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Mapping New York City's energy hogs

Columbia University researchers create an interactive map of the energy use from New York City's buildings with the hopes of identifying potential efficiency improvements and shared on-site energy systems, such as solar.

Ever suspect your apartment building's heating was poorly managed because you needed to open the windows in winter? Now New York City residents can prove it with data.

Columbia University yesterday released results from a mapping project that shows, block by block, how much energy buildings consume. Providing the data in a visual format makes it easier to locate buildings that are good candidates for efficiency improvements or potentially on-site energy production.

Buildings represent about two thirds of the energy used in New York City, which is a much higher percentage than other parts of the country where transportation takes up a bigger portion. But getting a full picture that includes space heating, cooling, and electricity is challenging. Smart meters, for example, for the most part only track electricity.

The research team collected data from New York City Mayor's Office of Long-Term Planning and Sustainability to build its map, rather than utilities so it does not include any personal information. They then created a statistical model that estimates annual energy use and energy intensity, or energy use per square meter, for every tax lot, which is nearly at the building level detail.

"We want to start the conversation for the average New Yorker about energy efficiency and conservation by placing their energy consumption in the context of other New Yorkers. Just knowing about your own consumption can change your entire perspective," said PhD mechanical engineering student Bianca Howard who was the study's lead author in a statement.

The map, which was built using MapBox, demonstrates the power of visualizing data. Last month, New York City hosted a Cleanweb Hackathon where individual software developers used public energy data to write applications in a similar vein. For example, one group of programmers wrote a mapping application that compared energy data among municipal buildings, such as museums and schools.

The Columbia map allows people to hover over one block and see that it uses more energy than one next to it. That could prod building owners to improve efficiency or install solar or combined heat and power systems for multiple buildings, said Columba mechanical engineering professor Vijay Modi.

"(This map) enables New York City building owners and energy services providers to explore the possibility of two or more buildings, or an entire block, or even a neighborhood, to share resources and infrastructure, and thus save considerably on both energy and emissions," he said.