NYC Future Energy Conference: Meeting the City’s Clean Energy Goals — Dr. Rohit Aggarwala

by Judah Duke

New York is one of many states that has pledged to make its electric grid 100% greenhouse gas emission-free by 2040. In his keynote address at City College’s NYC Future Energy Conference on March 28, Commissioner of the NYC Department of Environmental Protection and the city’s Chief Climate Officer Dr. Rohit Aggarwala told the audience how meeting that goal will require strategic execution.

Aggarwala said the energy transition will need a shift of focus from confirmatory research simply proving the urgency of climate change to pragmatic policy delivering on the implementation of innovative solutions. His discussion centered on the mismatch between society’s need to quickly mobilize solutions and the bureaucratic stopgaps decelerating them.

What we are facing in the world of climate action, broadly, and clean energy particularly, are the basic challenges of making government work better,” he said. “Delivering projects of any kind, in an advanced democratic society, often mitigates against fast delivery of projects.”

Aggarwala works in the mayor’s office. As chief climate officer, the Mayor’s Office of Climate and Environmental Justice reports to him.

His team harbors several responsibilities, including establishing energy policy and taking the lead when the city participates in Public Service Commission proceedings concerning utilities regulation.

In an interview with The RICC, Aggarwala gave examples of some resilient solutions implemented by the city government and the obstacles they face.

Local Law 97, for example, passed during former Mayor Bill de Blasio’s administration in April 2019, pressed owners of the city’s largest buildings to meet energy efficiency standards and emission limits by 2024. The law requires buildings over 25,000 square feet to reduce emissions by 40% by 2030 and reach net zero emissions by 2050.

Buildings have got to do work now,” he said. “We estimate it’s probably between [12,000] and 15,000 buildings that are going to have to do work to comply with the law.”

While renovations will vary by building in order to decrease their carbon footprint, plans to meet the city’s emissions criteria can include either reducing energy consumption or switching to a cleaner source of energy.

That leaves the city’s building managers five and a half years to begin what could be 15,000 discrete renovation projects. It will require technical assistance from the city government, financing from banks and the rapid ideation and implementation of plans from the buildings’ managing agents and co-op boards.

In New York City, it takes two and a half years to renovate a kitchen — let alone change the HVAC system in an apartment building,” Aggarwala said.

However, the city’s ambition hasn’t gone completely unnoticed. On April 22, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency awarded $250 million to NYC and the New York State Research and Development Authority to give New Yorkers better access to clean energy.

Part of that funding, along with public financing, is set to go toward Public Solar NYC, a proposal out of NYC Comptroller Brad Lander’s office to bolster the city’s solar energy consumption by maintaining thousands of rooftop arrays with a focus on lower-income communities.

Inevitably, executing the city’s plans for the energy transition will necessitate trade-offs, Aggarwala said.

One example, core to the conference’s discussion, comes as the city plans to connect two massive underground transmission lines to the city grid.

The first, the Clean Path project, will source power from wind and solar farms upstate and is expected to begin construction this year and become operational in 2027. The other, the Champlain Hudson Power Express project, will source hydro-electric energy from Quebec. Its construction will begin in May and it is expected to be completed by the end of 2025.

Aggarwala’s team is faced with a choice from one of the projects. The connection will either require lines be laid in an environmental justice community in the Bronx or in a city park on Randall’s Island. The city government now must manage the negative consequences of implementing the project on top of facilitating its construction.

That’s a big implementation problem, because the city now has to make a decision: which is the lesser of the two evils?” Aggarwala said.

Another important potential obstacle to executing solutions, while more in the purview of the NYC Economic Development Corporation than Aggarwala’s office, is growing the green energy job market, green technology and the green economy in general.

Policy goes a long way, but if the government fails to find the necessary technology, provider or labor to accomplish its goals, even the best policies will fall flat.

Here, Aggarwala’s optimistic.

New York City has done a good job, in part because we’ve been ahead of much of the country on our policies of being a center for the green economy,” he said. “This is one of the places around the country, you know, along with the Bay Area, maybe one or two other places where green businesses are attracted to set up shop because they know there’s both the labor and the demand.”

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