I work in the basement of my senior year dormitory. This is a lot cooler than it sounds, though – just a few months after graduating from Columbia last spring in Environmental Engineering, I found myself working for a small energy consulting firm that counts my Alma Mater as one of its clients. Before heading back to graduate school to study policy next fall, I am spending time working to better understand real world operational structures and logistical constraints of addressing energy challenges. My job with a small energy consulting firm allows me to see the impact of New York energy policies on our clients’ operations and decision-making processes.

One policy, or rather set of policies, stands out: Mayor Bloomberg’s PlaNYC, in particular the Greener, Greater Buildings Plan. In my experience dealing with the energy portfolios of Columbia and our other clients (mostly hospitals) I see it succeeding for a few reasons – 1) that its requirements are ambitious, yet both achievable and desirable 2) it spurs innovation and creates new opportunities for self-sustaining growth, and 3) it is part of a broader, long-term vision for sustainability in NYC. Emphasizing a strong impact on building energy use is essential given that buildings are responsible for 75% of energy use in the city.

A friend working at a Manhattan-based start up recently told me that at his company exceeding goals is worse than not being able to meet them. Policy makers might learn from this approach – people need goals for motivation and the loftier those goals, the stronger the effort we will put forth to achieve them. To achieve progress in minimizing energy use, energy policy has to push energy consumers to the edge of their comfort zones, spurring innovation and allowing opportunities on the threshold to cross into the realm of feasibility.

From my perspective PlaNYC greenhouse gas reduction targets appear to be the primary catalyst in greening New York City’s buildings. Related benchmarking and auditing requirements (local laws 84 and 87, respectively) can be burdensome to building owners with large portfolios, but have a high potential to generate significant energy savings and short simple payback times, while fueling the expansion of a burgeoning industry.

This is accomplished by relatively straight forward measures, asking of facility owners what many in the energy industry view as common sense. First, aggregate monthly energy is calculated as the most basic performance metric. Then a more thorough energy audit is conducted, in which opportunities for equipment upgrades and energy saving measures are explored. Finally, retro-commissioning is a tune-up of sorts, in which equipment ranging from lighting occupancy sensors to full scale building management systems is checked to ensure it is operating in the most efficient way possible. These opportunities are bundled together in a cost effective package, generally such that they incur a simple payback of approximately five years or less.

Still, the City recognizes that this is no small task, and is taking steps to address stakeholder concerns. For example, I had the opportunity to attend a meeting with PlaNYC representatives to discuss the first year of benchmarking data and solicit feedback from the highest volume benchmarking firms and institutions in NYC. Improvements to the program are being made continually, and this feedback appears to be taken seriously.

There are also less obvious benefits – for example, PlaNYC encourages more people to pursue appropriate certifications and spurs the creation of many new businesses to carry out audits, benchmarking, and commissioning, not to mention related installation and maintenance work. In the PlaNYC 2011 report, total growth due to the Greener Greater Buildings Plan is estimated at almost 18,000 construction jobs by 2030 alongside $750 million in annual energy cost savings.

The amount of data being collected as a result is staggering, with energy use being collected for roughly 16,000 buildings – representing 50% of total building area in NYC, or 2.6 billion square feet. Researchers at NYU and UPenn are analyzing the data collected thus far, and we eagerly await the results. Even better, this data will ultimately be made publicly available, opening the door for still more analysis.

This data will be essential to another component of PlaNYC’s success – the City’s investment in innovation, particularly in the digital realm. Under Mayor Bloomberg, New York City has demonstrated continued commitment to the open data initiative and participation in events like the recent Cleanweb Hackathon, which allowed for the use of publicly available data to create web or mobile apps in less than 36 hours. As an attendee of the hackathon, I got to see firsthand the importance of data collection and availability as foundations for solving emergent energy problems. Moving forward, we can expect to see more useful tools developed in the vein of a new model built by researchers at Columbia University to display energy use intensity across NYC. This tool and others like it should prove invaluable in communicating the impact of our energy use in an easily understandable format – and with the aforementioned benchmarking data made available in the future, can be created using actual building-level energy consumption.

New York City has taken the long view in ensuring sustainability and continued progress in addressing energy use challenges. The recently awarded CornellNYC Tech campus will serve as a center for research, education, and entrepreneurship for decades to come, creating untold economic activity along the way. It is no wonder that other cities are already following our lead.

As is the case for any policy, PlaNYC is not without its critics and far from perfect. Policy
making will always be an iterative process, and this is no exception. Seeing this first hand has more than validated my choice to work for a year before returning to school, and I look forward to bringing to academia what practical knowledge I have garnered this year. In the same vein, I am excited in a few years to bring new knowledge gained in school back into the field – it may not to the basement of East Campus next time, but who knows what the future will bring?

Zak Accuardi graduated in spring 2011 from Columbia University with a BS in Earth and Environmental Engineering. He is now an energy analyst with Gotham 360, LLC, and will be starting his MS in Technology and Policy at MIT in fall 2012.