On Beyond Solar: Lowering Energy Costs by Creating a Comprehensive Plan

Ronda Kaysen in Board Operations on June 5, 2012

River Arts Co-op, 15900 Riverside Drive West, Washington Heights

Lowering Energy Costs Comprehensive Plan

June 5, 2012 — The River Arts cooperative in Manhattan's Washington Heights has saved $15,000 a year in electricity costs since installing rooftop solar panels two years ago — an installation  partly funded by government incentives. River Arts financed the $418,000 project with a federal tax credit, a grant from the New York State Energy Research and Development Authority (NYSERDA), and a city property tax abatement. In all, the credits and grants reduced their final bill to $34,560. Initially, the board estimated it would take eight to ten years to pay back the investment. Instead, it took only three.

Nevertheless, River Arts' costs have gone up by 15 percent because of rising property taxes and skyrocketing fuel costs. Property taxes cost the complex $1 million in 2012, up from $300,000 in 2005. In 2015, when the city phases out No. 6 oil, the co-op will have to use a cleaner, but costlier, fuel.

The co-op has taken many steps to lower costs. When it replaced the lighting in the communal areas with energy-efficient fixtures, it took advantage of a $15,000 NYSERDA grant that brought the price down from $51,000 to $36,000. It took the co-op two years to pay.

Meter Made

The co-op also submetered its two central Con Edison meters in 2003. Until then, utilities were bundled into the general maintenance charges. After submetering, residents were responsible for their own utility bill but could still benefit from the wholesale master meter rate.

The effort had a secondary effect, lowering consumption by 20 percent once residents actually saw how much they spent. "If I never saw the bill, what did I care?" says Jack Fogle, the building manager and a River Arts resident since 1981, who used to keep his air conditioner running when he wasn't home so that his cat would be comfortable.

Over the years, the building has made improvements with an eye on the environment and savings. A decade ago, the board replaced the linoleum floors in the common areas with ceramic tile. Not only is the tile more attractive, it is easier to maintain and doesn't require harsh and polluting cleaning solutions. Now it is considering accessing geothermal energy through the glen.

Act Naturally

The co-op's next big undertaking: switching to natural gas. Converting to the substance, which is much cheaper than oil, would cost the co-op $200,000, but ultimately save $125,000 a year. However, the building would need to access a natural gas line. And unlike solar panels, which can be installed by any number of solar installers, only Con Edison can access a gas line

How likely is it that Con Ed engineers will find the time to dedicate a line to River Arts? "It's a hope and a prayer," says Fogle. "I've been after this thing for more than a year, and I'm still waiting."


Illustration by Marcellus Hall

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