• Pandemic raises the profile of decarbonization — and clean air — tech for buildings
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Clean energy journalism for a cooler tomorrow

Pandemic raises the profile of decarbonization — and clean air — tech for buildings

As office buildings start to reopen around the world, they must balance increased energy efficiency with indoor air quality.
By Ingrid Lobet

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As New York City’s powerful law requiring owners of large buildings to address their role in climate change rolls toward implementation, an unforeseen issue is arising: Office workers are asking hard questions about the air they are breathing.

The Covid-19 pandemic has exacerbated this complex issue. One way to cut the energy used for heating and cooling is to bring in less fresh air to heat or cool. But as more and more people are vaccinated and offices start to reopen, that tradeoff will be less acceptable to many returning office workers.

These are the kind of problems that keep CEOs of companies at the forefront of building decarbonization up at night. But the opportunities are significant. Billions of dollars in funding from the federal government, as well as from states including New York, are aimed at developing technology that can help solve both problems at once, and do so quickly.

Under New York’s Local Law 97, starting in 2024, owners of buildings over 25,000 square feet in New York City will have to reduce their greenhouse gas emissions below a certain amount per square foot. The reduction target varies by building use, but the penalties for owners who fail to comply are tough: $268 for every ton emitted over the limit, up to a total of $5 million per building.

As landlords plan to replace inefficient, fossil-burning heating and cooling systems and make other needed energy retrofits, Covid-19 safety protocols and other indoor-air questions are suddenly top of mind for customers.

Unfortunately, due to Covid, air quality has become front and center for building owners,” said Keith Kinch, general manager of BlocPower, a climatetech company that has retrofit more than 1,000 buildings, many with heat pumps and solar panels, in disadvantaged communities in New York.

In many buildings, tenants are asking for monthly indoor air-quality reports, said Derek Lim Soo, CEO of Peak Power. The company uses hundreds of sensors in buildings, plus forecasting, to make adjustments, with the ability to shift use off-peak. Its dashboards also provide ongoing updates on air-quality information.

NYC timeline prompts a reckoning on energy and air quality

Both Kinch and Lim Soo spoke at a meeting organized by The Clean Fight NY, a nonprofit accelerator backed by NYSERDA, a ratepayer-funded corporation responsible for advancing innovation and investments in the state.

People want to know how the air systems in the buildings where they live and work can prevent the transmission of viruses and bacteria. They are seeking online information on outdoor air pollution, and asking property owners about the same conditions indoors.

Members of the public are also more aware that exhaled carbon dioxide can build up in buildings with ventilation systems that don’t bring in as much fresh air as codes require. These elevated carbon dioxide levels aren’t dangerous, but they can make people sleepy and impair work performance.

People understand the contaminants in our built environment now,” said Anthony Montalto, a partner at the engineering firm Jaros, Baum & Bolles. Montalto also sits on the board of ASHRAE, the engineering association that sets standards for air quality as well as heating and cooling.

There is a tension between [indoor air quality] and energy efficiency,” he said. Building decarbonization experts everywhere are grappling with this challenge — and adapting innovations in lower-carbon heating, ventilation and air conditioning to help deal with it.

Tapping new tech to condition and clean air

Some heating and cooling solutions don’t even involve moving air. The company Phase Change Solutions uses certified bio-based solid materials that can be programmed with a sensor to soak up unwanted heat when the room temperature rises above a specified set point. The technology can take the shape of a blanket that is situated above the ceiling or panels mounted on walls or ceilings. Then the products warm the room with the stored heat when it gets too cold.

Other devices, called heat recovery ventilators or energy recovery ventilators, can capture heat from stale air as it leaves a building and transfer that heat to fresh air from outside.

The other challenge is that outside air is not always clean air,” said Christian Weeks, CEO of enVerid, especially in polluted cities and buildings located near highways, airports, industrial parks” or other sources of pollution, such as wildfires.

EnVerid produces indoor air-monitoring and air-cleaning units, based on technologies developed for closed environments such as submarines and spacecraft, that are able to strip carbon dioxide from indoor air, Weeks said.

This cuts down on the volume of outside air needed for proper ventilation, which in turn allows owners to downsize heating and air conditioning, lowering both greenhouse gas emissions and cost. The units also remove formaldehyde, volatile compounds and some particulate matter.

Another piece of the decarbonization puzzle will resonate with anyone who has spent time in an overheated New York apartment where the only cooling remedy is to open the window and waste all that heat. Radiator Labs makes a cover that turns radiators into forced-air units, enclosing the heat and only blowing it into the room when a sensor finds it’s getting too cold.

BlocPower, Peak Power, Phase Change Solutions, enVerid and Radiator Labs are among nine companies selected by The Clean Fight NY in a first round to identify commercial-ready technologies from around the world to help New York decarbonize its buildings. The other four are iHandal Energy Solutions, 75F, Enertiv and CarbonCure Technologies. The group plans to select a second round of companies later this spring.

Lim Soo of Peak Power suggested that one benefit of the growing concern about indoor air quality may be that building schedules are more tightly timed or synchronized to draw electricity from the grid during hours when it is cleanest.

In five to 10 years from now, cities will need to be smarter, said Kinch of BlocPower, and populated by buildings that are fully electrified, with battery storage.”

Ingrid Lobet currently divides her time between reporting on climate solutions and investigative work on climate, energy and environmental health.