New York City’s Net-Zero Carbon Target for 2050 Is Achievable, Study Finds

Landmark joint study provides most comprehensive analysis to date of scenarios for NYC’s energy supply and demand through midcentury

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April 15, 2021

NEW YORK – New York City can achieve carbon neutrality by 2050 through a dramatic ramp-up of renewable energy, deep emissions cuts across its building and transportation sectors, and transitioning to low-carbon fuels, according to a joint study led by the Mayor’s Office of Sustainability and the two major energy companies, Con Edison and National Grid.

The study analyzed three pathway scenarios to understand the opportunities, risks and tradeoffs for advancing programs and policies promoting energy efficiency, electrification, and renewable electricity and gas. The report does not make policy recommendations, but highlights multiple strategies that could help the City meet its energy and climate goals. The utilities – essential partners in supporting citywide decarbonization – will consider these findings as they work toward a net zero future for all the communities they serve.

“New York City must transition to a clean energy future and this analysis provides a path forward that will ensure we not only meet our climate goals, but that we do so equitably.” said Susanne DesRoches, Deputy Director for Energy & Infrastructure, NYC Mayor’s Office of Sustainability. “We thank our partners at National Grid and Con Edison for their ongoing collaboration in creating a healthier, cleaner and more just New York City.”

“Con Edison is committed to delivering the clean energy future our customers want and this study will be a resource to guide our efforts,” said Gurudatta Nadkarni, Vice President, Strategic Planning, for Con Edison. “Through our Clean Energy Commitment, and by working with the City, our customers and other partners to lower emissions from vehicles, transportation, buildings and power generation, we can create a New York with thousands of good-paying green jobs, cleaner air, and improved lifestyles. We’ll need to be flexible and open-minded to adjustments in our assumptions and strategy as economic and technological trends shift course.”

“At National Grid, we believe in the science of climate change, and we are doing our part to ensure that we are mitigating our emissions, and those of our customers, across our states and service areas through our Net Zero by 2050 Plan. For years, we’ve been engaged with our communities and stakeholders on their climate concerns, and we are excited to continue our work aimed at accomplishing our net zero future alongside our New York City customers, the Mayor’s Office and Con Edison,” said Sheri Givens, Vice President, US Regulatory and Customer Strategy. “This study shows us an in-depth analysis of the ways we can reach a clean energy future while still meeting the energy needs of our customers in a safe, reliable, and affordable manner. It confirms that the path forward will ask each and every one of us to use every available tool at our disposal, including technology and innovation, to achieve carbon neutrality.”

The study, supported by ICF, the Energy Futures Initiative, and Drexel University, is the most comprehensive analysis to date of viable scenarios for New York City’s energy supply and demand through 2050, including identifying the potential costs.

Along with the Mayor’s Office, ConEdison and National Grid, the study included a 25-member technical advisory committee of national and local stakeholders, including New York State Energy Research and Development Authority, New York Independent System Operator, National Renewable Energy Laboratory, Environmental Defense Fund, Natural Resources Defense Council, Real Estate Board of New York, NYC Environmental Justice Alliance, among others. New York is already on an ambitious clean-energy path thanks to existing State and City policies but the study points to additional steps that could be needed to meet a net-zero target. They include:

  • Energy efficiency improvements to more than 900,000 buildings and electrification of heating and hot water in up to 642,000 buildings;
  • Strong adoption of all-electric cars, reaching 375,000 in 2030 and more than 1.5 million in 2050.  New York will need at least 800,000 Level 2 chargers by midcentury to accommodate the electric vehicles, and another 60,000 fast-charging stations if larger trucks are electrified;
  • A dramatic switch to renewable power generation, as well as a significant adoption of energy storage to help meet demand for electricity when solar panels and wind turbines are not producing. By 2040, the proportion of electricity from fossil fuels will fall to nothing, from 60 percent today;
  • A transition toward low-carbon fuels such as renewable natural gas and hydrogen to leverage the network for the remaining gas needs, along with rapidly increasing building energy efficiency and electrification.

The cut in emissions will have wide-ranging benefits for those who live or work in New York City, as well as the tens of millions who visit each year.

The amount of energy efficiency work necessary in buildings will spawn new businesses and job opportunities, and result in buildings that can be more comfortable; a low-carbon fuels gas network could support decarbonization of end uses currently too challenging to electrify, and improve energy system reliability by offering optionality and flexibility; an electrified transportation system with fewer personal vehicles and more transit, bicycling, and ridesharing could improve air quality, and reduce traffic and travel times.

Achieving carbon neutrality by 2050 is critical to remaining aligned with the Paris Climate Agreement.
It will also require careful planning and investment. Without management, peak demand for power could more than double by 2050 and that peak would occur during the winter. That would require upgrades and expansions of the electric grid. But the study found that several technologies, including managed electric vehicle charging, dual fuel heat pumps, and aggressive energy efficiency offer opportunities to shave peak electricity demand and limit the increase to 30 percent.

Several Options for Reaching Net-Zero Carbon
While decisive action is needed today in some areas, the study details multiple options for reaching net-zero carbon emissions over the longer term, depending on how technologies evolve, and which technologies receive the heaviest emphasis from policymakers and residents.

The study outlines three “pathways” with distinct technology deployment strategies: an “Electrification” path focused on electrifying building heating systems and vehicles; a “Low Carbon Fuels” pathway that relies more on renewable natural gas and hydrogen; and a “Diversified” pathway that looks at what might be achievable by pursuing the key elements from the first two strategies at the same time.

Each pathway is projected to reduce emissions by at least 80 percent by 2050 (on a 2005 baseline), and the Diversified Pathway could take the reductions beyond 90 percent. In 2020, NYC emitted about 56.5 million tons of carbon dioxide equivalent; that is projected to fall to 6.7 million tons in 2050 under the Diversified Pathway, even as New York City’s population grows.

In any scenario, the City will also need to develop a framework to consider limited amounts of high-quality carbon offsets to neutralize its hardest-to-reduce emissions. Major investment will be required to decarbonize America’s largest city and the total directional costs are estimated to be $1.5 trillion to $2 trillion between 2020 and 2050. The total costs include investments for anticipated new construction as well as costs that would need to be made in any circumstance over the next 30 years to fuel cars and buildings, as well as replace old vehicles and building equipment. Further cost analysis will be required as more information becomes available, given the uncertainty of projecting 30 years into the future at a time of unprecedented energy-system transformation.

Further Innovation and Broad Collaboration Needed
Many of the technologies required to decarbonize the City are available and cost-effective today. But further innovation would be needed to achieve the reductions projected in each scenario, in areas such as long-duration and seasonal storage, geothermal districts, hydrogen blending, and carbon dioxide removal. Breakthroughs in these or other clean-tech sectors could help fill decarbonization gaps and drive down costs. Scale will also be necessary; for example, low-carbon fuels are available but only in limited amounts.

Progress toward net-zero will require support and contributions from a broad array of stakeholders – policymakers, innovators, utilities, financiers, building owners, skilled trades and unions, and environmental justice advocates, not to mention the millions of people who live and work in New York City. 

“The Energy Futures Initiative (EFI) appreciates the opportunity to have participated in this groundbreaking effort,” said Melanie A. Kenderdine, Principal and Executive Vice President of the Energy Futures Initiative. “The study underscores that the ambitious strategies needed to address the climate crisis are achievable, and continued collaboration between the City and its investor-owned utilities will unlock New York City’s potential for the low carbon transition.”

"Achieving a decarbonized future hinges on understanding the options for how to get there and the respective roles of the public and private sectors. For this study, ICF took an integrated modeling approach that captures the unique opportunities, challenges and costs to realize deep carbon reductions in New York City’s energy demand and supply sectors,” said Anne Choate, Senior Vice President for Energy, Environment and Infrastructure at ICF. “We are proud to be a part of this groundbreaking, collaborative effort with the City, Con Edison and National Grid, as well as our partners at Energy Futures Initiative and Drexel University, to help make the City’s carbon neutral goal a reality.”

“This project was a unique opportunity for an institution of higher education to contribute to a first-of-its-kind study involving both public and private partners,” said Hugh Johnson, senior associate research development administrator in Drexel’s Office of Research and Innovation, and one of the university’s project leads. “These types of collaborations among diverse stakeholder groups are needed to develop actionable plans for reducing emissions.”

Read the full study

“This comprehensive assessment of options for meeting New York City’s climate commitments is just what is needed now,” said Sally Benson, Professor of Energy Resources Engineering, Stanford University. “I hope many other major cities around the world follow their lead.”

“This study importantly evaluates peak thermal and electrical demand dynamics, which is one aspect of energy resilience, that leads to carbon neutrality being achieved in both gas and electric sectors,” said Jack Brouwer, Associate Director of the National Fuel Cell Research Center and Advanced Power and Energy Program, University of California, Irvine.

“Dramatically reducing the carbon footprint of large cities across the globe is required in order to avoid the worst effects of global climate change,” said Christopher Cayten, Partner and Senior Director for Strategic Growth, CodeGreen. “This comprehensive study shows that through the collaboration of private and public sectors, New York City can be leader in decarbonization. CodeGreen will continue to support research and implementation to drive down the carbon footprint of the building sector.”

“This was a trailblazing study with respect to the breadth, depth and integration of economy-wide interventions, technological resources and economic impacts considered,” said Anthony Fiore, Deputy Commissioner and Chief Energy Management Officer, Department of Citywide Administrative Services. “It moves beyond top-down scenario planning toward on-the-ground, actionable, localized planning necessary to rapidly transition to a clean energy economy and reduce the most catastrophic impacts of climate change.

“As we stand on the edge of potential, historic levels of investment in infrastructure that confront the climate crisis, this joint study provides a clear choice between pathways that each achieve New York City’s ambitious greenhouse gas reduction target,” said Robert Freudenberg, Vice President, Energy & Environment at Regional Plan Association. “Following these equitable pathways to decarbonization means New York City can lead again in addressing the root cause of climate change to make the City and the greater region a more healthy, prosperous, equitable, and sustainable place.”

"This study is critical to understanding how energy will be supplied and used over the next 30 years in New York City,” said Jane Gajwani, Director, New York City Department of Environmental Protection’s Office of Energy and Resource Recovery Program. “As DEP continues to plan how to reach carbon and energy neutrality as an Agency, this study helped bring into focus for us the highest and best use of the renewable resources we are stewards of, and how to achieve the greatest good for both the City and the environment."

“New York has millions of residents and $3 trillion of insured coastal properties vulnerable to climate change,” said John Mandyck, CEO, Urban Green Council. “We need real carbon neutrality for the health of the planet and the viable functioning of our city. Decarbonizing our buildings is especially important to tackle nearly 70 percent of NYC’s emissions.”

“The Building Congress was proud to serve on the technical assistance committee and work on this necessary endeavor,” said Carlo Scissura, President and CEO, New York Building Congress. “The findings underscore the need to invest in clean-energy infrastructure, make existing structures more efficient and create a truly carbon-neutral New York City. All of this is key to building our way out of this current crisis and into a prosperous future.”

“The International District Energy Association was pleased to participate on the Technical Advisory Committee to help assess the strategic importance of the Con Edison Steam System in energy-dense Manhattan as well as the potential for deployment of district energy systems, particularly geo-exchange solutions, to achieve lower net carbon emissions for clusters, campuses and communities across New York City,” said Rob Thornton, President and CEO, International District Energy Association.

"We need an all-of-the-above strategy to achieve economy-wide carbon-neutrality by 2050,” said Julie Tighe, President, New York League of Conservation Voters. “This study shows that electrification, deep energy efficiency retrofits, and clean fuels together can help meet our emission reduction goals while creating green jobs. By implementing some of the scenarios described in this landmark study, New York can lead the way as a clean energy powerhouse." 

“This thoughtful study illuminates many necessary connections that must be made between demand side technologies, supply side strategies and community needs in order to equitably and most cost effectively reach carbon neutrality,” said Mark Zuluaga, CEO, Steven Winter Associates, Inc.

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