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Urban Green Council Report Tracks How Pandemic Changed Energy Usage

Bill Morris in Green Ideas on April 21, 2022

New York City

COVID-19, energy usage, clean electricity, Indian Point nuclear plant, co-ops and condos.

Water and electricity usage during the first year of the pandemic declined in Lower Manhattan and brownstone Brooklyn (blue areas), while it rose in all four outer boroughs (orange areas). The data from the gray areas was inconclusive (map courtesy of Urban Green Council).

April 21, 2022

The nonprofit Urban Green Council (UGC) has released a new study that tracks changes in energy usage during the first year of the pandemic. It offers a number of striking revelations. Here are two of the biggest:

First, overall energy usage citywide declined by a hefty 9% — but carbon emissions declined by just 7%. This disconnect, according to the report, results from the April 2020 closure of the Indian Point nuclear power plant in Westchester County, which meant the city had to rely more heavily on “dirty” electricity produced by the burning of natural gas.

And second, multifamily buildings, including co-ops and condos, varied widely in occupancy rates and energy usage, depending on their location and income level. Citywide, multifamily electricity usage fell 3.6% in 2020, but that number is misleading. Manhattan skewed that result since its usage fell almost 8% while usage increased in all four of the outer boroughs. The sharp drop in home electricity usage in Manhattan is explained by the fact that many residents of the borough had jobs they could perform remotely, and they had the economic means to leave town at the nadir of the shutdown.

“The big picture here is there’s no question that COVID-19 has changed how and where we use energy in New York City,” says John Mandyck, the chief executive at UGC. “For example, many multifamily homes became mixed-use, where people lived and worked. We don’t know if this is a trend or a blip. We need to continue to collect data.”

The report is based on readily available benchmarking data on buildings’ water and energy usage. In sifting through this data, the report’s authors looked at water usage to determine if buildings were occupied, which fed into the conclusion that Manhattan’s sharp drop in electricity usage was driven by high rates of vacancy. 

“Multifamily buildings, including co-ops and condos, need to shift how they think about their energy usage,” says Sean Brennan, UGC’s director of research. “They might try to incentivize people not to work at home. They might want to replace appliances, air conditioners and lights with more modern and efficient ones.”

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While acknowledging that energy usage patterns are likely to continue to change as the pandemic evolves, Mandyck notes that there have been two encouraging developments recently. The first was when state regulators gave the green light to a $4 billion hydroelectric transmission project that will bring renewable energy from Canada to New York City — and help co-op and condo boards wean their buildings from fossil fuels, a key step toward compliance with the city's Climate Mobilization Act. The second was state approval for the Clean Path New York project, a 175-mile transmission line that will carry power from solar and wind farms in Delaware County upstate to Queens, beginning in 2027.

“Those are two big deals,” Mandyck says. “When they’re completed, they’ll replace the energy Indian Point was producing.” And that energy will be “clean” as opposed to the “dirty” energy produced by the burning of fossil fuels.

As with so many things in New York City today, there is an element of class in the way energy usage has changed during the pandemic. As the report concludes: “Some of the people who had the means to leave New York City did so, as eight of the 10 community districts with the highest decreases (in energy usage) also had top-10 median incomes.”

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