Dear EarthTalk: What’s the deal with New York City buildings switching over from heating oil to natural gas? Is this a trend in other U.S. cities as well?
— Mitchell Branecke, Yonkers, NY
Anyone who has lived in New York City knows that particulate matter is omnipresent there. Commonly referred to as soot, such particulate pollution is comprised of fine black particles derived of carbon from coal, oil, wood or other fuels that have not combusted completely.
Due to this preponderance of soot in the air, asthma rates in some parts of the Big Apple (like Harlem and parts of the Bronx) are sky high. Environmentalists have been pointing the finger for years at the dirty residential heating oil used by so many New York City buildings, many of which were built before natural gas was widely available. According to the non-profit Environmental Defense Fund (EDF), just one percent of the buildings across the five boroughs of New York City burn noxious heating oils, but those structures send more particulate matter airborne than all of the city’s cars and trucks combined.
That’s why mayor Michael Bloomberg announced this past June that an innovative public-private partnership (known as NYC Clean Heat) between the city’s government and leading banks, energy providers and environmental groups would be putting up $100 million in financing and other new resources to help buildings there make the switch to cleaner fuels. NYC Clean Heat kicked off last year when the city ordered the phase-out of the dirtiest home heating fuels: No. 4 and No. 6 oils that are still used in some 10,000 New York City buildings and which create a significant air pollution hazard. Switching out those fuels with cleaner burning oil (such as No. 2), biodiesel or natural gas will go a long way toward meeting Bloomberg’s aggressive new “PlaNYC” goal of reducing soot pollution some 50 percent by 2013. The mayor’s office reports that the new restrictions will save 120 lives and prevent 300 asthma-related hospital visits a year, while generating some $300 million in construction activity in the short term.
Property owners interested in a clean heat conversion can access the funding, which is coming from a combination of city coffers and financial institutions including Chase, Deutsche Bank, Hudson Valley Bank, Citi and the Community Preservation Corporation. On the environmental side, EDF is offering technical assistance and outreach to buildings that are undergoing fuel conversions by making available a team of trained energy professional to help evaluate conversion options, coordinate with utilities and beef up energy efficiency measures. As for the utilities, Con Edison and National Grid, the two primary providers for the New York City metro area, have agreed to upgrade their natural gas infrastructure to make it easier and cheaper for buildings to make the switch. And Hess Corporation, the city’s largest residential heating oil provider, has begun to offer customers new incentives to switch to natural gas, ultra-low sulfur No. 2 heating oil and biodiesel.
Large numbers of buildings in several other older U.S. cities, mostly in the Northeast, still rely on dirty heating oil, mostly because they were built before natural gas was widely available. Whether some of these locales will follow New York City’s lead in marshalling resources to facilitate a wholesale switchover remains to be seen and may hinge upon the success of New York City’s program. But no doubt individual property owners who can make the switch are doing it of their own accord due to the low price of natural gas versus oil.