A team of researchers at Columbia Engineering has launched an interactive online energy map that breaks down the patterns of power consumption in practically every building in all five boroughs of New York City. Though the map is based on estimates rather than actual metered data, it does provide an easy way to compare real-life usage patterns with the norm, which could help motivate individual property owners to start thinking about the energy conservation potential - and energy generation potential - of their buildings. The map could also help planners and other stakeholders, whether in New York City or elsewhere, outline the energy potential of lots, blocks or entire neighborhoods in the context of long-term energy planning.
The Study Behind the Urban Energy Map
The Columbia team, headed by Ph.D. candidate Bianca Howard with Mechanical Engineering Professor Vijay Modi, produced the map for a citywide study on energy consumption by buildings. In part, the study was designed to raise awareness of the different kinds of fuel used in New York City. Typically the emphasis of discussion has been on electricity consumption, but New York City buildings, in fact, rely heavily on oil and natural gas for heating. As Howard explains:
“The lack of information about building energy use is staggering. We want to start the conversation for the average New Yorker about energy efficiency and conservation by placing their energy consumption in the context of other New Yorkers. Just knowing about your own consumption can change your entire perspective.”
Lessons for New York City...and Beyond
In an announcement of the study, Modi describes a characteristic that New York City shares with many other cities, large and small: it is difficult, if not impossible, for cities to generate an amount of energy within their borders that equals the amount of energy they consume.
Modi notes that "...current electricity distribution infrastructure in many urban areas relies on large amounts of electricity brought in from outside the city, making it difficult to support increased future use without requiring significant investment of resources and funds. We are looking at ways we can address both these issues—reducing our heating bills and increasing local electricity generation capacity.”
Localizing Energy Production
As you play around with the interactive map (here's that link again), one thing that jumps out is the vast potential for harvesting energy from the built infrastructure of urban areas. Raising awareness of that potential is a major focus of the study, but it also goes beyond that. Rather than simply encouraging individuals to install solar panels or other distributed energy systems on their own properties, it encourages neighbors, block associations and entire neighborhoods to investigate how their combined infrastructure could serve as a platform for renewable energy installations.
Adding New Green Value to Old Buildings
Though the map doesn't deal directly with green roof potentials, Modi's comments do suggest a neighborhood-based strategy that could include maximizing rooftop space not only for energy generation but also for stormwater management and energy conservation. Like throughIn other words, the map could spark a conversation about green roof installations as well as distributed energy generation systems.
Energy Independence for Local Communities
U.S. consumers who get their energy from the grid (basically, almost all of us) are so used to paying energy rates that follow regional and global market trends that it is difficult to imagine any other scenario. Columbia Engineering's study points the way to a new paradigm in which a community's resourcefulness and willingness to work together could become a primary factor in determining the price and availability of energy.
Follow Tina Casey on Twitter: @TinaMCasey.
Tina writes frequently for TriplePundit and other websites, with a focus on military, government and corporate sustainability, clean tech research and emerging energy technologies. She is a former Deputy Director of Public Affairs of the New York City Department of Environmental Protection, and author of books and articles on recycling and other conservation themes. She is currently Deputy Director of Public Information for the County of Union, New Jersey. Views expressed here are her own and do not necessarily reflect agency policy.