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Caton Towers Co-op Moves to Cut Carbon Emissions

Sue Treiman in Bricks & Bucks on September 11, 2019

Kensington, Brooklyn

Caton Towers

Caton Towers is installing a Tecogen InVerde cogen unit (image courtesy the En-Power Group).

Sept. 11, 2019

Long after exploding toilets put Brooklyn’s Caton Towers in the news, the 283-unit cooperative is generating a new kind of excitement. Make that “cogenerating” it. 

The co-op, located in the Kensington neighborhood, is installing a combined heat and power (CHP) system that will simultaneously produce electricity and hot water, saving energy and money while providing power back-up in an emergency. “It’ll offer payback along with resilience,” says the En-Power Group’s director of engineering, professional engineer Amalia Cuadra, who oversaw this project. 

The building-owned machine will generate enough electricity to keep common areas, including hallways and elevators, running – even during a power outage. Meanwhile, excess heat created while producing the power will be siphoned off to heat domestic water for the entire building. The tandem processes will save about $63,000 in annual thermal and electricity fees, and provide the residence with its own back-up power source during any future emergency. 

“We’ll have a gas turbine for 90 percent of the building’s common-area electricity, a natural gas rather than electric bill, and it will pay for itself in five and a half years,” says board president Chris Forte, a 32-year Caton Towers resident. 

With the co-op’s reserve fund footing the entire $740,000 bill, no special assessment or maintenance increase is needed. 

Caton Towers’s energy-saving campaign was in its infancy in 2013, when excessive water pressure caused at least one toilet to explode, and the one in Forte’s apartment to overflow. Three people were injured and a flurry of lawsuits ensued, but the co-op was adequately insured. At the time, the co-op board was trouble-shooting an aging and inefficient building power plant. 

“Oil threatened to eat us alive,” recalls Forte. “It was completely unsustainable, accounting for almost one-third of our $3 million operating budget.” Cuadra was brought in to helm the replacement of a boiler and chiller with more efficient gas-fired units, immediately cutting fuel costs in half and substantially increasing efficiency. And then came the aha moment: the board discovered cogeneration. 

Intrigued, Forte, Ann Monarch of the board’s energy committee, and others began touring CHP-powered buildings. The numbers looked good, and a one-time $178,000 New York State Energy Research and Development Authority grant made CHP even more attractive. 

Luckily, Caton Towers is the perfect size – the economics of cogeneration work best in buildings with 150-plus units – and the building had room for a turbine, although a $35,000 alteration was necessary. “We needed it situated unobtrusively, which required removing an unused chiller,” Cuadra explains. 

She also had to locate a heat-venting radiator outside, far from apartment windows but close enough to keep energy transport costs down. In the end, distance won over cost. “Running the pipes farther out added to the expense,” says Cuadra. 

And a legal contract was drawn up to ensure that mechanical and electrical installers would work in sync. “If the electrical work wasn’t done at the right time, the mechanical job couldn’t be done,” says the co-op’s attorney, Theresa Racht

The logistics stretched planning out for more than four years before everything came together this summer. Installation begins this month, with completion scheduled before the worst of winter weather descends. Perfect timing for peace of mind – and savings. “This,” Forte says, “will be a great long-term idea.” 

The board also hopes cogeneration will help the building meet carbon-emission limits that begin in 2024, especially if the board ventures even into deeper sustainability waters. “Initially, we didn’t think about generating power to apartments,” says Monarch. “It seemed too ambitious. But we may pursue renewable energy via CHP or solar for residences in the future.” 

If past is prologue, says the co-op’s property manager, Vashti Rampersad of Century Management, they’ll get it done. “These people always make good decisions,” she says. 

PRINCIPAL PLAYERS – ELECTRICAL CONTRACTOR: Deluxe Electrical Maintenance. HVAC CONTRACTOR: Crystal Comfort. PROPERTY MANAGER: Century Management.

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