A maze of white and lime green pipes and cylindrical vessels fills a room in the belly of the Grand Tier, a Manhattan apartment building just across from Lincoln Center.
The contraption slurps up most of the building’s carbon dioxide — produced as a result of gas combusting in the boiler — then liquifies and stores it, preventing it from ever reaching the atmosphere. That’s according to CarbonQuest, the company piloting the carbon capture technology.
Eventually, the carbon dioxide gets trucked to Brooklyn, where it’s mixed with cement and used to make concrete blocks.
Depending on whom you ask, the carbon capture system is either a key part of making New York City’s buildings greener — or a distraction from the real work of moving away from fossil fuels. The tension between the two perspectives speaks to broader issues around the challenges of transitioning to clean energy.
“Some buildings are going to take too long [to electrify], and we don’t have time to wait,” said Anna Pavlova, vice president of strategy and market development at CarbonQuest. “We’re not increasing fossil fuel [use], we’re just trying to ensure that those who are stuck with it can still do something about it now.”
But even as CarbonQuest pitches its carbon capture system as a way for buildings to lower their emissions to meet the caps set by Local Law 97 — which goes into effect in 2024 — and avoid fines for non-compliance, the technology does not fall under the methods to comply with the law.
“As currently written, the law does not allow for carbon capture to be used to offset the emissions produced by buildings,” said mayoral spokesperson Kayla Mamelak.
‘An Impact Now’
Joshua London, vice president of Glenwood Property Management, which oversees the 30-story Grand Tier, had a problem on his hands. The building, which contains luxury rentals, had earned a D for its energy efficiency grade, and its owners could face over $81,000 in annual penalties stemming from Local Law 97, according to an NYC Accelerator estimate.
But London wasn’t sure how to comply with the law in a realistic and affordable way. He’d swapped the light bulbs with more efficient LEDs, replaced the windows and switched out old fan motors for computerized, modulated ones — but it didn’t bring the emissions associated with energy use down enough.
“We’re not only resting our hopes on our one thing [carbon capture] to get it through. There’s a lot at stake with the penalties,” London said. “We actually have looked into replacing a boiler with an electric boiler, and it literally required us to bring in the equivalent of a new, full electric service into the building — comparable in capacity to the entire existing infrastructure already in that building.”
But in the carbon capture tech, which diverts about 60% of the building’s carbon dioxide emissions, London said he saw “something we can do that’ll have an impact now on emissions,” and he remains open to getting rid of it once the electric grid becomes greener.
Carbon capture systems are typically used in industrial settings, so its use in a residential building is novel, according to Peter Psarras, research assistant professor at the Kleinman Center for Energy Policy at the University of Pennsylvania. The tech is beneficial for sectors that are difficult to slash emissions from, he said, but felt it should be a last resort for apartments.
Carbon capture “might be the only economic option now. I would hope that each of these buildings did a really sincere look at electrification,” Psarras said, adding that the challenges raise broader questions.
“Is this policy from New York good? Is it forcing technical lock-in?” he said. “Are you forcing the hands of buildings to run this route because it’s the only logistically available and affordable route for them to do so, whereas a heat pump technology with electrification could be down the road?”
‘We Don’t See This as a Viable Solution’
On its website, CarbonQuest says its technology will save Glenwood Property Management as much as $527,000 in penalties under Local Law 97 and reduce a quarter of carbon emissions annually.
But the savings will only become true if the city approves of the technology for Local Law 97 compliance.
To that end, CarbonQuest is tracking the tonnage of carbon captured minus the energy used to power the system and reporting it to the Department of Buildings (DOB). Public records show CarbonQuest hired a lobbying firm in 2022 and 2023.
The matter is under review, according to a May letter from DOB Deputy Commissioner Laura Popa in response to a March letter from a coalition of environmental groups and 10 elected officials expressing concern about the use of carbon capture.
“We don’t see this as a viable solution,” said Shravanthi Kanekal, a resiliency planner at the New York City Environmental Justice Alliance, one of the groups that signed the initial letter. “The ideal solution that we see is really electrification of buildings and weatherization technology. This is really not that because we’re still burning fossil fuels.”
Jenna Tatum, director of the Building Electrification Institute, said she’s neutral on carbon capture’s near-term use to decrease emissions, but questioned the potential long-term use of the technology preventing a transition to clean energy.
“It would allow fossil fuels to continue to be burned inside our homes, which we know causes asthma and other public health impacts that affect children and low-income communities worst,” Tatum wrote in an email.
By prolonging fossil fuel use, she added, carbon capture would result in continued investments in gas infrastructure for some buildings, even as new buildings in New York City must be built without fossil fuels starting in 2024. And as part of a measure included in the most recent state budget, new buildings elsewhere in New York can’t be built with gas starting in 2026.
Part of the Concrete Block
CarbonQuest declined to specify how much the system costs, but estimated it could pay for itself between 3.5 to seven years, and would be about five times less expensive for multifamily buildings than electrifying them — without the disruption to tenants.
Jobs for the Grand Tier filed with the DOB show costs of $1.5 million for mechanical alteration work — including on the heating and air conditioning, ventilation, ducts and piping — to prepare the building, plus $6,800 to install the CarbonQuest equipment.
CarbonQuest sells the carbon — which can go for several hundred dollars per ton — to East Flatbush-based Glenwood Mason Supply Company (no relation to the property management company) and shares the revenue with the building owner.
The liquified carbon dioxide from the Grand Tier fills up a three-ton tank, and a truck comes about twice a week to pick it up and deliver it to the mason company. There, the carbon dioxide is injected into a block, undergoing a mineralization process in which it becomes solid and stored as part of the concrete block.
“It’s there forever,” said Jeff Hansen, Glenwood Mason Supply’s vice president of architectural sales and marketing. “We can cut it, we can crush it, and it’s just in the block.”
Mayor Eric Adams last September issued an executive order directing agencies to use low-carbon concrete for capital projects in order to reduce the emissions inherent in construction (among other actions). Glenwood Mason could benefit from that directive. Hansen said the company uses crushed glass to displace some of the cement in its concrete block and is working to figure out how to sequester more carbon.
“If we reduce the cement in our block, we’re reducing the carbon dioxide content of it, so we’re lowering the embodied carbon within the block itself,” Hansen said.
London is working with CarbonQuest to install systems in five other Glenwood-managed buildings in Manhattan. The rooms that will house the equipment will be made from Glenwood Mason’s concrete blocks, containing the carbon from the Grand Tier.
“It’s a nice circular piece of the economy,” London said.
CarbonQuest will have to figure out to whom to sell the carbon captured from those buildings, since Glenwood Mason Supply currently has enough from the Grand Tier.
Pavlova said CarbonQuest is in talks with other concrete facilities and companies that make sustainable aviation fuel, and is looking into ways to use carbon to displace petroleum in building materials and plastic polymers. She said the company “would never” sell the carbon for use in processes that extract oil or other fossil fuels.
“We’re all about emissions reductions,” she said, “and doing it quickly.”