Ruth Ford is a former contributing editor to Habitat.
Is your building a direct-metered or master-metered building? If it’s the latter, and you’ve already made the switch to submetering, then it’s time to move to the next level of savings – and help the environment too. In a word, microturbines.
It all starts with the New York State Energy Research and Development Authority (NYSERDA), which for years has been urging homeowners to switch to energy-saving devices in their homes. Now, NYSERDA is helping by paying co-ops for the cost of feasibility studies that examine microturbines. It will also pay 50 percent of the cost of installation.
What’s so great about microturbines? They produce heat and hot water, allowing buildings to turn off their boilers during the hottest months of the year – when the residue from the boilers gets trapped in the air and increases pollution – while saving money on electricity usage by reducing demand on the Con Edison grid.
The baseline for a co-op that should be considering this is a 40- to 50-unit one- and two-bedroom building, says David Ahrens, director of Energy Spectrum, an energy-consulting group. But before co-ops look at microturbines, or any form of cogeneration power, they should be master-metered, says Herb Hirschfeld, who runs a website on cogeneration (www.cogeneration.com). Unless it has unusually large common areas, “the building needs to be master-metered to use cogeneration in a cost-effective way,” he notes.
These were the two reasons that the 17 board members of Clinton Hill Apartment Owners’ Corporation in Clinton Hill, Brooklyn, finally decided to make the switch. This past spring, John Dew, president of the co-op – a 12-building complex with 1,221 units – stood outside his building with a smile on his face. The property had just gone “on line” with 13 microturbines providing hot water and electricity for seven of the corporation’s buildings.
“We started in 2001 with a feasibility study to determine whether we could use cogeneration,” explains Dew. After the board completed a submetering program, the co-op turned to Energy Spectrum (www.energyspec.com) to track the buildings’ electricity usage. For several months, consultants took readings to give the board an understanding of their baseline electricity use. Armed with those figures, the board then turned to Rand Engineering to help prepare a bid sheet to install microturbines – cogeneration units roughly the size of a refrigerator that run on natural gas and capture the excess waste heat to turn it into heat/hot water and cool air for air conditioners. At the same time, the co-op submitted a proposal to NYSERDA for funds in helping to install the microturbines. It took more than a year for the money to come through, but it finally did – with NYSERDA providing $758,000 of the nearly $2 million cost of the installation.
While the sums of money involved may produce nosebleeds for some, for Clinton Hill, the investment makes financial sense. The overall electrical bill for all 12 buildings runs to roughly $1.1 million a year – and by installing 13 microturbines, the board will see an annual savings of 10 to 20 percent on its electricity bill. The new machines will provide year-round electricity and hot water to more than 700 of the units. Ahrens estimates that, overall, the equipment will reduce overall energy usage by about 40 percent.
The cogeneration equipment doesn’t just save money on electricity bills, it saves on oil costs too. By capturing excess heat waste generated by the production of electricity and turning it to the production of domestic hot water, the microturbines will allow the co-op to turn off four older oil-fired boilers during hot summer months. That, in turn, means fewer pollutants being sent into the atmosphere. (This factor is a huge benefit for Brooklyn, where children’s asthma rates are among the highest in New York City, says Debbie Edelstein, director of Clean Air Communities, a nonprofit organization based in Bayport, N.Y. and dedicated to reducing air pollution. It provided $400,000 towards the Clinton Hill installation.)
Before a co-op makes the investment in a microturbine or another form of cogeneration power, a board should start with smaller steps – improving the building’s weatherization, installing energy-efficient lighting, and switching to Energy Star appliances, which use less electricity. After that, a board should hire an energy consultant to audit its building’s electricity and hot water usage. Then, it should submit a proposal to NYSERDA for assistance with the installation funding. While the process can be time-consuming, says Joe Borowiec, a spokesman for NYSERDA, it is worth doing. NSYERDA offers financial assistance for the installation of cogeneration when the building meets the authority’s criteria for help, and there is also up to $100,000 available for technical studies to determine what kind of cogeneration power is best for the building. Co-op boards seeking information should start with NYSERDA’s website, says Borowiec (www.nyserda.org), and look for information about “program opportunity notice 10-45.”
Two Tudor City Tenants Corporation, a two-building, 333-unit co-op, has just finished its first year with a cogeneration unit, and the president, Greg Fricke, is pleased. The corporation has saved $67,57211, or 11 percent on combined gas, oil, and electricity bills. That translates into more than 40,000 gallons of oil and 1,118,308 kilowatt hours saved. “We could have saved even more if the price of gas and electricity had not gone up so much,” says Fricke. The president credits the corporation’s management company, John J. Grogan & Associates, with alerting the board to the benefits of cogeneration. The board investigated, ultimately hiring Keyspan to put together a proposal for the installation of a cogeneration unit. Keyspan submitted one to NYSERDA and the authority approved it, paying $250,000 of the total $450,000 cost of installation.
“We have a very progressive board,” says Fricke. “I said to the board, ‘It’s worth investing $5,000 in this study,’ and they agreed.” The cogeneration unit was installed by Aegis Energy Services and Leonard Powers, and went on line in May 2005. Because of the success at 2 Tudor City, both 5 Tudor City and 45 Tudor City are also installing cogeneration units. Fricke says the building has been able to turn off its boiler completely for three months, relying strictly on cogen power to produce hot water for the building. “It’s a wonderful thing for the atmosphere. The more we can reduce [pollutants], the better it is for society.”
Fricke points out that his building moved to microturbines even though it was direct-metered, because moving to submetering required a change in the proprietary lease. Now, the board is reviewing a proposal to submeter, and Fricke is confident that changes can be made in the lease to allow submetering, so residents will reap even greater cost savings.
While most co-ops that use cogeneration power are still connected to the city’s electrical grid, the cogen units reduce demand on the grid, lowering costs for the co-ops and providing crucial electricity during spikes in demand and power outages. In return, Con Edison offers buildings with cogen power special rates on its electricity supply, savings that in turn can be passed on to shareholders.
Ahrens believes that the numbers invested make sense in the long run, for buildings and the environment. “The first step is to do a preliminary feasibility study which would look at electricity costs throughout the year and thermal costs as well.” NYSERDA will pay for up to 50 percent of the study, says Ahrens. After that, the co-op can use the study to apply to NYSERDA for help in the installation of a cogeneration unit, getting back as much as 50 percent of the cost. Though it takes an investment in time and money, the long-term benefits include smaller electrical and fuel bills, and less pollution. It’s a win-win for everybody. The issue is getting co-ops to do it. Says Ahrens: “When they are willing to look at this type of commitment for this type of effort, that’s when they should be calling us.”