Mayor Bill de Blasio leapfrogged his leftist rivals this week by “taking the very noble idea of the Green New Deal” and making it “come alive right here, right now.” He has sketched out a vision for the city’s energy future that is radical — and uninformed and implausible.
Topping his agenda is a “ban” on New York’s iconic glass-and-steel skyscrapers, which “have contributed so much to global warming.” The idea that buildings are a major environmental disaster has captured the imagination of many urban greens, as seen last week when the City Council passed its own GND, imposing stricter energy-consumption standards on most structures.
But the council’s plan was modest compared to the mayor’s vision of the city’s future. Hizzoner has declared war on buildings, which he says are most to blame for emissions.
When the mayor talks about emissions, however, he doesn’t mean that the buildings themselves are spewing plumes of dirty smoke. Rather, he is referring to the greenhouse gases that are produced at the power plants that generate the electricity that is used in the buildings. So while it is technically true that buildings use a lot of energy, it’s not the buildings themselves using it — it’s the people in them.
Manhattan commercial activity is the economic engine of New York City, and most of it takes place in large office buildings. Data centers, trading floors and professional services of every variety require massive computing power — an electrical process that generates heat, which must be drained off through huge cooling systems. Air conditioning isn’t just for people’s comfort; computers give off so much heat that they will burn themselves out if they aren’t cooled properly.
It isn’t clear that glass-curtained buildings are the city’s worst energy hogs. True, they let in more sun in the summer, and thus require more cooling, but also less electric lighting; in winter, the extra sun means less fuel for heating. Glass in modern Manhattan skyscrapers is coated, tinted and double-glazed to reduce heat transfer, and buildings like the new ones in Hudson Yards — which de Blasio specifically denounced — are actually at the cutting-edge of sustainability, as defined by the US Green Building Council.
Are cookie-cutter glass skyscrapers aesthetically wonderful? No. But they aren’t driving climate change.
De Blasio also announced that he is going to sign a contract to buy “zero-emission” electricity from Hydro-Quebec as part of his plan to transition New York City toward renewable energy.
But hydropower has its own problems; most states that impose renewable energy guidelines on utilities don’t let them count hydro as renewable energy. Look at a dam, and it’s easy to understand why: Hydroelectric plants take up massive amounts of land, block the flow of water, cause pollution and kill fish.
Moreover, New York City has been talking about buying electricity from Quebec for decades, and it has never come to pass. The plan requires the excavation of a 400-mile trench through the Hudson Valley to lay a cable whose costs will be close to triple that of above-ground pylons; ratepayers will bear those costs, and, ultimately, the cost of litigating the route of the cable through dozens of upstate localities.
Hizzoner also vowed to “convert all of our electricity that the city government uses to renewable sources” in the next five years. All of it will come from renewable energy.”
But the electrical grid doesn’t work that way. The supplier buys electricity from a variety of sources, including gas-, hydro-, wind- and solar-powered generators — but mostly carbon-based.
A consumer can pay the utility extra money to get “only” renewable energy, but as with buying carbon-offset credits, it’s an accounting gimmick. Unless the trench to Quebec can be completed in time, the city will be playing games to get to 100 percent carbon-free electricity.
Similarly, the mayor constantly talks about transitioning the city’s large vehicle fleet, which he has significantly expanded, to electric or hybrid vehicles as a way to “make fossil fuels obsolete.” De Blasio has campaigned vigorously against “Big Oil,” which he calls “the villain” and which he sued for its 150-year-long plot to “get us hooked” on its product — that is, the liquid gold to which we owe the development of the entire modern world.
But for a few limited exceptions, such as solar-powered charging stations, electric vehicles are just as caught in the fossil-fuel tar pit as regular cars are, because the electricity they run on is generated largely by burning gas or coal.
Mayor de Blasio’s national aspirations are leading him to run ahead of the pack to demonstrate his green bona fides, but the physical reality of the city’s energy requirements will short-circuit his efforts to obtain quantum leaps from the status quo.
This piece originally appeared at New York Post
Seth Barron is an associate editor of City Journal and project director of the NYC Initiative at the Manhattan Institute.
Photo by Yana Paskova / Getty