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Environment / Technology / Universities

Why this NYU Tandon prof is mapping out all the electricity used in the city

Buildings produce 40 percent of carbon emissions in the country. Constantine Kontakosta is working to change that.

Constantine Kontokosta teaching at NYU Tandon. (Photo courtesy of NYU Tandon)

Buildings are carbon dioxide factories, office buildings especially so. About 40 percent of the carbon dioxide produced in the country comes from buildings.

That’s where Constantine Kontakosta is interested. The NYU Tandon professor and director of its Urban Intelligence Lab has been working on collecting and analyzing data from the city’s buildings for years. Earlier this month, the National Science Foundation awarded Kontakosta and his colleague at Tandon, Joseph Chow, its Faculty Early Career Development Award, or CAREER award, earlier this month. (Editor’s note: The first part of this piece, on Chow, was published yesterday.) The National Science Foundation describes the CAREER Award as the “most prestigious award in support of the early career-development activities of those teacher-scholars who most effectively integrate research and education.”

“We have a treasure trove of information of 23,000 buildings across the city each year and it’s given us this incredible insight into how buildings are using energy and that can help us figure out which ones are performing well and which ones are performing poorly,” Kontakosta explained by phone last week.

That information comes out of a 2009 law passed by the city called Local Law 84, or the NYC Benchmarking Law. It requires large building owners to “enter their annual energy and water use in the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency’s (EPA) online tool, ENERGY STAR Portfolio Manager  and use the tool to submit data to the City.”

That data has allowed Kontakosta and his team to drill down into where and how much energy is being used in the city. The team publishes a detailed map each year showing the results. But data does not tell a complete story, context is necessary, too. The square footage and age of a building can tell you something, but the purpose of the building, the number of people who work in it, these bits of information can be just as important.

As technology has advanced since 2009, many of the readings of water and energy have become automated and more specific, Kontakosta has begun to get a more detailed reading of what’s happening in building, even down to 15 minute intervals, from yearly meter checks.

“My hope is that at the end of the day, the city will have almost an AI for sustainability,” Kontakosta explained. “They’ll be able to understand how energy is being consumed, where the possibilities are for cost savings, and just having that type of integrated understanding of what’s happening in a city.”

But why is it all important? Sure, saving energy is cost efficient and can save some money. Kontakosta says this is a good, tangible reason to work to increase energy efficiency, but it goes beyond that.

“If we’re going to do something about the sustainability of our planet, our buildings are going to have the most dramatic impact.”

Companies: NYU Tandon School of Engineering

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