Urban Green Council report tracks pandemic shifts in energy use

The nonprofit City Green Council (UGC) has published a new study examining changes in power consumption in the first year of Pandemic. It offers a number of notable revelations. Here are two of the biggest:

First, energy consumption across the city has decreased significantly 9% – but CO2 emissions only went down 7%. According to the report, this separation results from the closure of the in April 2020 Indian point Nuclear power plant in Westchester County, which meant the city had to rely more heavily on “dirty” electricity generated by burning natural gas.

And second, apartment buildings, including cooperatives and condominiums, varied greatly in terms of occupancy rate and energy consumption depending on location and income level. Across the city, the power consumption of apartment buildings fell 3.6% in 2020, but that number is misleading. Manhattan skewed this result as its usage has almost declined 8th% while usage increased in all four outskirts. The sharp drop in home electricity use in Manhattan can be explained by the fact that many residents of the borough had jobs they could do remotely and had the economic means to leave the city at the bottom of the shutdown.

“The big picture here is that COVID-19 has undoubtedly changed how and where we use energy in New York City,” says John Mandyck, the managing director of UGC. “For example, many apartment buildings became mixed-use houses where people lived and worked. We don’t know if this is a trend or a blip. We need to keep collecting data.”

The report is based on readily available benchmarking data on water and energy use in buildings. Reviewing this data, the report’s authors examined water use to determine whether buildings were occupied, leading to the conclusion that Manhattan’s sharp decline in electricity use was due to high vacancy rates.

“Multi-family housing, including co-ops and condominiums, need to change their attitude towards energy use,” he says Sean Brennan, Research Director of UGC. “They could try to encourage people not to work from home. They might want to replace appliances, air conditioners and lights with more modern and efficient ones.”

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While Mandyck acknowledges that energy use patterns will likely continue to change as the pandemic progresses, he notes that there have been two recent encouraging developments. The first was when state regulators gave the go-ahead for a 4 billion dollars Hydroelectric power transmission project that will bring renewable energy from Canada to New York City – and help co-op and condominium managers wean their buildings off fossil fuels, a key step toward meeting city targets 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 in upstate Queens, beginning in 2027.

“These are two big deals,” says Mandyck. “When they’re done, they will replace the energy that Indian Point produced.” And that energy will be “clean,” as opposed to the “dirty” energy that comes from burning fossil fuels.

As with so many things in New York City today, energy use has changed during the pandemic. The report concludes, “Some of the people who had the means to leave New York City did so because eight of the 10 boroughs with the largest declines (in energy use) also had a top 10 median income.”

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