Op-Ed | Why the Bronx can lead on electrifying buildings for community health and jobs

Photo Jan 09, 11 33 13 AM
FDNY respond to a 5-alarm fire in the Fordham Heights section of the Bronx on Sunday, Jan. 9. The massive blaze claimed the lives of 17.
Photo Lloyd Mitchell

January’s five-alarm fire that tore through the Twin Parks North West building brought grief throughout our community for the 17 neighbors and their homes that were lost. In the aftermath of this tragedy, we heard that tenants had frequently issued complaints about the building’s lack of heat, and an emergency space heater helped spark the fire. Recent research from Renthop found that out of the 20 neighborhoods with the most unique heat complaints, a shocking 85% were in the Bronx.

This is unacceptable. Bronx residents, no matter if they are low-income, immigrants, Black or brown, deserve basic rights inside their homes— including the right to reliable heating and cooling. That’s why we must move quickly to upgrade our buildings to be smarter, greener, healthier and prevent further tragedies.

The Bronx can lead New York City on electrifying buildings by ripping out oil and gas burning heating systems that frequently break down and replacing them with modern, all-electric and safe equipment, like air-source heat pumps as well as induction or electric stoves. When building owners electrify their homes, businesses and houses of worship, we can provide solutions for three compounding issues facing our community today: health and safety, economic opportunity and climate change.

There is more and more evidence that every time we burn oil and gas to heat our homes or use gas stoves, we are damaging our lungs with harmful toxins like nitrogen dioxide. A study published last month by Stanford University found that methane is leaking from gas stoves even when they are turned off. Children living in homes with gas cooking have a 42% increased risk of developing asthma.

Fossil fuels are already taking a grave toll on the health of Bronx residents, and especially children. The South Bronx has an asthma rate eight to 12 times the national average due to its proximity to three major highways. This is an environmental justice crisis, and gas-burning stoves and HVAC systems inside homes are only making matters worse.

As an alternative, heat pumps work by absorbing heat from the outside air, even on cold days, and pumping it indoors. They can also run in reverse, providing cooling in the summer and eliminating the need for an air conditioner. Heat pumps are 2-4 times as efficient as conventional gas, oil or electric resistance. They are also quiet and clean.

Electric stoves are already gaining steam in the Bronx. An exciting pilot project between Columbia University and WE ACT for Environmental Justice just kicked off in Mott Haven to provide induction stoves to residents who want to make the switch from gas stoves to induction.

Right now, BlocPower offers building owners an innovative financing model that makes replacing this aging equipment affordable and easy. Building owners can enjoy the immediate benefits of heat pumps, without paying a tremendous amount of money (or any in some cases) out of pocket. To reduce the cost of retrofit projects, BlocPower’s experts also take advantage of energy rebates and tax programs like New York state’s Clean Heat Program and the NYSERDA Multifamily Performance Project.

The upfront costs to upgrade large buildings to all-electric can be expensive, and might seem like a barrier for many low-to-moderate income building owners. But there are financial and political solutions in front of us that will ensure that all Bronx owners have access to building electrification over the next few years.

In 2019, New York state was a leader in passing the Climate Leadership and Community Protection Act, a historic law that promises to reduce climate pollution in the state by at least 85% by 2050. However, it has yet to be fully funded by the state. A whopping 67% of all greenhouse gas emissions in NYC comes from our buildings. That’s why we must pass another bill, the Climate and Communities Investment Act, to secure funding in this year’s budget by charging polluters for their harmful and dirty emissions. We can then use those funds to modernize and electrify the Bronx’s aging heating and cooling systems.

When we upgrade buildings to be all-electric, we also create good, green job opportunities for Bronx residents. In September, BlocPower partnered with the Mayor’s Office to launch a Civilian Climate Corps, which is ensuring that climate tech jobs are going to communities like the South Bronx that need it most. Just several months into the program, the company has already prepared more than 1,000 individuals for careers in climate technology, including heat pump, solar and community WiFi installation.

In Assembly District 80, for example, BlocPower has enrolled nearly 60 participants, the majority of which are still active in the paid training program. More than 75% of the participants have earned their OSHA cards, and a dozen graduated and are now working in a local, climate tech job. Imagine the career opportunities when we expand this program to more Bronx residents.

It’s clear that the need to move quickly to electrify the Bronx’s buildings is not only a matter of health and safety, it is also a win-win for those seeking to be part of the clean energy revolution in New York. The Bronx doesn’t just need building electrification — it deserves it.

Nathalia Fernández is the member of the New York State Assembly representing the Bronx’s 80th District. Keith Kinch is the general manager and co-founder of BlocPower, a Brooklyn-based climate technology company.

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