Sane Energy Project has been a fan of biodiesel since the NYC local law that required buildings to stop burning heavy heating oils went into effect in 2011. That law, enacted by the Bloomberg administration, was the excuse to build out more natural gas infrastructure, including the Spectra pipeline and the Rockaway pipeline, and for Bloomberg to justify his support for fracking in upstate New York.
While we encourage buildings to convert their boilers to cleaner fuels, we’d prefer building owners and superintendents to make decisions with a greater awareness of the options. That is only now starting to happen.
The Lie of “Cleaner Burning.”
Many building owners and government officials bought into the propaganda that shale gas is “cleaner” and would stave off asthma cases in New York City. However, if cleaner air is really the goal, the law would be changed to encourage the use of biodiesel, the cleanest heating fuel, and combined with better incentives for the use of renewables and efficiency retrofits, with programs such as on-bill financing.
Unfortunately for those who thought they were doing a good thing, it turns out that burning shale gas has a worse effect on air quality in both the local and larger sense. Of course burning shale gas means more fracking, and since air impacts can affect a radius of 200 miles, New York is well within the zone for drilling that’s being done in Pennsylvania. Not only that, shale gas produces MORE particulate matter (a leading cause of asthma) than number 2 oil, and far more particulate matter than biodiesel.
When a burner using heavy oil malfunctions, thick black smoke is released from the chimney. The oily soot has been a plague for years and it’s good to see the skies looking cleaner. But is it actually cleaner? According to boiler expert Henry Gifford, when a burner using gas malfunctions, it releases carbon monoxide, which is invisible. How will we know when that happens?
A History Lesson.
For the first several years that the law was in effect, decision makers were essentially shown only a portion of the menu, with heavy emphasis on gas conversions and incentives to sweeten the deal. The City’s own “Clean Heat” program, a partnership between Con Ed and EDF (labeled by some anti-frackers as the “Environmental Destruction Fund” for their alleged green-washing programs), fed into a panicked rush by building managers to comply with deadlines. When Con Ed couldn’t build gas mains fast enough to meet demand there was near-hysteria in parts of the Upper East Side. Public forums turned into shouting matches between co-op board presidents and fractivists.
As was to be expected, many more buildings converted than were required to; only 1% of the building stock ever needed to convert. The investment required for two new transmission pipelines would not have made economic sense simply to service a mere 10,000 buildings. Projections repeatedly targeted 50% of buildings to convert. (You can use this map to see how many buildings have already converted to gas.)
With the expense of constructing new pipelines and mains to consider, Con Ed made building owners “an offer they couldn’t refuse:” A system known as “clustering,” encouraged neighboring buildings to convert whether they needed to or not. Say the building next to you needed to convert. Well, Con Ed wouldn’t run a gas main down the block for just one building. So they offered buildings in a particular area free connections if they committed to gas–noting that, should they decide to convert later on, the connection (possibly a $100,000 cost), would no longer be free. With gas prices as low as they have been, many building owners went for it, even with conversion costs running into the hundreds of thousands or millions of dollars. Even with those kinds of large capitol costs, the only testimonials on the Clean Heat website today are from owners who have converted to gas.
Will Gas Prices Spike?
All indications point to future price volatility with gas. The majority of shale fields have already peaked, and even the motherlode that is the Marcellus is expected to peak starting in 2016, just one year from now. Combining future production drop-offs with the current push for export, higher global prices are likely to raise domestic gas prices.
Another unexpected shift has been the overproduction in the Bakken oil fields combined with OPEC’s move to flood the market, lowering heating oil costs.
At the same time, the biodiesel industry is developing. Algae is expected to be the energy crop of the future, with very high yields anticipated. Even locally, companies such as Tri-State Biodiesel are expanding production, anticipating enough clean fuel to heat at least 10,000 buildings.
Where Are We Now?
Things have calmed down since the initial frenzy after the law was passed. Even the Clean Heat program now includes BioD in it’s menu of options. Con Ed also relaxed the rules for buildings, no longer insisting that they disable their storage tanks if they choose to convert to “firm gas” (all gas) in order to take advantage of all the incentives offered.
At this point, of the approximately 10,000 buildings that were required to convert, less than 1,000 buildings remain undecided in their fuel choices. We’d love to see those buildings choose the sustainable conversion we and others envision: a program that combines efficiency measures with biodiesel and solar thermal for hot water.
And beyond the remaining #6 burners, there is hope for expanding the use of bioD in the future: For one thing, more buildings converted to Number 2 oil than converted to firm gas. Those buildings can still convert to BioD any time they would like, with very low or no additional cost. And, many of the buildings that wanted to take advantage of “cheap” gas prices converted to “dual fuel” boiler systems. Dual systems allow for the burning of gas OR liquid fuels, which means they can also choose to burn biodiesel any time the pricing works in their favor.
For us, a recent article in the Indypendent (in which we were also quoted) offered us hope that biodiesel will catch on as more superintendents become familiar with it. Here’s what one building manager, who’s quoted in the article, says about his real life experience with biodiesel:
Mitch Lappin, who runs a 12-story, 120,000-square-foot office building on West 20th Street, said that he was initially skeptical of biodiesel. But after cleaning out the fuel tank and making a few adjustments to the air and fuel intake, the biodiesel performed better than he expected. “According to one of my combustion guys who tested the boiler’s efficiency, he said: What you’re pushing now as far as efficiency of that boiler, which was, so to speak, born in 1979, it’s fantastic. I don’t see those numbers anywhere.”
For more information about boiler conversions, click here.