquartered in Times Square in the same building as “Good Morning America,” his company began five years ago with four employees and has since grown to 20. He says biodiesel offers environmental benefits such as reducing asthma-causing emissions. He said the current American biodiesel consumption is about 225-250 million gallons a year, while the country consumes 44 billion gallons of diesel annually. He thinks that biodiesel usage could grow to between 2% and 5% of that $44 billion market in the next decade. One problem is that there are relatively few places to refuel such vehicles: according to the National Biodiesel board, there are 15 fueling stations in the tristate area. Shell Hydrogen and General Motors may also build a hydrogen filling station in White Plains., N.Y.

A key growth area for New York City, several scholars and environmentalists say, is increasing fuel and energy efficiency of buildings. Mr. Tonko said New York might treat energy efficiency the way Texas does oil — as a valuable resource. The New York State Energy Research and Development Authority has already encouraged New Yorkers to exchange 275,000 inefficient air conditioners.

Building efficiency in New York is key, said the director of planning of New Yorkers for Parks, Micaela Birmingham, who cited a study that of all the carbon dioxide emissions of greenhouse gases in New York City, 79% comes from buildings — far higher than the 32% national average. A professor at NYU, Martin Hoffert, said the dense packing of people in New York makes for great opportunities for energy savings.

Mr. Zalcman said one area for savings was “cogeneration facilities,” whereby small-scale generators combine heat and power into a system converting waste heat into usable energy. He said that the best opportunities for this technology were hospitals, nursing homes, and schools. He said New York-Presbyterian/Weill Cornell Medical Center and Montefiore Medical Center have such systems. More city buildings will likely adopt cogeneration in the coming years, he said.

The Future:
What other changes may occur in the coming decade or so?

Ms. Birmingham of New Yorkers for Parks said that she would like to see greener parking lots, with permeable surface mosses and grasses between squares. She said that New York is already a pretty green place to start with: “People tend to forget that,” she said. Its extensive public transit is more sustainable than most suburbs, she said. Mr. Burg said a New York apartment dweller taking the subway daily would have less adverse impact on the environment than an adventurer in the Canadian wilderness who cuts trees to build a cabin, traps furs, and cooks by fire. Per capita energy use in New York City is lower than most other cities because of its public transportation system and smaller houses, said Mr. Hammer of Columbia University.

Mr. Bell of Brooklyn College believes New York will eventually implement widespread bicycle availability, as have cities such asLyon and Paris. In France, riders swipe their credit cards, select a bicycle from a public rack, and pay nothing if the bicycle is returned within the first half-hour.

An outreach volunteer at Time’s Up, a volunteer environmental group, Judy Ross, said she, too, foresees an increase in bicycle usage in New York in the next decade or two. She offered the example of the increasing number of city bicycle lanes.

Ms. Birmingham said that being green was definitely becoming trendier. As to whether it is a fad or a real commitment, she said time would tell.

The previous two installments of this series are also available at nysun.com.