Sunday, December 9, 2012

What's next for white roof painting?

What's next for NYC CoolRoofs, the City's white roof painting project, after the Bloomberg Adminstration? 

During 2008 - 2010, I spent a lot of time promoting white roof painting, both as a volunteer project at Sierra Club's NYC Group with John Kolp, and through my day job at LIC Partnership,
 to the commercial building community

I thought it would be a good way to recruit volunteers who wanted to do something tangible and practical to slow global warming, while also lowering air conditioning costs and the urban heat island effect, which makes NYC even hotter in the summer than surrounding greener areas. 

In figuring out how to explain the project to commercial building owners, I learned a few things.  The cost of the expensive, highly reflective coating can be paid off through lower air conditioning costs in about three years, for a few buildings that meet certain criteria: owner-occupied commercial buildings of one or two stories that had black tar roofs and were not very energy efficient. For other types of buildings, it would take much longer for the investment in coating to pay for itself.

Business owners are more willing to invest in energy efficiency programs with a return on investment within three years, and more reluctant the longer it takes to get return on their investment.  I can attest that as a voluntary program for building owners, despite the offering of free volunteer labor to paint the roof, NYC CoolRoofs had limited appeal.  There was not enough in it for them.

Even if nonprofit organizations were more environmentally concerned, they were even more reluctant to pay for the paint.  Sometimes NYC CoolRoofs could sweeten the deal by bringing in corporate sponsors willing to pay for the coating in addition to the free volunteer labor already offered by the City. 

While that was an easier sell, even free paint, free labor and a green marketing opportunity did not guarantee the consent of nonprofit groups to having strangers tramping on their roof and hopefully not causing any damage.  Using my day job connections in the western Queens business community, I was able to contact many nonprofit facilities, and 
referred about 20 buildings to NYC CoolRoofs
How much rooftop space has been painted white?

According to the NYC CoolRoofs 2011 annual report, since the program’s launch in 2010 it has coated 2.5 million square feet of rooftop across 288 buildings. In 2011, 1.3 million square feet was coated.  Building owners coating their own roofs accounted for about 600,000 s.f. of 2011’s figure.   Cause for enthusiasm?

How much of the City’s total rooftop space is that?

Columbia’s Urban Design Lab, looking at available space for rooftop agriculture (p. 40), found that NYC has approximately 1 million buildings, with a total of 38,256 total acres of rooftop area. Columbia University’s study on green roofs and stormwater retention cites a figure of about 1 billion square feet of rooftop space in NYC.

So to put things in perspective, NYC CoolRoofs has been able to coat around 1/1000th of the City’s roof space white each year.  It's fair to say that it's more important as an educational and organizing tool than a mainstay of the City's energy conservation efforts. Recognizing that reality can help guide NYC's white roof painting efforts, and the work of its advocates.

As a voluntary program, white roof painting has a very limited impact: it’s like pushing a rope. It will only appeal to a small number of volunteers and businesses large enough to be concerned about promoting their image as a green company. As I explain in my report “Engaging Community Groups to Promote Energy Efficiency, Solar Power and Local Agriculture,” it’s easier to promote voluntary sustainability initiatives if they provide financial benefits to New Yorkers.When sustainability initiatives don’t provide those benefits, they must be required by law in order to be adopted as standard practice.

A few months back I ran into one of the key contractors for the NYC CoolRoofs program and we discussed the difficulties of getting building owners to sign up voluntarily.  She told me some very good news: the NYC building code had been changed so that for new construction or replacement of existing roofs, owners had to use roofing materials meeting minimum standards of
rooftop reflectivity.  Here's the NYC Council bill.  Here's the NYC Building Code update.

My guess is that NYC CoolRoofs - as a program appealing to voluntary roof painting - will disappear at the end of the Bloomberg Administration. 

Its legacy, the building code change, is mundane and to most New Yorkers virtually invisible.  However, it's extremely significant.  A small percent of NYC roofs get built or replaced every year. By requiring reflective roofs as a matter of law, NYC's roofs will gradually and inexorably become much cooler.  The lesson here is simple: where neither incentives nor free market solutions will work, sensible government action is required.  Kudos to the NYC officials who raised the bar.