Cool Roofs for the City and the Country

paint Cool Roofs for the City and the CountryA few days ago, New York City announced its “Cool Roofs” initiative, an effort to save energy by combining volunteerism and green design. According to the Mayor’s press release:

“Mayor Michael R. Bloomberg and former Vice President and founder of the Alliance for Climate Protection Al Gore today launched an NYC Service initiative, “NYC Cool Roofs,” to mobilize volunteers to coat the rooftops of participating buildings with reflective, white coating to reduce cooling costs, energy usage and greenhouse emissions… A cool roof absorbs 80 percent less heat than traditional dark colored roofs and can lower roof temperatures by up to 60 degrees and indoor temperatures by 10 to 20 degrees on hot days. The decrease in temperature reduces the need for air conditioning, lowering electric bills and reducing energy consumption.  Coating all eligible dark rooftops in New York City could result in up to a 1 degree reduction of New York City’s ambient air temperature – a significant and lasting change towards cooling the City.”

While the city’s building code requires that new buildings include these types of roofs, the city has thousands of old structures that are not subject to these rules but could still be painted and help save energy. This is the low-hanging fruit of energy efficiency. The Mayor and his team should also be congratulated for integrating this program into the national effort to encourage greater volunteerism and public service.

However, in addition to the modest effort announced here, given the level of unemployment in the city and around the country, I wonder why we don’t take some of those billions of stimulus dollars still unspent and put a bunch of people to work painting roofs throughout America. We could start with public buildings, including the nation’s schools. Most people know how to paint or can be quickly trained, and it seems to me to be the kind of “shovel-ready” project that could do a lot of good in a hurry.

While a national program might make sense, what about our own government? The city government itself has a lot of buildings, and buried deep in the press release announcing the cool roofs program is the following puzzling declaration that seems to be the work of the City’s Department of Citywide Administrative Services:

“The Department of Citywide Administrative Services has identified 1 million square feet of roof space on City-owned buildings that could benefit from reflective, white coating, including homeless shelters, police precincts, fire stations, sanitation and transportation garages and office buildings.  Once the results of the pilot program are reviewed, the City will move forward with coating applicable City-owned buildings with reflective, white coating.”

For the life of me, I can’t understand why this agency would think of roof painting as a pilot project. While I can see why a volunteer-based program to paint 100,000 square feet might be seen as an experiment, the energy reduction benefits of these roof surfaces is well established. More to the point, the city can’t be asking private owners to resurface their roofs if they are unwilling to quickly renovate the roofs on their own buildings.

As Mayor Bloomberg heads into his November reelection bid, I think his efforts on sustainability, climate change, indoor air quality and overall public health are among the strongest parts of his very strong record. Still, the press statement on the Cool Roofs program provides an indication of the difficulty of bringing lasting change to city government. While the Mayor’s office is creatively forging partnerships with Al Gore and with the voluntary sector, the City’s own Department of Citywide Administrative Services is taking a “wait and see” approach toward cool roofs. 

New York City’s government faces many difficult, complex problems: Issues such as crime, terrorism, homelessness, education and emergency response come to mind. Painting roofs has got to be one of the easy ones. That is also why a program like this should go national. It is a simple, low-tech action that could put people to work and save energy as soon as the weather gets warm.