Adams: $4 billion project to convert 100 schools from oil to electric heating

The Adams administration has released a new plan that will make the construction of all new New York City schools completely electric and convert 100 existing schools to run on all-electric heating by 2030. But some energy experts are concerned that too many all-electric buildings in the city could overwhelm the grid and lead to dangerous outages.

The Adams administration has said electrifying schools will eliminate the use of highly polluting No. 4 heating oil, which will have major effects on the city’s carbon footprint and help clear polluted air from the city’s asthma alleys.

Under the $4 billion initiative, called “Leading the Charge,” the city also plans to install high-efficiency LED lights in 800 schools by 2026. The initiative will prioritize schools located in environmental justice communities, beginning with P.S. 5 in Bedford-Stuyvesant, which will be the city’s first existing school to provide all-electric heating.

“What we are going to do in our school system is the equivalent of removing 26,000 cars from the road — cleaning our air, cleaning our environment,” said Adams.

However, some renewable energy advocates and researchers say fortifying the city’s grid and tackling the transportation sector first would be a better use of the city’s money and time. Among them is Bolun Xu, an assistant professor of earth and environmental engineering at Columbia University.

Xu says New York City’s buildings are major polluters. Their heating and cooking oils contribute to most of the city’s carbon emissions. That’s not only harmful to the climate, but also to public health in general — particularly asthma. But Xu argues there are a few big reasons to focus on the transportation industry and updating the grid first.

Xu’s first point is that electric modes of transport are low-hanging fruit. They’re easier to recharge than entire buildings. For example, school and city buses are only in use for a limited amount of time each day, and can be kept charging for the rest of the time, unlike buildings. He added that once electric vehicles hit their charging capacity, they actually return electricity to the grid, which can help power other things.

“A bus plugged into the grid is basically a great battery,” said Xu.

The grid in general is another concern for Xu. New York City’s grid has its limits — both in terms of the capacity it can handle now, and the potential capacity it can handle in the future.

“You do get to a point that the grid will be the final limiting factor,” he said.

Xu said that as both city-owned and private buildings continue to transition to fully electric energy, more strain will be put on the grid. The grid’s growth capacity is strongest in New York’s wealthiest communities and weakest in some of the city’s poorest neighborhoods.

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