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Driving CO2 emissions to zero

Cathy Bussewitz

NEW YORK (AP) – From the outside, the residential high-rise on Manhattan’s Upper West Side looks pretty much like any other luxury building: A doorman greets visitors in a spacious lobby adorned with tapestry and marble.

Yet just below in the basement is an unusual set of equipment that no other building in New York City – indeed few in the world – can claim. In an effort to drastically reduce the 30-storey building’s emissions, the owners have installed a maze of twisting pipes and tanks that collect carbon dioxide from the massive, gas-fired boilers in the basement before it goes to the chimney and is released into the air.

The goal is to stop that climate-warming gas from entering the atmosphere. And there’s a dire need for reducing emissions from skyscrapers like these in such a vertical city.

Buildings are by far the largest source of greenhouse gas emissions here, roughly two-thirds, according to the city buildings department.

New York state’s buildings also emit more air pollution than any other state’s.

So building owners must make dramatic cuts starting next year or face escalating fines under a new city law. About 50,000 structures – more than half the buildings in the city, are subject to Local Law 97. Other cities such as Boston and Denver followed suit with similar rules.

ABOVE & BELOW: A liquid carbon dioxide containment unit stands outside the fabrication building of Glenwood Mason Supply Company in the Brooklyn borough of New York; and chief operating officer Brian Asparro, of CarbonQuest, points to a delivery truck on a touch screen display outlining the process from which liquid carbon dioxide is produced as a byproduct of a natural gas fired water boiler in the basement of The Grand Tier luxury apartment building in New York. PHOTOS: AP

A stack of concrete blocks created with liquid carbon dioxide as an ingredient is pulled from a curing kiln at the Glenwood Mason Supply Company in the Brooklyn borough of New York

As a result, property managers are scrambling to change how their buildings operate.

Some are installing carbon capture systems, which strip out carbon dioxide, direct it into tanks and prepare it for sale to other companies to make carbonated beverages, soap or concrete.

They see it as a way to meet emissions goals without having to relocate residents for extensive renovations. In this case, the carbon dioxide is sold to a concrete manufacturer in Brooklyn, where it’s turned into a mineral and permanently embedded in concrete.

“We think the problem is reducing emissions as quickly as possible,” said chief operating officer Brian Asparro of CarbonQuest Brian Asparro, which built the system. “Time is not on our side, and this type of solution can be installed quickly, cost-effectively and without a major disruption.”

Yet critics, many of them representing environmental groups, say building managers should be going much further: They argue that to achieve meaningful reductions in emissions, buildings should be significantly upgraded and switched to renewable-powered electricity instead of continuing to burn fossil fuels.

They also express concerns about the safety of storing large amounts of carbon dioxide, an asphyxiant, in a densely populated community.

“Carbon capture doesn’t actually reduce emissions; it seeks to put them somewhere else,” said director of environmental justice Anthony Rogers-Wright at New York Lawyers for the Public Interest. “The emissions still exist. And we should be clear that the only way to reduce emissions … is to stop emitting.”

It’s still unclear whether carbon capture technology will even be recognised by New York City as a qualifying emissions reduction; the city has yet to decide. Asparro and others are trying to persuade city officials to accept it.

In the basement of the Upper West Side apartment building, two hulking 500-horsepower boilers rumble, burning natural gas and releasing carbon dioxide. The boilers, which are expected to last another 10 or 20 years, produce roughly half the building’s emissions, Asparro said.


The other half of the emissions that, in the city’s view, the building is responsible for, are those generated at the power plants where the building gets its electricity. The carbon capture system, Asparro said, is trapping about 60 per cent of the boilers’ emissions. All told then, including the electricity to power the system, it’s reducing the building’s emissions by roughly 23 per cent.

“Boilers like this are installed everywhere, in schools and hospitals around the world,” Asparro said. “It’s a really big challenge that buildings are facing in order to reduce emissions.”

The carbon dioxide and other gases are diverted from the chimney and piped into a room where a few parking spaces have been repurposed to house the carbon capture system.

The gases flow over a special material that separates out the carbon dioxide. Then it’s compressed and cooled to minus-10 degrees Fahrenheit (minus-23 Celsius), turning it into liquid that’s then stored in tanks. That process takes energy, and capturing carbon dioxide does increase the building’s electricity use, but overall the system is still reducing the building’s emissions.

More pipes lead to spigots outside the building, where a truck pulls up once or twice a week to load up with liquefied CO2. The truck carries it through city streets and across a bridge to Brooklyn, where it’s sold to a concrete manufacturer.

Carbon capture technology has existed on an industrial scale for decades, used by oil and gas companies and some manufacturing plants to capture climate-warming carbon dioxide and either sell it, or use it to wrestle more oil from underground.

But now a handful of green tech companies and building owners are trying for the first time to deploy this technology on a much smaller scale on residential buildings. New York City’s law requires buildings exceeding 25,000 square feet to reduce emissions. In Minnesota, Radisson Blu Mall of America, a hotel, has installed a system that captures carbon dioxide that’s eventually used to make soap.

Building owners that can afford to pay for carbon capture equipment do receive some federal tax breaks for installing the systems.

There are other incentives available to help update buildings, according to NYC Accelerator, a programme that helps homeowners and property managers find ways to reduce emissions.

To reduce energy use, the apartment building also has computerised motors, fans and pumps, LED lighting and battery storage, said Josh London, senior vice president at Glenwood Management Corp, which manages the building. The company plans to install carbon capture systems in five other buildings this year.

Without action, similar high-rise buildings could face fines of nearly USD1 million annually starting in 2030, Asparro estimated.

Nearly 70 per cent of New York City’s large buildings have steam boilers that run on natural gas or oil, according to NYC Accelerator.

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