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The Electric House

After completing a submetering project this year, residents at the West Village Houses co-op, which is an all-electric residential complex, were faced with a challenge familiar to the newly submetered: sticker shock energy bills. “To someone who never paid a Con Ed bill, all of a sudden they have to pay for their own electricity,” says Gail Davis, account executive with Douglas Elliman and site manager at the 42-building 420-apartment complex. “We did our shadow billing in the deep of winter and it came as a surprise to everyone.” Co-op board president Katy Bordonaro says her first shadow bill was $800. The first real bills came in June.

With the submetering done, the board began a new project that will hopefully alleviate some of the sticker shock. Facing a particularly daunting task in reducing energy costs, West Village Houses has signed on to a research and development project with the New York State Energy and Research Development Authority (NYSERDA), and energy consultant and engineer Herbert E. Hirschfeld to develop a heat pump that can be controlled wirelessly and enable the co-op to participate in a demand response program for more energy savings.

The project: focus on apartments in one of the eleven master-metered groups, replacing the air conditioners in the living room and master bedrooms with “heat pump” units.

Heat pumps are similar to air conditioning units, except that they can provide both heat and cooling, Hirschfeld says. In warm weather, the unit acts like a traditional air conditioner, using a refrigerant and dumping warm inside air outside. But when temperatures are between 40 and 55 degrees, the unit absorbs the heat from outside and sends it into the room. Operating in this mode, the heat pump is 2.8 times more effective than a traditional heater or the existing electric baseboard, Hirschfeld says. (At temperatures below 40 degrees, the heat pump acts like a traditional heater.)

“You save a lot of money because roughly one-third of the heating hours are at temperatures above 40 degrees, so that means that one-third of the time during the winter you are using the heat pump in its most effective mode,” Hirschfeld says. And during summer months, Hirschfeld adds, heat pumps will be more energy-efficient than the resident’s current air conditioners, which tend to be old.

Hirschfeld reports that “these benefits can be accomplished by a simple heat pump retrofit. That alone would not warrant incentive funding from NYSERDA. What motivated NYSERDA to participate in this project was their interest in developing a product which could integrate the operation of all these heat pumps, allowing them to provide a demand response capability.” In short, it would enable West Village Houses to reduce its demand, and be able to remove its load from the utility grid when necessary (during hot summer days, for example). That would allow the co-op to increase its revenues by participating in both New York State and Con Edison demand response and curtailment programs, as well as reduce its utility demand charge (ranging from 25 to 40 percent of the total utility bill.)

The product being developed for this project is a wireless controller compatible with the existing wireless submetering communications system (already on-site). That, in turn, will be installed inside the heat pump to provide both local and remote control via the internet. The wireless communications satisfies both the submetering function and the heat pump load control.

Because this is a demonstration project, NYSERDA is picking up the tab for the heat pumps. The co-op contribution will be to pay to remove the existing air conditioner units and install the new heat pumps, as well as cooperate with Tony Abate, the NYSERDA project manager, and Hirschfeld, who will oversee the project and evaluate its impact.

Hirschfeld says he plans to have the heat pumps installed by March. “We’re picking one group of apartments in order to develop and test the technology and evaluate its impact,” Hirschfeld says. “The objective is to develop a product that addresses the all-electric building marketplace in the state of New York.”

If the project is a success, it could be expanded to the entire complex, notes Hirschfeld. Bordonaro says there was a tremendous amount of interest by other residents in acquiring their own heat pumps. “People are very excited about it,” she says. Davis agrees. “We’re not reinventing the wheel,” she notes. “The heat pump technology has been around for some time, but they wanted to test the ability to integrate their operation with a demand response program utilizing the communications system that we already have in place.”

NYSERDA hopes that the project will provide guidance to other all-electric buildings in the state. “All-electric buildings have this problem – electric bills are very expensive,” says Abate. “Heat pumps and the innovation of controlling the heat pump is potentially a great way to lower bills for submetered co-op owners.”

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