How thermal energy networks are a real solution that helps the environment, ratepayers, and workers.
Thermal Energy Networks are “real solutions that are good for the environment, good for ratepayers, and good for workers in the industry,” as NYLCV President Julie Tighe remarked On an unseasonably warm Tuesday morning during NYC Climate Week, government and elected officials, building decarbonization professionals, environmental justice advocates, and union workers and apprentices convened in Long Island City at the Steamfitters Local 638 Training Center to learn about how thermal energy networks can unlock a just transition that creates a pathway for clean energy union jobs.
Thermal energy networks are an elegant climate solution that connects multiple buildings to an underground water loop system to provide highly efficient heating and cooling, free from fossil fuels. These networks can use a combination of geothermal boreholes, waste heat from sources such as a data center or the subway, and heat pumps to keep buildings at a comfortable temperature year-round.
This is not a new technology, but it is newer in New York, where fossil fuels in buildings represent 32% of statewide greenhouse gas emissions. Thermal energy networks can help New York take gigantic leaps toward the goals of the Climate Leadership and Community Protection Act (CLCPA), which requires reducing emissions economy-wide by 85% by 2050, by completely replacing the need for fracked gas in buildings. Thermal Energy Networks have received a boost in recent years following the passage of the Utility Thermal Energy Network and Jobs Act (UTENJA) of 2022. A unique collaboration of environmental organizations, labor unions, and environmental justice organizations, called “Upgrade NY,” united to pass UTENJA to tackle two key problems: the need for neighborhood-scale solutions to get fossil fuels out of buildings, and the need for a just transition for utility workers who work on the existing gas system, both of which create the opportunity for the creation of good jobs in disadvantaged communities. The bill authorized utilities to advance up to 35 pilot proposals for thermal energy networks in their service territories. Already, 11 utility thermal energy network pilots are under consideration before the State and industry to assess different models and start to build this innovative climate solution in New York.
The diversity of solutions being explored in this pilot phase was on display in the first panel, moderated by BDC’s New York Director Lisa Dix. David Orellano of ConEdison described how ConEd’s pilot portfolio explores three very different built environments for thermal energy networks. This includes a project connecting a data center in Manhattan’s Chelsea neighborhood to the Fulton NYCHA houses down the street, bringing not just clean heating but life-saving cooling as residents face increasingly hot and humid summers, and a suburban proposal in Mount Vernon connecting community buildings, small business, and single-family homes.
JP Flaherty, the sustainability strategy lead for Tishman Speyer working with ConEd on a thermal energy network for New York’s iconic Rockefeller Center, made clear that the partnership with the utilities is key to streamlining permitting for projects that involve underground pipes. He noted that the Utility Thermal Energy Networks proceeding before the New York Public Service Commission is sending a strong market signal with the potential to unlock billions in private capital for further private sector work. Aaron Miller of SHARC Energy explained how SHARC’s technology can capture waste heat from sewage and send it back into the network, a valuable solution in places like New York City where waste heat abounds. Tom Kelly, Sustainability Director of SUNY Purchase described how SUNY Campuses, which are comprised of multiple buildings with varied energy uses and wide open spaces for geothermal boreholes, are uniquely suited for thermal energy networks.
As Justin Gundlach, senior advisor at the Department of Public Service, noted, the NY PSC is traveling together with stakeholders on this “journey of discovery” to develop an entirely new category of energy service in NY for the first time in a century.
But none of these projects can be realized without a skilled workforce, and that’s the opportunity that Panel 2 highlighted. Steamfitters Local 638 Political Director Brett Thomason moderated a lively discussion with leaders from the apprenticeship training programs and the clean energy space and urged the model of the Upgrade collaborative be scaled as we take on the task of decarbonizing while spreading community and economic development.
“It’s not just a job, it’s a career.”
Steve Quadra, Director of Training for the Enterprise Association of Steamfitters described how the multi-year training programs bring people in through multiple pathways, with about a quarter joining through Direct Entry programs, to benefit from the combination of classroom work, theory, and hands-on training, while being paid by contractors for this training and graduating into well-paid union journeyman worker. Nicole Bertrand, who works at the Edward J. Malloy Initiative for Construction Skills, described direct entry pre-apprenticeship programs and the tremendous appetite for a career in the unionized construction industry through apprenticeships, driving diversity and inclusion in the construction trades. Melissa Brotherson is a graduate of Non-Traditional Employment for Women, a qualified welder, and an instructor in the Plumbers Local 1 training program. She described how prior to doing NEW, she was working a job, not a career, and finds meaning in the continuous learning that comes with being a part of the Plumbers Local 1 and her pride in working on 1 World Trade during her apprenticeship. Melissa spoke of how the apprenticeship program and union career enabled her to buy a house in Queens, and urged the industry side people in the room: “Provide the jobs, we have the people.”
Sid Nathan, VP of External Affairs with Rise Light & Power, described their plan to transform the gas-fired Ravenswood Generating station into a hub with clean energy, and highlighted their proposed thermal energy network that would repurpose their river water intake system to provide clean heating and cooling to residents of the Queensbridge Houses NYCHA development, which they’re studying with support from NYSERDA.
Attendees of the event felt energized by the tremendous opportunity to leverage New York’s highly skilled union workforce, which through direct entry pre-apprenticeship programs builds pathways to the middle class for workers representing New York City’s diversity, to build clean energy solutions like TENs from the skyscrapers of midtown Manhattan to the suburbs of Westchester. The Upgrade NY collaborative continues to work to uplift and scale this solution to meet our climate goals and spur economic and community development in New York.