The New York City Department of Buildings is in the middle of New York’s climate debate, with the agency taking a key role – in conjunction with Department of Environmental Protection Commissioner Rohit Aggarwala – in implementing Local Law 97, the city’s landmark clean energy law. Mayor Eric Adams reorganized the department’s environmental duties into a new Bureau of Sustainability in 2022 in order to centralize duties as the department’s energy portfolio grew. Laura Popa, a veteran city government climate policy adviser, joined the Buildings Department last year as the new deputy commissioner for sustainability, with the goal of writing regulations and plans to implement the new law and push the green agenda in the construction and housing industry. This interview has been edited for length and clarity.
What role is the Department of Buildings playing in the implementation of Local Law 97?
The department has a critical role. We are the implementers – that includes rulemaking. We’re engaged in a series of rulemaking efforts around Local Law 97. And that’ll happen over time. It’s not just now and then, you know, we finished this year and the rules are done. We anticipate new rules will pop up. When we have experience with how owners comply and their reports that may require rulemaking. We have to set up staff to review compliance reports. We have to figure out what those reports look like. We have to figure out how to get that on the DOB NOW system – and how to do that in a way that’s easily understandable for building owners. So we’re the enforcers on the implementation route, we have to determine penalties and decide how to work with building owners in order to get them to comply. So really, all aspects of implementation fall under DOB.
What is the most recent update on the rulemaking on this?
We did a major rule that was finalized in January. That simply told building owners kind of like, here’s how you calculate your emissions limits based on your energy use, etc. And here’s what the emissions limits are for your category of buildings. So building owners know today exactly what their limits are and how to calculate their emissions. The second rule package that we’re working on, which we are hoping to publish this summer, relates to a couple of things. One is the affordable housing buildings: They have a prescriptive path they have to follow. There are 13 measures that they have to undertake, depending on their fuel source. And so one rule relates very specifically to what those measures are and how they’re documented, etc.
Another bill relates to, of course, the penalties for the regular buildings. And that includes what everyone has termed what’s in the law (as) “good faith efforts,” and how all of these mitigating factors are going to be taken into consideration, both defining them and how they’re going to be taken into consideration when determining penalties. We also have some technical amendments to the law. But the package, you know, there are some carrots when it comes to electrification that we’re working on. It’s quite a big package. And like I said, it will hopefully come out this summer. And then we have more rulemaking to handle in the fall.
The department’s Bureau of Sustainability was created last year. What impact has the bureau’s creation had on the department’s work, both in terms of Local Law 97 and more broadly?
There was a strong sustainability team before I got here. They were housed somewhere else. And the focus, they didn’t have their own bureau, the focus was wherever they were housed. The Adams administration and DOB decided to prioritize this issue. So they made us our own bureau. And we basically have undergone a reorganization and we’re staffing up.
Local Law 97 is obviously the biggest challenge that we’re working with right now, but there are other sustainability laws and issues that we cover. We do the benchmarking, the energy audit, the energy grade and this is what DOB had done. Before it was made a bureau, a new lighting retrofit bill that’s going to kick in, Local Law 88, was passed and buildings need to comply by Jan. 1, 2025. That’s another one to implement. We have Local Law 154, the gas ban on fossil fuel hookups for new buildings. So we have a significant amount of bureau staff that’s devoted to energy code compliance. And energy code, as you may know, is for new construction or for significant alteration of buildings. Buildings have to comply with the energy code when they do alterations and new construction. We have staff that makes sure that happens.
Are buildings on track to meet compliance with Local Law 88?
Most buildings will be absolutely on track with this one. Because, again, the payback is in energy saving. And it’s one of the most basic things to do for your building. We’re very confident that buildings are upgrading their lighting and compliance with the law. And we’re going to try and make the lighting and Local Law 97 compliance pathways reporting intersect – be like a one-stop place for building owners to say they have complied with their lighting.
What are the department’s goals for the remainder of 2023 for the implementation of Local Law 97?
One thing to mention is that with the creation of the bureau, one thing that we did in the (reorganization) was we have this new outreach and education unit. This unit is working hand in hand with NYC Accelerator, which is a very important partner for us, in Local Law 97 implementation and sustainability laws in general. And so that partnership, and that arm is going to be doing a lot, because we've done in the past several months a lot of outreach to building owners. We really just want to get the message out there about what is Local Law 97 and what are your other obligations under different sustainability laws.
NEXT STORY: This week’s biggest Winners & Losers