Photo: Mary Cunningham. Construction workers digging outside Jackson Houses to install pipes for the domestic hot water geothermal system.

New York City’s move to sustainable energy is here – and it’s knocking on the door of NYCHA residences.

At Jackson Houses in Melrose, Adam’s European Contracting and Buffalo Geothermal Heating are on site to install a new geothermal energy system that will provide hot water to all 868 apartments at the NYCHA development in Melrose. Once complete, the system will run entirely off of electricity.

This is all part of NYCHA’s effort to comply with the Climate Mobilization Act, a series of laws designed to reduce NYC’s greenhouse gas emissions. Under Local Law 97, most buildings over 25,000 square feet and select NYCHA residences will be required to reduce their carbon output by 40% by 2030 – just seven years from now – and by 80% by 2050.

Buildings are a crucial target as they are responsible for 70% of greenhouse gas emissions in the city.

“New York is leading the charge in energy transition for cities around the world,” said José Tulio Gálvez Contreras, senior program manager at Solar One, a not-for-profit organization that delivers training in sustainability and renewable energy. “It’s the only city with a set of policies like the Climate Mobilization Act in the world.”

To help the city reach its ambitious goals, the Mayor’s Office of Climate and Environmental Justice created NYC Accelerator, which provides resources and guidance to owners and operators of privately-owned buildings to assist with their decarbonization efforts.

In another effort to edge NYCHA towards renewable energy, Mayor Eric Adams and Gov. Kathy Hochul recently announced a $70 million project to install 30,000 heat pump units in NYCHA buildings to replace the existing climate control systems.

Heat pump technology provides cooling and heating for buildings by transferring heat indoors and outdoors. It can also be used for domestic hot water systems.

This is the case at Jackson Houses. Each of the seven buildings there are being equipped with their own system of underground piping, a heat exchanger, a heat pump and a holding tank. Together, the geothermal system will use heat from the ground to generate hot water for the building.

Moses Murphy, the construction manager for Adam’s European, said the project will take around 18 months. NYCHA’s estimated budget is $34 million.

Geothermal energy is “highly competitive” against rising oil prices, said Buffalo Geothermal subcontractor Michael Hoerner. “You might see a high upfront cost but it’s a lot cheaper, more efficient to run over time.”

Jackson resident Joseph Anderson said he is aware of the high cost of the project and that the upgrades “would mean a lot if [they] work.”

Another resident, a mother who has lived at Jackson for 10 years, felt there are bigger problems that need to be addressed first.  She said the bathroom and hallway in her apartment are decaying — which isn’t helping her son, who has asthma.

“There are issues people have in their apartments they won’t fix,” she said. “Nothing they do benefits us.”

This sentiment was echoed by Sophia Vermudez, who has lived in the building for seven years.

“I don’t want to say it’s a small thing because it is a big thing, it’s water — that’s something we use every day — but there are more big things that need to be solved.”

According to Rochel Leah Goldblatt, deputy press secretary at NYCHA, the agency has selected nine developments for conversion to geothermal systems, three of which are in the Bronx. Fourteen developments in the borough are also undergoing domestic hot water updates.

“We know that a lot of the bulk of the emissions come from the heating system and boilers so that’s where a lot of the attention is,” said Samuel Man, a senior policy advisor for the Mayor’s Office of Climate and Environmental Justice.

The move towards decarbonization is part of NYCHA’s Sustainability Agenda which maps out how the agency will move away from fossil fuels by adapting alternative forms of energy such as heat pumps, hydronic conversions, and geothermal systems.

The agenda also touches on NYCHA’s goal to install 30 megawatts of solar by 2026, enough to power approximately 8,000-8,500 homes, according to Gálvez Contreras. 

The agency plans to do this by expanding their Community Shared Solar program, through which they lease rooftop space for community solar to third-party developers.

“NYCHA pays a low electricity rate that makes it trickier for solar installations to be financially viable than it is for customers paying market electric rates,” said Goldblatt.

Only a small amount of NYCHA residents pay for electricity – approximately 7% according to Goldblatt.

A handful of NYCHA developments across the city are already retrofitted with rooftop solar panels such as NYCHA’s Queensbridge Houses in Long Island City, Queens. The agency worked with a group of partners for the project, including Solar One, to install rooftop solar across 26 residential buildings.

In exchange for leasing their roof space at Queensbridge, NYCHA will receive $1.3 million over the next 20 years. Revenue generated from solar roof leases goes directly to host developments to help with their operational costs, said Goldblatt.

Outside of Queens, Community Power, a community solar project for low- and moderate-income residents, installed solar panels to 40 rooftops at NYCHA’s Carver Houses, Kingsbridge Houses, and Glenwood Houses, in Brooklyn and Manhattan.

The move to solar energy at NYCHA buildings in the South Bronx has been slower to take hold. According to NYCHA’s Capital Projects Tracker, no NYCHA buildings in the South Bronx currently have solar panels.

However, if the agency decides to install solar panels there in the future, it could generate the electricity needed to run geothermal systems, like the one at Jackson Houses.

“Since geothermal runs off of just strictly electric, if you had solar panels or something that made electricity, it basically pairs very well together,” said Hoerner.

Beyond the positive environmental impact, NYCHA’s move to renewable energy also is creating training and job opportunities for residents. Solar One has trained residents through its Green Workforce Program, and the HOPE Program has programs like Sustainable South Bronx to prepare people to work in green infrastructure.

According to Goldblatt, 288 NYCHA residents have been hired through their Energy Performance Contract projects, and over 40 residents have been trained for Solar programs thus far.

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