New York's Cooperative and Condominium Community

Habitat Magazine Insider Guide



The Future is Here

The two accounts you are about to read are not science fiction. In the first, a system captures a building’s carbon emissions before they leave the chimney, converts them to a liquid and then sells them to a company that uses the liquid carbon dioxide in the making of concrete blocks. In the second account, a revolutionary new boiler powered by natural gas or liquid propane produces heat and then feeds excess steam into a turbine that generates electricity, drastically cutting the building’s carbon emissions and energy costs. Both stories may sound fantastic, but they’re playing out right now in New York City. And they’re further proof that the tech toolkit keeps growing for co-op and condo boards that are struggling to reduce their buildings’ carbon emissions enough to comply with Local Law 97.


The ‘Circular’ Carbon Economy

The goal of many co-op and condo boards today is to reduce the amount of carbon their buildings produce — by installing solar panels, tightening the building envelope, switching the boiler from oil to natural gas, installing LED lights or electric heat pumps or any of dozens of other retrofits. At the Grand Tier, a 240-unit, 30-story tower overlooking Lincoln Center, the goal is to capture the carbon emissions and then sell them, in effect to turn a liability into an asset.


“We developed a four-step process,” says Brian Asparro, the chief operating officer of CarbonQuest. “First we capture the carbon dioxide after it leaves a boiler or cogen system. Then we separate the CO2 from nitrogen, oxygen and water vapor. Then we convert the carbon dioxide from a gas to a liquid. Then we put the liquid in a truck and send it to Brooklyn, where it’s used to manufacture concrete blocks for the construction industry. The Grand Tier’s system is designed to capture 60% of the carbon emissions from the boiler — which is one-quarter of the building’s total carbon emissions. It’s possible to capture 100% of the emissions. It depends on what the customer is looking for.”


This is what’s known as a “circular” economy, says Josh London, the senior vice president of operations at Glenwood Management, which built and manages the Grand Tier, a luxury rental building that opened in 2004. 


“We’d been looking at ways to reduce our portfolio’s carbon emissions long before Local Law 97 and the pandemic,” London says. “What piqued our interest about carbon capture the most is that CarbonQuest said they could capture between 500 and 600 tons of our carbon emissions a year.”


Beginning next year under Local Law 97, buildings will be fined $268 for every metric ton of carbon they emit above their allowable limit. Emissions of 500 tons above the cap would result in a yearly fine of $134,000. The caps will shrink in subsequent years, most likely pushing fines even higher.


“So we decided to go ahead and do the pilot project,” London says. “We took our time choosing a site for the system. We could have put it anywhere, but we found a spot in the parking garage that’s close to the boiler. Installing it was a real engineering feat.”


The system takes up six parking spaces in the building’s 150-space garage. Though London declines to reveal the upfront cost of the system, he says it will pay for itself in six years or less — partly through the sale of the liquid carbon, which now fetches about $300 per ton. When the 7,000-pound storage tank in the garage is full, a retrofitted truck arrives from Glenwood Mason Supply in Brooklyn to collect the liquid carbon. (The company is not affiliated with Glenwood Management.) The company uses the liquid carbon in the making of concrete building blocks. It can also be used in the making of synthetic fuels, plastics, chemicals and other products, or it can be stored permanently underground.


“This technology is off the charts,” says Jeff Hansen, the vice president of architectural sales and marketing at Glenwood Mason Supply. “We turn the liquid carbon dioxide into a solid, which we inject into the concrete block. It bonds with the cement particles so it’s encapsulated inside the block. We’re taking something bad out of buildings and turning it into something good. We’re helping to decarbonize the city.”


London of Glenwood Management adds: “It’s a technology that needs to be embraced. We can’t sit around and wait for a green electric grid. I think of carbon capture as a bridge between where we are now and where we’ll be when there’s an electric grid that’s fully powered by renewable energy sources. For now, what matters is that we’re reducing the amount of carbon in the atmosphere.”


There are already signs that this nascent technology is being embraced. “We’re doing five more carbon-capture systems in Manhattan,” says Asparro of CarbonQuest. “There’s no reason why any building with a gas boiler or a cogen system, including co-ops and condos, shouldn’t adopt a system like this. We can reduce carbon emissions immediately and cost effectively.”


The Boiler Gets Smart

Phil Fram didn’t like his options. As president of the co-op board in the 74-unit Cambridge House in the Riverdale section of the Bronx, Fram didn’t see a palatable pathway toward reducing the seven-story building’s carbon emissions. The building had been given a D letter grade for energy efficiency and, worse, was facing $60,000 in annual fines beginning in 2030 under Local Law 97, according to an estimate by the energy consultancy Bright Power. Replacing the dual-fuel boiler would have cost upward of $250,000. Switching to electric heat pumps would be a $1 million hit, more than shareholders could possibly afford. After the board made numerous lesser upgrades — insulating pipes, adding heat timers, balancing the heating system — there was no more low-hanging fruit left to pick.


Then at a trade show Fram met Stu Fox, the director of sales with a Connecticut-based company called Enviro Power that has developed a new product known as a SmartWatt Boiler. Running on natural gas or liquid propane, it captures the steam generated by the heating process and feeds it into an internal turbine, which generates up to 6 kilowatts of electricity — enough to put a sizable dent in the electricity needed to power the seven-story building’s common areas.


“The SmartWatt Boiler has a couple of advantages,” Fox says. “It drops right into the boiler room, where it can supplement or replace the existing boiler. It’s simpler to maintain than a cogen, or combined heat and power, system because it has considerably fewer parts. And it’s more affordable.”


Fram invited Fox to give a presentation to the co-op board in 2021, but the board members were leery of this new technology, which was developed in partnership with the century-old boiler manufacturer Burnham Holdings. After the successful installation of a SmartWatt Boiler at Wesleyan University in Connecticut, Fox returned to Cambridge House and got a warmer reception. The board approved the project in late 2022.


After an Investment Tax Credit, the total installation cost is about $65,000, which includes the boiler, related materials and the cost of engineers, plumbers and electricians. The Cambridge House board will recoup its investment in about three years through savings on electricity and natural-gas usage and reduced delivery charges for natural gas purchased from Con Edison.


“Our goal is to have the system up and running by the end of April,” Fram says. “We’ll extend the life of our old boiler because it won’t be used in the summertime to heat domestic hot water. In the wintertime the SmartWatt Boiler will provide hot water, and year-round it’ll generate enough electricity to power half of our common areas. And we’re thrilled to death with the three-year payback.”

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