It’s been a little over a week since mayor Mike Bloomberg unveiled his twenty-five-year plan for climate change and development in New York City, dubbed PlaNYC. It is the most ambitious proposal of its kind anywhere in the world, according to many writers, placing 127 individual initiatives on the table under the categories of land, water, transportation, air quality, energy, and climate change. That’s a lot of work for the local press.
PlaNYC is an excellent illustration of what an environmentally responsible city of the future should look like. The overarching goal is to accommodate about 1 million more people by 2030 while cutting greenhouse gas emissions by 30 percent. Unlike many of the world’s politicians, Bloomberg has figured out that it’s going to take a billowing hodgepodge of solutions to bring a meaningful turnaround in the course of man-made climate change.
A thorough evaluation of everything that is in PlaNYC, however, will take some ink.
In the days after Bloomberg announced his plan at the American Museum of Natural History on Earth Day, April 22, metro desks around the region cranked out the obvious roundups of the event. Unfortunately, as New York Daily News columnist Errol Louis put it, “the public conversation about the plan is being hijacked by a single question—congestion pricing—that constitutes a tiny part of the big vision the mayor has laid out.” Indeed, the majority of news and opinion stories over the past week have fixated on Bowling Green’s plan to charge $8 to those drivers entering Manhattan below 86th Street during peak hours. It’s not hard to understand why this initiative has become so conspicuous—it is a big, but simple change, and one that will affect New Yorkers and commuters more quickly and more directly than other parts of PlaNYC.
But “congestion pricing” is not the crux of Bloomberg’s vision. It will help reduce citywide emissions, but more importantly, it will generate revenue for other initiatives that play a larger role in establishing the city’s green credentials. With that in mind, reporters (and their editors) need to wean themselves off the obvious points of contention in PlaNYC in order to deconstruct and evaluate the real meat of it.
The place to start is buildings, which emit 79 percent of New York City’s greenhouse gases (23 percent comes from transportation), and nearly half of all locally generated air pollution. There are fourteen initiatives listed under the “energy” chapter in PlaNYC and a reporter could choose any one for in-depth analysis. One example of what might result from such an endeavor appeared in the New York Observer, somewhat ironically, about two weeks before Bloomberg officially unveiled his plan. By 2030, the mayor expects 11 percent of new electricity in the city to come from clean “distributed generation.” DG, as it’s called, places small power sources closer to where electricity is used, rather than centralizing production in large, remote plants. An obstacle to this plan, according to the Observer, is resistance from Consolidated Edison, which runs the current power grid and stands to lose by allowing DG installations, such as microturbines. Would-be installers of DG systems fear that ConEd will do all it can to block them because onsite power generation may cause the utility to forfeit business. Microturbines, for example, are “minivan-sized” natural gas generators that can supply power to residential buildings. Even better, they can trap the heat they produce for use in the building’s water system. PlaNYC makes special note of such systems, called “combined heat and power,” or CHP.
Here’s the rub: New York City’s buildings department banned microturbines in 2005. According to the Observer, “it is not the developers or tenants or architects who are standing in the way, but instead regulators and the utility company, which cite safety and technical concerns.” Presently there are at least three Manhattan residences that “have these metal boxes at the tops of the buildings, worth between $50,000 and $100,000, completely idle and offline.” A buildings department task force is examining the microturbines question. It may be that they are not the best CHP solution on the market, but some independent reporting on this question would be useful. Furthermore, other energy plans, such as how the city can impose a greener building code on existing private structures, deserve even greater attention.
The point is that Bloomberg’s plan is complicated, with many moving parts, and the public desperately needs the city’s journalists to aggressively dissect the various components, such as clean DG, and tell us what it all means, what the pros and cons are, and what the likelihood is that any of this will actually come to pass.