The Meter is Running
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There's no time to waste when it comes to tackling energy retrofits.
AUTHORWilliam D. McCracken
I attended a year-end meeting with the president of a Manhattan cooperative and an outside engineer. In October, the engineer had informed the cooperative that under the Climate Mobilization Act, the building was probably facing massive annual fines beginning in 2030 if it did not undertake major energy efficiency retrofits to reduce the building’s carbon emissions. This year-end meeting was scheduled to discuss what to do about it.
At the meeting the engineer presented a number of potential compliance pathways. My notes from the meeting reflect that we discussed initiatives such as installing LED lights in the hallways, requiring thermostatic radiator covers in each apartment, installing “smart” sensors throughout the building and entering a rebate program for new solar panels on the roof. The engineer even raised the prospect of replacing the building’s facade, which she said might cost more than $10 million.
The board president — a bit overwhelmed by the range of options and costs, but perhaps comforted by the fact that by 2030 it might be someone else’s problem — sought to bring the meeting to a close without making any definitive commitments. He made a passing remark that “at least we have some time.” But the engineer said that, on the contrary, with the time needed to secure financing, prepare the appropriate scope of work, bid it out, get permits and coordinate the work itself, there was no time to spare. Her final remark made it into my notes and has stuck with me: The building was already “five minutes to midnight.”
The kicker to this anecdote is that the meeting did not happen this year — but back in 2019. Since then, co-op and condo boards have devoted two years to combating the pandemic. And while keeping building residents and staff safe and healthy was certainly an essential priority, there’s no question that all of the time and effort spent over the last two years developing COVID-19 protocols and enforcing vaccine mandates would have been very useful if it could have been spent instead on developing and implementing a rational strategy for reducing building carbon emissions.
On the other hand, the landscape has shifted since 2019 in significant ways that may make it easier for co-op and condo boards to address ways to shrink their carbon footprint. More and more people are willing to discuss climate change as a clear and present crisis. The collapse of the condominium building in Surfside, Fla., this summer has exposed the twin dangers of unit-owners balking at paying for necessary repairs and of boards passing on problems to their successors. The pandemic itself has taught all of us hard lessons about the necessity of tackling difficult existential problems.
As the clock ticks toward midnight on Jan. 1, 2022, my hope for the New Year is that we can all finally start referring to the pandemic in the past tense — and that co-op and condo boards can make up for lost time and get busy readying their buildings for a low-carbon future.
William D. McCracken is a partner at the law firm Ganfer Shore Leeds & Zauderer.