Lower Building Emissions Are a Boon Public Health

Marianne Schaefer in Green Ideas on November 9, 2017

New York City

Clean Air
Nov. 9, 2017

The top priority for most co-op and condo boards is their bottom line. But in fulfilling their fiduciary duties – while complying with the ever-growing list of laws and mandates – many boards are reaping rewards that go beyond monetary savings. A major, though under-appreciated, one is improvement in the city’s air quality and an attendant improvement in public health.

Consider the 445-unit Executive Plaza condominium in midtown Manhattan, which recently complied with a city mandate to stop burning No. 6 oil in its boilers. Instead of merely switching to cleaner No. 4 oil – which has a lower sulfur content and will be phased out by 2030 – the board installed a natural gas-burning cogeneration system. Since natural gas emits no harmful sulfur dioxide, all New Yorkers could breathe a little easier. 

This is not some tree-hugger’s wishful thinking. Seventy percent of New York’s air pollution is caused by building emissions, and those emissions have been in steady decline. According to a new report from the nonprofit Urban Green Council, the NYC Clean Heat program was a major contributor to a 14 percent reduction in building emissions between 2010 and 2015. Sean Brennan, an engineer at the council, says, “We analyzed data from 2010 up to 2015, and No. 5 and 6 oils had phased out over these years. The mayor’s office, which tracks the energy use of all the big buildings (50,000 square feet and larger, a process known as benchmarking), announced that the end of heavy fuel oil use has prevented 210 premature deaths and 540 hospitalizations annually.” 

The NYC Community Air Survey, released earlier this year, tracked changes in the city’s air quality from 2008 to 2015. The report reveals the following declines in harmful airborne elements that can lead to lung diseases, asthma, and other health problems: particulate matter (18 percent); nitrogen dioxide (23 percent); black carbon (18 percent); and most significantly, sulfur dioxide, a byproduct of the burning of oils with a high sulfur content (84 percent). The report attributes the sharp sulfur dioxide decline directly to “heating oil regulations.” 

“We’ve seen air pollution improvements happening across the city, due to a lot of federal, state and local programs,” report co-author Iyad Kheirbek told the Daily News. “We know that improvements in air quality reduce risks of ... asthma, emergency department visits, cardiovascular hospitalizations, things like heart attacks and stroke.” 

Data is driving these improvements. “The simple act of benchmarking alerted buildings of their energy waste,” says Russell Unger, executive director at Urban Green Council. “Virtually every building we looked at has the opportunity to save money and work more efficiently.” 

Adds Brennan, “Saving energy might be as simple as properly tuning your boiler. Then, when the boiler has reached the end of its useful life, buildings should make sure the new boiler is properly sized. Many of the boilers in our city are oversized far beyond what the building needs.” 

New York City has become a leader of green initiatives, including benchmarking, organics recycling, solar energy incentives, and the most extensive air-quality monitoring program of any U.S. city. “We’re innovating a lot of things that other cities are watching,” Unger says. “The number of big buildings we collect data on every year is almost as much data as the rest of the country collects combined. Citizens are more concerned about climate change.” 

And at Executive Plaza and other forward-thinking properties across the city, boards that share those concerns are realizing that what’s good for their bottom line can also be good for the planet – and for the people who live on it.

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