New York's Cooperative and Condominium Community

Habitat Magazine Insider Guide



Doing Without

On July 29, Cristina Villegas, technical coordinator of Energy Investment Systems (EIS) in New York, met with Louis Diaz, superintendent of a 164-unit Mitchell-Lama co-op on Manhattan’s West Side. At around 12:45 P.M., they started at the top of the 22-story building, and began to turn off the circuit-breakers in all the common areas, and then shut down the exhaust fans. With only emergency illumination, they cut power to one of the building’s three elevators, parking another at lobby level. The laundry room was closed to tenants, as was the community room. At 1 P.M., automatic “load control devices” wired to submeters in each apartment unit, shut off the air conditioners. For the next four hours, 100 West 94th Street would be powering down in an experiment to see just how much money the co-op could save by reducing power needs to a minimum.

The experiment in “load curtailment” was first proposed to the co-op board by Lewis M. Kwit, president of EIS, which had been hired as a consultant to do submetering in 2002. EIS had the submeters placed in each apartment, giving the co-op specific details on how much power each shareholder was using, and allowing separate charges for each.

“We didn’t know about load curtailment in the beginning,” says board member William Jacquette, an architect who was present for the power-down on July 29. “But I know that my electric bill is four times higher in the summer months than in the winter, due to air conditioning.”

Jacquette and the board recognized that the interests of the Columbus Park Tower co-op and the power generation industry could be complementary. Indeed, the New York State Energy Research and Development Authority (NYSERDA), together with the New York Industrial Retention Network (NYIRN) are aggressively promoting cutting power usage in the summer as a way for electrical power customers to save money. Their June 2004 letter to electric customers says that “last summer, more than $7.2 million was paid back to over 1400 commercial, industrial, and multifamily residential customers for cutting back and/or shifting their peak electricity consumption.”

On the ground, what this translates to is Columbus Park Tower. When the power company wants to reduce usage, or can forecast a time of peak demand, it notifies customers who are part of “load curtailment” programs, and then it’s up to them to implement their plan to reduce power.

Kwit notes that there are two such programs, the Emergency Demand Response Program (EDRP), and the “higher-risk/higher-benefit” Installed Capacity/Special Case Resources Program (ICAP). With the EDRP, the power company looks at past building usage, and then pays a premium of about 50 cents per kilowatt-hour for usage that falls below that level.

“That’s the safest program, but it doesn’t pay much,” Kwit says, noting that a kilowatt hour is roughly the amount of power used when two air conditioners don’t run for an hour. “Over four hours, they’ll give you $2 to keep the two air conditioners off,” he says. “Not a great deal.”

The serious money comes into the picture with ICAP, which “treats the building as if it were a power plant willing to come on line in an emergency,” Kwit says. “Installed capacity means that when all the regular power plants can’t provide enough power, they can call on you to put your power into the system. For a building, operating as if it were a power plant, that means you have to be at the ready when they call on you to curtail power. In order to induce you to do it, they pay you in advance every month, and it comes to something like $125 a year per kilowatt hour.” If Columbus Park Tower can save 100 kilowatt hours in a load curtailment event – Jacquette’s goal – that’s $12,500 for the co-op.

It’s not as easy as it sounds, however. The power-down has to be qualified, so that, for example, residents who have health problems can opt out and keep their A/C running. Residents have to have sufficient notice of the load curtailment (ICAP gives 24 hours notice). There has to be a way of remotely shutting down the A/C from a central point. You have to be able to monitor where power is being used at all times. And there are always wrinkles that need a good on-site manager to iron out. At Columbus Park Tower, for instance, EIS’s Villegas notes that “we wanted to cut all the garage lighting, but found that the security cameras were on the same circuit.”

The submeters, manufactured by Impact 21 and installed in all units, incorporate radio transmitters which communicate with a computer located in the building’s management office. That computer, in turn, puts each apartment’s power consumption on an internet link, where it can be viewed and downloaded by EIS. The load curtailment devices, attached to each air conditioner, also transmit data to EIS. There is an override switch underneath each one that tenant-shareholders can use if they must get cool air. According to Jacquette, some of the funding for these devices was provided by NYSERDA, as an incentive to reduce energy usage.

Each of the submeters shows, at all times, the total amount of power usage for each apartment, in kilowatt hours, since the installation of the meter. When load curtailment is not in effect, each meter shows the voltage and wattage being used at the moment. They also monitor temperature continuously so EIS will know the conditions in every unit.

Will it work? EIS’s Kwit says his job “is two-parts sociology and two-parts technology. I’m trying to get a feel for load curtailment based on the way people behave and the technology we can place into the situation – a feel for how much [time] people will allow their air conditioners to be turned off.”

Whether cooperators are willing to do without will depend in part on psychology and how much they identify with their building’s collective goals Besides the financial benefit, some cooperators will see reducing power consumption as an alternative to building more local power plants, allowing them to play the part of environmentalists by reducing pollution in their own communities.

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