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BOMA NY Panelists Talk Decarbonization Through Electrification

By BOMA New York Chapter

The October edition of BOMA New York’s virtual Lunch and Learn webinar attracted over 225 professionals and offered an enlightening presentation about the opportunities and challenges of decarbonization and sustainability for commercial real estate owners and managers.

With billions of people living and working in urban areas around the globe – and many of them in megacities like New York City – the presentation’s theme highlighted the urgent need to rethink how our cities are designed and engineered.

BOMA New York’s guest presenters—Francesca Spinelli and Andrew Mondell, P.E., of Trane Technologies; and Andrew Kozak, P.E., AEE Fellow of BR + A Consulting Engineers—delivered a fact-filled, highly optimistic vision of how a global community of building owners and tenants alike can join the effort to reverse the damage of carbon emissions and, indeed, achieve solutions via electrification that will yield profitable results for all parties.

New York State has mandated, through the Climate Protection Act, that 70% of all generation in New York shall be from renewable sources by 2030; and 100% emission-free by 2040. This won’t happen overnight, the speakers cautioned, but it will happen.
Spinelli led off with the straightforward example of purchasing a new automobile, an everyday choice for most Americans. Should it be gasoline-powered, or electric? The former, she explained, “will always produce carbon emissions.”

An electric car, while not 100% carbon-free because it uses electricity that might be generated from fossil-fueled power plants, will become better at decarbonization as the power grid becomes greener.

All three guests characterized decarbonization through electrification as a “megatrend,” echoing the Natural Resources Defense Council’s prediction that by 2050, all energy produced in the United States will be from sustainable sources. At its center will be a power grid with two-way transmission and distribution that will buy excess energy produced on-site by its users.

Mondell said that a new, computerized marketplace will soon emerge with the capability to provide interconnected wholesale and retail power – building-to-building, region-to-region, and state-to-state.

With a focus on New York City, Kozak cited Local Law 97, which mandates that buildings comprising more than 50,000 square feet reduce their carbon emissions by 80 percent by 2050. “This is equivalent to the EPA regulations for automobiles,” he explained. “This will directly dictate the way you use energy, especially the electrification of heating (systems).” Mr. Mondell explained that New York City laws will “compel owners to decarbonize.”

Spinelli did not mince words, either. “The urgency is increasing. We need to act now,” she said. Both Kozak and Mondell reinforced that point, with Kozak adding, “There is a mutual need and benefits.” However, he added, “We will need new equipment, (especially) to replace steam and gas boilers.” The panel said that heat pumps will play a major role, yielding conventional boilers and domestic hot water heaters obsolete. The presenters all agreed that conservation and “reducing the load,” should become paramount.

Mondell acknowledged and stated, “The (MEP) industry sees the benefits. The building stock isn’t ready at the present time. But there are places where we can start. Owners ask me, ‘Where do I start? This can be overwhelming!’” Mondell’s answer is that decarbonization starts with better building systems and computerized controls.

A great feature of the presentation was a survey app that polled attendees of the webinar in real time. Three-quarters of the attendees responded that they embrace energy conservation measures at their buildings. But when asked, “How would you gauge the difficulty of decarbonizing through electrification?” – 65 percent responded – “somewhat difficult” or “difficult.”

Kozak acknowledged that Local Law 97 (and an entire list of similar local laws with deadlines for compliance) — and the issue of decarbonization in general — is “provoking a tremendous amount of thought and concern” among the real estate ownership community.

Mondell said that better building systems start with modern controls that gather data. These proptech solutions can track emissions and immediately call attention to anomalies in energy performance. He estimated, however, that only about 15 percent of the data being presently generated is being analyzed and used. He envisioned a new market where over-performing buildings could “trade” that performance with buildings that are not up to the new standards.

Spinelli underscored that point. “Data is an asset,” she said. For example, it is highly valuable to social media platforms and, similarly, property owners could “leverage” the data they collect to improve and streamline building operations.

For the near future, the presenters suggested that building owners should pursue on-site energy generation to cut carbon emissions. The panel predicted that rooftop solar arrays and the use of on-site energy storage systems using thermal and chemical batteries will become commonplace and cost-effective – especially when it becomes possible to sell energy back to the grid.

In conclusion, the panel agreed that building owners and managers should “set ourselves up for sustainability. We’re all in this together.” Spinelli added, “Pull together. If you are overperforming, there should be a plan to help those who are underperforming.”
She likened it to the collective effort to control COVID-19. “We were presented with a challenge and we demonstrated that we could meet these challenges with a concerted effort.”

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About Paul Bubny

Paul Bubny serves as Senior Content Director for Connect Commercial Real Estate, a role to which he brings 13-plus years’ experience covering the commercial real estate industry and 30-plus years in business-to-business journalism. In this capacity, he oversees daily operations while also reporting on both local/regional markets and national trends, covering individual transactions across all property types, as well as delving into broader subject matter. He produces 15-20 daily news stories per day and works with the Connect team and clients to develop longer-form content, ranging from Q&As to thought-leadership pieces. Prior to joining Connect, Paul was Managing Editor for both Real Estate Forum and at American Lawyer Media, where he oversaw operations at both publications while also producing daily news and feature-length articles. His tenure in B2B publishing stretches back into the print era, and he has served as Editor in Chief on four national trade publications. Since 1999, Paul has volunteered as the newsletter editor of passenger rail advocacy groups (one national, one local).

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