The food was familiar at a Mott Haven cooking class on Friday: baked chicken, rice with pigeon peas and spaghetti with vegetable sauce.
But the methods were not.
Chef Sia Pickett taught over the clanging of pans, and a bit of sizzle and hum as she demonstrated how to use an induction range for a Bronx public housing tenant.
There’s a learning curve when it comes to cooking on an induction range, she explained. It offers the control of a gas range but results in a “different type of heat.”
“You gotta play around with it,” said Pickett, who owns a personal chef service called Malata Cuisine. “Everything cooks faster than you think.”
Recording Pickett’s work with her phone was Shavon Marino, a home health aide and one of the 20 residents of 1471 Watson Ave. who will be part of an induction stove experiment for the next six months. Ten will get electric-powered induction stoves, another 10 will use their old gas ranges, as the “control group.”
It’s a program run by the nonprofit WE ACT for Environmental Justice, along with the Association for Energy Affordability, Columbia University Mailman School of Public Health and Berkeley Air Monitoring.
The project kicks off a transition from gas to efficient electric-powered cooking, in what will soon become the first New York City Housing Authority building to fully convert from gas to electric.
Pointing to the oven — which has settings for air frying, broiling, convection baking and roasting — Marino said, “I’m in love already. That’s dope.”
This week, Marino, 33, and eight of her neighbors are scheduled to get their own new induction stoves and sets of special pots and pans to use with them. (So far, one stove has already been installed.)
Marino said she’s looking forward to cooking fish sticks for her 6-year-old daughter using the air fryer, plus personal favorites like lamb chops and sautéed salmon.
“I’m not a chef, but I can definitely throw down some food,” she said.
Even the residents in the control group will have the option of getting new induction stoves installed when the program is over. Every participant will receive $500 in cash at the conclusion of the study.
The goal of the study is to test air quality in the public housing apartments with and without gas-burning kitchens.
A device resembling a metal lunchbox monitored the air in all the participants’ units for a week before any stoves were installed, and another sampling will take place after three months and six months. Separate equipment will track stove usage the whole time.
As climate science has shown that moving away from fossil fuels is necessary to mitigate further environmental damage, the project seeks to understand the challenges and opportunities in one aspect of that shift.
“We’re looking at some of the underlying issues and the need for real support for the owners and the residents of buildings to make that possible,” said Jeanne Bergman, director of programs at WE ACT. “This is becoming a massive trend. We’re at the tip of the spear.”
The findings of the study will inform a policy campaign to ease the burdens of moving from gas to electric-powered cooking for landlords, renters, homeowners and developers, while prioritizing communities most vulnerable to climate change, air pollution and high energy bills, Bergman said.
New York City last year passed a law that essentially bans gas hook-ups in new construction, with rollout starting in 2024.
More than just a stove switch is taking place at 1471 Watson Ave.
The 96-unit development built in 1970, home to 158 people, is set to be the first all-electric building planned in NYCHA’s portfolio, according to Vlada Kenniff, NYCHA’s vice president for energy and sustainability.
“We are pursuing the goal of taking off all the combustion based technologies — heating, space heating, domestic hot water, cooking — and moving all of that into electrified appliances,” she said.
The design process has already begun, with construction expected to start in early 2023 and complete by the end of the year.
Using funds from the state’s weatherization assistance program, a slew of efficiency work has already taken place, including upgraded windows, showerheads and lighting throughout the building.
Five units will be part of a pilot and will have air-source heat pumps installed — which will also provide cooling in the summer — with the aim of installing the pumps throughout the building.
Extensive electrical work, including replacing the electrical panels in each unit and the centralized panels in the basement, will ensure the building can handle the widespread installation of the pumps and induction stoves — “costly upgrades” identified in NYCHA’s strategic plan to reduce its carbon emissions.
The Association for Energy Affordability, which is spearheading the window and heat pump installations, undertook re-wiring work in each of the 10 units that will get new induction stoves as part of the pilot.
With about $40 billion already needed to make improvements across NYCHA’s building stock, the upgrades at 1471 Watson could make the case for investments in electrical upgrades — to “demonstrate that we can do this, and if the dollars showed up, we would like to do this across the portfolio,” Kenniff said, referring to the funding that could come as a result of the passage of the federal Build Back Better Act.
The stakes are larger than NYCHA. In addition to the gas ban in new buildings, existing buildings will need upgrades to meet carbon emissions targets as required under Local Law 97.
The pilot taking place at 1471 Watson “gives a more realistic outlook of what this work looks like,” said Sahara James, a senior sustainability consultant at Kinetic Communities Consulting.
Plus, she noted, the work actively includes people usually not central to planning for the clean energy transition.
“When we talk about equitable electrification, we can’t do it without talking about lower-income people in affordable housing and NYCHA housing,” James said. “We can’t just do one building sector with one socioeconomic class of people and think that we’re going to reach our target goal. It’s just not going to happen.”
What We’re Breathing
Buildings are the culprit for the majority of the carbon emissions in New York City, with furnaces, boilers and hot water heaters responsible for most. Gas stoves spew a smaller share of emissions, but they pose other health and safety dangers to those who use them — and offer an intimate interaction with climate change.
Lighting a stove means combusting a fossil fuel at your fingertips — gas that traveled through a network of pipes into the home from deep underground.
Just turning on a gas stove can release harmful pollutants into the air that are associated with causing or worsening respiratory illnesses. Raising the stakes of the study is the prevalence of asthma in The Bronx, where the highest rates of the condition in the city are found.
The gas that cooks burn to make food is mostly methane, a planet-warming greenhouse gas more potent than carbon dioxide. Gas stoves can leak methane even when they’re not in use, a recent study found.
Gas stoves also emit nitrogen dioxide, which, according to a 2013 study, means that kids who grow up in homes with gas stoves are 42% more likely to experience symptoms of asthma as those in homes with electric stoves.
The Watson Avenue project will measure particulate matter, nitrogen oxide and carbon monoxide, among other compounds, to be analyzed by the Berkeley Air Monitoring Group.
“We need to be able to measure what we’re breathing indoors, and we need to make smart decisions about policies and interventions that are meant to address what we’re breathing indoors,” said Michael Johnson, the group’s technical director.
Marino experienced a scary situation in January, when she smelled gas in her unit. It appeared her stove was the culprit. For two weeks, she used a hot plate NYCHA provided.
On Friday, the authority installed a new gas stove — six days before Marino would get her induction one.
“I just hope there’s no problems with the [induction] stove, but it seems safer than a gas stove,” Marino said.
Back in the test kitchen, Pickett showed how quickly water boiled and, removing the pot from the stovetop, waited a beat and touched the surface with her hand to reveal how fast it cooled.
Unlike regular electric ranges, induction oven surfaces only get hot to the touch where the cookware is.
“I see that it’s less smoke. This doesn’t burn as a regular stove would burn,” Marino said.
Between Pickett’s practical cooking tips peppered throughout the demonstration, the women shared memories of their relatives’ tastiest recipes. Between the stories and her excitement to use the stove, Marino said, she’s inspired to “level up” her cooking.
At some point in the future, Marino said she wants to relocate to a new apartment. And when she does, she wants to take the induction stove with her.
“If I do move, I hope that comes with me,” she said. “I have first dibs on it.”