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Dawn of a New Landscape: Queens Climate Project

There’s strength in numbers. That’s the philosophy of a group of grass-roots neighborhood activists who are on a mission to pool resources to cut their buildings’ carbon emissions — even though many of their co-ops are too small to fall under the looming emission caps of Local Law 97. These activists call themselves the Queens Climate Project.


“I’m doing it because it has to be done for the health of our city and because we have a responsibility to take care of the planet,” says Rebecca Fenton, board president at a 15-unit co-op in the Greystone Apartments complex in Jackson Heights, Queens, who joined the project about three years ago and now heads its Green Buildings Task Force. “It’s become a combination of sharing information, education and a network of support. People are excited about improving their buildings, but they’re frustrated about how to make it happen. There’s great technology out there, but how do I actually implement it?”


To answer that vexing question, the Queens Climate Project has hosted webinars connecting neighbors to NYC Accelerator, a free city service that helps building owners navigate the maze of carbon-cutting retrofits and incentives to pay for them. The project brought NYC Accelerator together with 14 prewar Queens co-ops called Hawthorne Court.


“The Hawthorne Court co-ops wanted to work with the other buildings in the complex, which are basically identical,” says Ian Becker, the Accelerator account manager who was paired with the co-ops. “They decided to use the Low-Carbon Capital Planning program.”


That program, run by the New York State Energy Research and Development Authority (NYSERDA), will pick up as much as 75% of the cost of an energy audit, which must focus on one of two things: how to switch building systems from fossil fuels to high-performance electric technology; or how to get buildings ready for electrification. Co-op and condo boards can use the audits to satisfy Local Law 87 and/or map out ways to comply with Local Law 97. (The former law requires buildings larger than 50,000 square feet to undergo an energy audit every 10 years; the latter law will require owners to reduce their buildings’ carbon emissions below certain caps or face fines, beginning in 2024.)


“We organized a bunch of people from all 14 buildings,” says James McIntyre, the board president at one of the Hawthorne Court co-ops. “We wanted to leverage the economics by bringing in several buildings.”


The co-ops then brought in Bright Power, an energy and water management company, to conduct a stringent Level 2 audit developed by the American Society of Heating, Refrigeration and Air Conditioning Engineers. The audit will document all existing equipment and its condition, then offer the boards options for reducing both energy consumption and carbon emissions.


“It’s a win-win,” says Jeff Perlman, Bright Power’s chief executive. “Boards can comply with Local Law 87, plus make a plan for Local Law 97. It’s a planning exercise because these retrofits are not going to happen overnight.” 


Bright Power expects to have a final report ready in early 2023. The co-ops’ out-of-pocket cost is $8,500 — which all 14 co-ops approved unanimously — and the NYSERDA grant covers the rest of the $34,000 price tag. Then the co-ops will have to agree on their next step. Electrical upgrades? Solar panels? Electric heat pumps? “The audit,” says Becker of NYC Accelerator, “will allow them to identify the measures they can implement.”


McIntyre, who works for a non-profit lender that finances green projects, is aware that the incentives don’t stop at the state level. The federal Inflation Reduction Act (IRA) has set aside $27 billion to launch a national green bank, which will help fund renewable energy projects nationwide.


“A lot of buildings in New York City are not currently in compliance with Local Law 97,” McIntyre says, “but there are going to be massive incentives to do the necessary work. I want my co-op to be ready for that IRA money.”


Thanks to the Queens Climate Project, the NYC Accelerator and NYSERDA, it looks like those 14 co-ops will be ready.


“We’re just a bunch of volunteer climate activists,” says Anthony Ng, a shareholder in a Jackson Heights co-op who has been involved in the Queens Climate Project since its inception in 2019. “We’ve worked with other coalitions, including New York Renews and Climate Can’t Wait. Our goal is to get our neighbors and other climate groups involved and plugged in.”

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