As a native New Yorker, I wear my city’s quirks like a demented badge of honor. While others bemoan the size of an average New York City home (1,300 square feet, or half the national average), I revel in all 220 square feet of my studio, having hammered, stitched and glued my way into a space that, galley kitchen and all, and I can cozily entertain a half dozen guests.
“What,” I scoff, “would I do with more space?”
While elsewhere people clamor for new houses with tissue thin walls, I brag that in my building, built in 1923 with thick sturdy walls and hardwood floors, my neighbors go blissfully unheard. Most Americans get their driver’s license before their 18th birthday – I got mine just a few months shy of my 28th — and only because I’d moved to rural Vermont.
Lately, I haven’t just had my thick New Yorker’s pride to rest upon.
I’ve also had the environment. Thanks to our dense living, (smaller homes to heat and cool), existing sturdy building stock (taking less energy and resources to renovate, than to build from scratch), and the city’s heavy reliance on mass transit, we New Yorkers use less energy than anyone else in the country. This translates into fewer carbon emissions, fewer oil spills, fewer mountains removed in search of coal. Wouldn’t you feel smug too?
New York City wastes too much energy!
You can imagine my chagrin when I learned within my first week working with a sustainability consulting firm whose scope includes sustainable energy solutions, that despite New York’s national supremacy in terms of energy used per individual, on a global stage New York was a laggard — Pepsi to Vancouver’s Coke. The structure of the city makes its lower energy usage all but a given – but it doesn’t also mean that we don’t waste a ton of energy.
In much the same way that New York City forces its inhabitants to use less energy, the city also forces us to waste a lot of the energy we do use. For example, most New York apartment buildings are centrally heated and lack local control. So if your apartment is feeling too hot, you don’t turn down the thermostat (you don’t have one), you crack open a window and release some of that heat energy (often created by burning heavy oil, or natural gas) into the frigid outdoors. Wouldn’t it make more sense to have localized temperature controls and avoid creating, and thus wasting, that energy in the first place?
Or Take Electric Bills — Or Better Yet Don’t
Many New Yorkers (me included) never actually see an electric bill; the cost of powering our apartments is folded into the rent. Our only incentive to buy pricier compact fluorescent (CFL) (or those exciting new LED’s) over cheaper, inefficient incandescent light bulbs, or to eschew space heaters (that devour electricity and cause some 25,000 fires a year), to heat under-heated apartments, is our own eco-conscience — or threat of immolation.
Similarly, many of us also never see a water bill, which means the tremendous amount of energy the City uses to deliver clean water, and to purify waste water also goes unnoticed. In short, New York could use a lot less energy while maintaining its current standard of living.
Add this energy usage to the fuel needs of taxis, and other cars and trucks, and you get a whopping amount of carbon emissions, too. (See Video).
There Are Solutions to New York’s Energy Wastefulness
Buildings create more energy than cars and trucks. The average building, as the good folks over at the White Roof Project like to point out, can slash summer energy use by as much as 40% simply by painting its roof white – a solution that’s not limited to apartment buildings; individual home owners can also follow suit.
Sub-metering and “learning” thermostats like Nest, which keeps tabs on heating and cooling patterns so one uses less energy, while also allowing one to visualize one’s energy usage, are definite steps forward. As are state incentives like NYSERDA’s Residential and Multifamily Performance Programs that provide financial incentives for homeowners and developers who retrofit homes so they use less energy. New York State isn’t the only state with such programs- DSIRE lists incentives by state.
As for me, while I’ve turned down the cockiness knob on how “green” New York is, you’ll have to fight me to the death to give up our regional supremacy when it comes to pizza, bagels and knishes.