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Q&A with Luke Surowiec

What if you could teach old buildings new carbon-efficient tricks?

As New York City works to reduce emissions by 2030, Luke is finding new ways to help thousands of large building owners simplify their journey to clean energy. One building at a time.

Q&A with Luke Surowiec: Reducing building emissions in NYC

Q: What do you do?

A: I lead one of the most ambitious building decarbonization programs in the country.

The NYC Accelerator program provides guidance, training, and resources to building owners and property managers that helps them reduce carbon emissions from buildings across New York City. Working with the Mayor’s Office of Climate and Environmental Justice, we’re improving energy efficiency, promoting clean energy, and transforming the construction and real estate industries.

I know that's a big claim. But transformational change through practical, on-the-ground local initiatives is the only way that New York will meet its climate goals.

Q: Why is this important?

A: When you think about it, buildings are where we spend most of our time. And in a city like New York that has over 1 million buildings, they actually have the largest impact on the environment. Buildings require a massive amount of energy using different fuel types. Older buildings typically use fossil fuels that can release harmful pollutants into the air and dangerous chemicals into the water.

The average building in midtown is over 100 years old! So the first thing we helped the city do was support building owners that had to phase out the most harmful type of heavy heating oil. That was over a decade ago and it worked, dramatically improving the city’s air quality to the cleanest levels in over 50 years. To the millions of NYC residents facing higher levels of air pollution and health issues such as asthma, it's a literal breath of fresh air.

Since then, we’ve been helping tens of thousands of New Yorkers with energy efficiency and clean energy work to help them be in good standing with the next generation of building energy laws. Since 2021, we’ve engaged with over 18,000 large buildings across all five boroughs—or close to 1 billion square feet of NYC real estate.

“You can’t manage what you don’t measure. We’re using data to tell us definitively where we’re making an impact, and where we need to focus our efforts.”

Q: How did you look at this problem differently?

A: State-of-the-art data analysis. Our approach goes well beyond making educated guesses.

We use the wealth of information that New York City has gathered over the last decade to pinpoint the progression of buildings’ decarbonization and energy reduction efforts. Collaborating with building owners and local authorities, we proactively identify the best opportunities for reductions and conservation measures.

From there, we review the thousands of data points our models have ingested on each building, such as typology information and energy usage, which allows us to build a practical and efficient plan to decarbonize it. We generate and review specific upgrade recommendations, then provide guidance and coordinate among the various parties responsible for that building—such as the owner, property manager, service provider, and utility company.

For example, we know thousands of large building owners have work to do to be in good standing with NYC’s Building Emissions Law (LL97). Using our internal and public tools, we help decision makers chart their decarbonization pathway along with building upgrades, vendor, grant, and financing recommendations. Direct referrals and deep relationships across the entirety of this ecosystem help us to accelerate and improve the participant journey.

Q: What’s the next step?

A: Next comes the harder part of our transition to clean energy: electrifying as many buildings as possible so they no longer rely on any type of oil or gas. Once complete, NYC will be one major step closer to achieving its decarbonization goal.

While we're laser focused right now on helping the city reach carbon neutrality by 2050, ultimately we want to impact climate change on a bigger scale. In the U.S., there are thousands of state and local governments and utility companies that have aggressive decarbonization targets of their own. We hope to use these best practices and lessons learned to help them transition to clean energy—and make their communities cleaner, healthier, and more equitable places to live.

Q: How does this project connect to your purpose?

A: I’m passionate about the environment. Plus, the ecosystem of building construction always fascinated me. Working on the NYC Accelerator has given me the opportunity to combine these interests. There are many lessons I’ve learned from the NYC Accelerator. New York City represents a real-world use case for how to practically tackle what seems to be an insurmountable challenge in decarbonizing the largest buildings in densely populated cities in the world.

I've learned so much about buildings: how complicated they are to operate, but also how crucial they are to our emissions reduction efforts. We are making a huge environmental impact. I’m proud to help make a difference in one of the world’s biggest cities and take what we’ve learned here and apply it to other cities. As the song says, “if you can make it here, you can make it anywhere.”

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