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5 Ways to Green Your Building and Get Money to Do It

By Amy Zimmer | July 16, 2014 8:42am | Updated on July 18, 2014 4:59pm
 Experts shared tips on how to green your building and get money doing so.
Ways to Green Your Building
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MANHATTAN — Carnegie House's outmoded ventilation system, leaky pipes and old lights recently forced the 317-unit co-op to embark on a top-to-bottom energy efficiency upgrade.

Such a massive undertaking was feasible only because the 1962 21-story co-op qualified for financial incentives to jumpstart the project, which ultimately helped the building save money on its maintenance and energy costs.

To complete the roughly $788,000 project, the building received $197,000 in incentives from the New York State Energy Research and Development Authority (NYSERDA) and qualified for a loan at about half the market rate.

The upgrades slashed energy costs by 15 percent, which means the building should recoup its investment in less than six years, Carnegie House manager Chris Kelly said.

There are a host of incentives for buildings looking to green their operations, but if you take advantage of one, you might be ineligible for others since programs are often funded from the same place: the Systems Benefits Charge, a surcharge on utility bills. That's why many experts suggest buildings work with specialists in systems efficiency who know how to navigate the programs.

"The landscape of energy incentive programs is vast and non-centralized," said David Sachs, of Bright Power, an energy efficiency consultant. "Some incentives are driven by utilities like Con Ed or nonprofit agencies such as Enterprise Community Partners, others by a state agencies such as NYSERDA, and even federal tax credits. Energy policy is also complex, mandated on a city, state and federal level."

Apartment dwellers — whether renters or co-op or condo owners — should encourage their management or board to make changes since "it can result in a huge amount of savings," advised Matthew Rolnick, of the environmental education group Solar One, which is among the specialists hired by NYSERDA to help people find the best programs.

Carnegie House, for instance, now saves $140,000 a year, with annual maintenance savings for residents ranging from $250 to $475, depending on apartment size, according to NYSERDA.

Here are a few ways for buildings to cut their energy costs:

1. Quick and easy: Change the lighting
Redoing a building's lighting is a relatively simple way to get the most bang for your buck, said George Crawford, of Green Partners, which helps buildings to improve efficiency.

Con Edison, for example, has $15 rebates for replacing certain types of lights and can fund roughly 20 percent of the total cost to convert the lighting for buildings larger than 50,000 square feet.

"Generally speaking, we're talking in terms of two-year paybacks," said Crawford, citing a YMCA on Staten Island that spent $92,000 on an LED retrofit and got $52,000 in incentives from Con Edison. That YMCA's annual power bills for lighting dropped from $27,000 a year to $10,000. The YMCA also saved $5,000 because the LED lights reduced the need for maintenance, Crawford said.

In all, the conversion saved an estimated $22,000 a year.

2. Add solar panels to your rooftop

The luxury condo conversion of Park Slope's pre-war four-story Bennett House, at 582 Second St., included solar panels atop a raised canopy that provides shade on the 1,750-square-foot roof, which also includes greenery, a hot tub and a dining area.

Revamped zoning laws have made it easier for buildings to add rooftop structures like solar panels that can be made "beautiful" and "habitable," according to Oisin Clancy, whose new startup Smart Roof worked on the project.

NYSERDA incentives and tax credits, along with the falling cost of hardware and panels, have made projects more financially viable, with paybacks generally within three to five years, Clancy said.

A relatively small-scale solar project the size of the Park Slope condo — 5.25 kilowatts — would cost roughly $26,250 to install but could qualify for a host of incentives. After a federal tax credit, state residential tax credit, a NYSERDA incentive and a city property tax abatement, the net cost of the system would be $6,025. The energy savings would be roughly $1,000 annually, according to Smart Roof.

3. Make your own power with wind turbines
The Pearson Court Square, a new 197-unit luxury rental in Long Island City, has three rooftop wind turbines powering part of the building's common spaces and amenities.

The turbines and installation cost roughly $100,000 and the project was eligible for NYSERDA incentives that were less than 50 percent of the total cost, according to L & M Development. (Leasing just launched last month and it's too soon to know the savings.)

It's the first NYSERDA-approved small wind project in the city, said Tyler Adkins, of Urban Green Energy, which develops and markets wind and solar-powered off-grid lighting solutions. The company worked on the Pearson project and has about six more in the works.

"For sites that have good wind, the payback can be under 10 years," Adkins said. But if the installation costs are too high — for instance, if a crane is needed just for the turbine — the economics might not be viable.

4. Get off the grid with cogeneration

When Hurricane Sandy hit, the Brevoort, a 1950s-era co-op in Greenwich Village, was one of the few buildings downtown that never lost its lights, water or heat. That was because the 20-story building converted from oil to a cogeneration plant — which cost a reported $3.2 million — enabling it to provide its own electricity.

Cogeneration — also known as combined heat and power (CHP) — is when buildings use natural gas to make electricity and then capture and reuse the excess heat to power air heat and hot water. These projects tend to be more popular with commercial buildings, but a growing number of large-scale eco-minded residential projects are opting for it, like the future mixed-use community at Hudson Yards

NYSERDA offers incentives of up to $1.5 million for cogeneration projects.

5. Go for the holistic approach with a full-building energy retrofit

Buildings doing major retrofits like Carnegie House take advantage of NYSERDA's "multifamily performance program."

It pays up to $1,000 per unit for energy upgrades based on an energy audit, and after the implementation, there's a bonus of up to $300 per unit if a building can meet a minimum of 15 percent in energy savings.

"Most buildings, we find, can meet the 15-percent minimum," Sachs said.

The incentives can be fairly substantial, especially for big buildings, and often are used for various changes like lighting upgrades, addressing building overheating and ventilation improvements, Sachs explained.

"Incentive programs can pay for large portions of the work, and energy financing programs can make those investments cash-flow positive from day one," Sachs added.