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26 April 2019

NY on verge of huge energy overhaul bill, boon for smart building market

New York’s City Council (NYCC) has passed the Climate Mobilization Act, a set of seven bills that won a 45-2 vote to tackle climate change. The most grabbing element is a demand that buildings of over 25,000 square-feet, and there are an awful lot of those in New York, will cut carbon emissions by 40% in 2030, and later 80% in 2050. NYCC is calling on other cities to take similar action, if should some follow suit, a very large market for smart building vendors is about to be blown wide open.

In the utility space, the Act is also setting the groundwork to shut down the twenty natural gas plants that keep the city running, with a feasibility study set to evaluate the ability to replace them with renewable and storage assets. If set in motion, the rip-and-replace opportunity is going to draw a lot of interested parties to the table, who will also be able to bask in the PR-friendly glow of playing a vital role in what NYCC is calling “a down payment on the future of New York City, one that ensure we lead the way in the ever-growing fight against climate change.”

Other elements of the bill call for roofs to be made into green spaces, which might help with local flora and fauna, and possibly improve local air quality. A mechanism to provide commercial property owners with financing for upgrades has also been introduced, called the Property Assessed Clean Energy (PACE) scheme, and changes are being made to make it easier to site wind turbines inside the city – a change which will surely prove immensely popular with the not-in-my-back-yard types.

The Act comes against the ongoing backdrop of the Green New Deal, a (very likely) overly ambitious environmentally-focused economic stimulus bill, brought to the fore by Alexandra Ocasio-Cortez. Something of an antichrist for the Republican party, Ocasio-Cortez has been attacked with much vitriol, but she and her bill lack the wholesale backing of the Democratic party too.

It’s a divisive proposal across the board, and the furor that has been generated is likely to convince the more politically active cities to go their own way, as it seems (in the US at least) that any form of federal directive will be a long way out. Environmental concerns are a cross-party matter in nearly all elections in developed economies, but this also makes them quite susceptible to the winner of the vote’s actual behind-the-curtain enthusiasm for the pursuit.

Consequently, we anticipate a number of the larger cities to forge their own paths, separate from national politics – striking while the iron is hot. If the cities can demonstrate that these are wealth-creation opportunities, they shouldn’t face much internal opposition, and can emphasize the health and social benefits of the policies too.

The 25,000 square-footers account for around 2% of New York’s real estate, but around half of its total energy usage. In the USA, buildings account for about 40% of total energy consumption, according to the EIA, with Transport being the other main energy user. These large buildings are currently subject to the Greener, Greater Buildings Plan, but the new Act is a pretty big stick to whack these buildings with. It goes much further, and it has some barbed financial penalties for missed targets.

While there is plenty of business to go around in smaller buildings, the urban monoliths are what will draw the attention of the largest firms in the sector. With facilities management operators and systems integrators, likely to rack up the largest contract wins, there is scope for a very fertile ecosystem of smaller vendors operating under these two main channels, meaning that even the newest startups have a good chance at making a play inside the largest buildings in the cities.

Some of these buildings are so large that they compare to entire smart city projects alone, easily dwarfing the number of sensors and actuators that might be deployed by a large town. The number of different elements at play mean that these buildings could be some of the densest IoT networks in the field, bringing together the lightning-fast indoor connectivity needed to power commercial real estate, as well as the lowest-power ambient environmental sensors that will be checking for status changes in the building’s fabric.

Many of these networks are not going to overlap, remaining quite segregated. There will be some vendors that choose to try and join everything up, but there will also be some that try this and fail spectacularly. To some extent, there is not a pressing need to try and create a completely interoperable network, as all this traffic is headed up the stack towards the cloud anyway – where it can be completely translated and transformed as needed.

Some of the in-building WiFi vendors have shown an interest in integrating protocols like Bluetooth and Zigbee in their equipment, which would let them move into these smart building applications more directly, while some like Ruckus (Arris) have gone as far as creating LoRa offerings – although interest for this LPWAN option has been cold.

As these buildings become more connected, the possibilities for closer integrations with the utilities that supply them increases. Connected HVAC systems, footfall monitoring, and complete environmental sensing, could transform how a building actually makes use of the utility resources it pays for, and if these buildings can be used as demand-response (DR) candidates, then they become very large grid assets that a utility can use to manage the load of its city networks. Being able to influence a skyscraper’s current energy draw by even 1% might translate to having much greater control over entire neighborhoods.

The Act has drawn some criticism, mostly from those who worry that it is going to exacerbate the city’s problem with wealth and housing inequality. The Energy Efficiency for All New York (EEFANY) group has said that rent-controlled and affordable housing buildings face less strict requirements, and warns that this is going to sharpen the divide in housing quality that low-income communities suffer from.

EEFANY says that because many of these housing resources occupy older buildings, which are a long way from meeting the planned emissions requirements, NYCC should look to make it easier for these buildings to meet emissions targets. There is a very good chance that the laws are going to affect the value of these buildings, with compliant buildings fetching a premium. That could lead to the older buildings falling into disrepair, or looking to increase rents to try to boost their eco-credentials.