Green Careers September Recap: Careers Paths to Energy Efficient Buildings

October 28, 2019

By Elena Weissmann Photo by Alicja Osinska On September 10, 2019, the GreenHomeNYC community gathered at GROHE to learn from industry experts about jobs in the energy efficient buildings arena here in New York City. We were lucky to be joined by Elizabeth Taveras of the NYC Division of Energy Management (DEM), Daquan Dennis from the CUNY Building Performance Lab, and Mina Agarabi of Agarabi Engineering PLLC.   Elizabeth, Daquan, and Mina gave participants a glimpse into a day in the life at their current workplaces, an understanding of the journeys that took them there, and advice on how participants might navigate their own journeys into this growing field. They also addressed the impact New York City’s new Local Law 97 will have on both careers and culture in the city’s buildings. Elizabeth, who handles the energy management of all NYC municipal buildings, explained how she jumped off her engineering background into load management, working with a diverse portfolio of buildings that includes museums, schools, and hospitals. She works directly with building engineers/managers to understand and optimize building HVAC usage, helping them save energy without significant financial investment (low-cost or no-cost).   Like Elizabeth, Daquan works to implement low/no-cost measures for buildings, and most buildings in his portfolio are municipal buildings such as courthouses and sanitation sites. His team works with building operators, empowering them through training and collaboration to operate buildings more efficiently. Through an operator coaching process that simultaneously provides field experience for interns, the CUNY team creates individualized paths to success with the ultimate goal of moving beyond greening the grid to using energy more efficiently overall. Mina owns and operates a mechanical engineering consulting firm in Brooklyn, which she founded after working in energy efficiency consulting. She shared insights about making the most of available opportunities for advancement, growing from mistakes, and taking a winding road to fulfillment. In her current role, she oversees diverse projects that promote sustainability in both commercial and residential settings.   Local Law 97: New Jobs, Changing Infrastructure and Culture Shift Each panelist fielded questions about New York City’s newly passed Local Law 97, the centerpiece of the NYC Climate Mobilization Act. The law requires buildings larger than 25,000 square feet to meet strict greenhouse gas emissions limits starting in 2024 and includes a financial penalty for noncompliance. A major takeaway for the audience was that the building energy efficiency industry is about to grow tremendously to prepare for implementation.   The panelists touched on the various hurdles to implementation, both in terms of culture and infrastructure. For example, every panelist shared stories of sustainability and efficiency recommendations being slowly or unevenly adopted by building operators, and witnessing mechanical equipment being manually overridden to avoid tenant dissatisfaction. Without the ground-up collaboration with building managers, tenants, and engineers that the panelists each work on, full implementation would be challenging.   Mina and Daquan both illustrated this principle through stories of disregarded recommendations and emphasized the importance of stakeholder engagement. One example shared by Elizabeth stuck out as a cause for this type of discrepancy: when tenants face uncomfortable temperatures in a building, they tend to call Citywide services at 3-1-1. Landlords see these complaints as detrimental to a building’s reputation and blame the building operator for causing the discomfort. To avoid conflict and blame, building operators may simply choose to disregard DEM recommendations altogether. Elizabeth noted the importance of behavioral shifts, including an increased cultural valuation of building operators.   Making Your Way into the Energy Efficiency Profession To assist with participants’ professional development, panelists also shared tips for job searches and professional growth. All three panelists took advantage of educational opportunities that brought them on new paths and encouraged attendees not to feel wedded to their past nor intimidated by others’ degrees. Although each panelist felt that degrees and educational experience were not always necessary, they did agree that these can be critical components in launching a green career. Daquan shared his retrospective philosophy of trying different things and seeing what sticks, Mina spoke about learning from professional mistakes and building off your existing skillset to find your niche, and Elizabeth emphasized the importance of connections with others in the (relatively small) industry.   Another major takeaway from each panelist is the availability of resources for New Yorkers hoping to develop their understanding of building efficiency and sustainability overall. Grants and tuition reimbursements are available from City and State resources, and low-cost licensure programs exist as well. For example, some City employees are eligible for the Mayor’s Graduate Scholarship Program, which funds study at local universities. The New York State Energy Resource and Development Authority, or NYSERDA, maintains a helpful list of resources as well. The city’s plan to change the way we use energy in our buildings presents both challenges and opportunities as it moves New Yorkers toward a more sustainable way of life. One opportunity is an increase in the number of jobs in the building energy professions, and with that, the variety of paths that can take you there.   Thank you to our panelists and to our host, GROHE, for an informative conversation that undoubtedly sparked many follow-up conversations. ******************************************************************************************************************* Join GreenHomeNYC on October 29th for its upcoming Green Careers panel: Government Edition