With its bustling streets, dense population, and notoriously high traffic density, air quality in New York City has always been a topic for concern. Air quality here has been improving in recent years, but it’s not as “breathable” as it should be. There are a few main factors that contribute to NYC’s air quality, but there are also many solutions – one of these being the adoption of clean solar energy.

Read on to learn about the current state of air quality in NYC, the significant air pollution issues affecting the city, and how solar energy can play a pivotal role in achieving a cleaner future.

How is the air quality in NYC today?

In general, due to the City’s hard work towards lowering local emissions, NYC has been seeing consecutive decent air quality since 2017 with an average AQI of below 50. The AQI varies from borough to borough, with Brooklyn having the lowest AQI.

Even though air quality in NYC is progressing, it still remains a leading environmental health threat to all New Yorkers. Emissions from transportation, power plants, commercial and residential heating, industrial activities, and geographic factors contribute to the city’s air pollution challenges.

If you were in the city in early June, we don’t need to tell you that bad air quality can have significant health impacts. On June 7, 2023, New York City had the worst air quality in the world reaching an AQI of 405 out of 500 due to wildfires in Canada. The sky became orange, and the air became hazardous to breathe – for everyone, but especially children, the elderly, and those with pre-existing respiratory issues. Below was the view from our office in Gowanus:

This year’s wildfire season in Canada is on track to be the most destructive in history, made more severe by climate change-induced droughts and extreme temperatures. For us New Yorkers, it’s safe to say it could become a recurring issue.

Air Quality Issues Impacting New York City

Several factors contribute to poor air quality in NYC. Let’s explore some of the key culprits:

Transportation Emissions

As a densely populated city with millions of residents and tourists, transportation emissions pose a significant threat to air quality. Data shows that 30% of NYC’s GHG emissions come from transportation.

Vehicle exhaust, particularly from cars and trucks, releases harmful pollutants such as nitrogen dioxide (NO2) and fine particulate matter (PM2.5), leading to respiratory problems and other human health issues. Idle cars specifically are a significant contributor towards poor air quality.

Power Plants

Power plants that rely on fossil fuels for electricity generation contribute to air pollution. These plants release pollutants such as sulfur dioxide (SO2), nitrogen oxides (NOx), and carbon dioxide (CO2). These emissions not only impact local air quality but also contribute to climate change.

NYC’s many fossil fueled peaker plants – used to provide extra surges of electricity during times of peak demand – emit twice as much carbon dioxide and 20 times as many nitrogen oxides as regular power plants. According to reports from the Department of Health and Mental Hygiene, neighborhoods like Mott Haven and Melrose in the Bronx, which are home to multiple peaker plants, see triple the asthma-related hospital visits for children compared to the rest of the city.

Commercial and Residential Heating

The heating systems in commercial and residential buildings in NYC are still widely powered by fossil fuels. The primary use of fuel oil and natural gas combustion releases pollutants like PM, NOx, and volatile organic compounds (VOCs) into the air creating ground-level ozone (a component of smog). 

Commercial and residential heating accounts for 14% of fine particulate matter pollutants emitted into our air. This is more PM emissions than all the cars and trucks in NYC combined. 

One way to personally combat these emissions is by switching your home to solar and electrifying your HVAC. Get a free quote today to see what solar can do for you.

Industrial Activities

Industrial processes, including manufacturing and construction, releases dust and pollutants into the air. Construction happens night and day in NYC, making it a significant air quality issue. The dust, chemicals, and emissions from industrial activities can have detrimental effects on air quality if not appropriately managed.

There are ways to manage air quality concerns for construction. According to plans from the East Side Coastal Resiliency project, the city is actively taking steps to limit emissions and dust from the project, such as:

  • Use barging for large deliveries and restrict truck idling time
  • Minimize use of diesel engines
  • Cover and secure loads for all trucks hauling loose material including sand and dirt
  • Use water spray for roads, trucks, truck wheels, excavation areas,and stockpiles
  • Use extra care, including more frequent application of these measures, during dry and high wind periods

Importance of Improving Air Pollution in NYC

Improving air quality in NYC is crucial for the health and well-being of its residents and visitors. Clean air helps reduce the risk of respiratory diseases, cardiovascular problems, and other health complications. Addressing air pollution and quality in NYC also aligns with global efforts to combat climate change and transition into sustainable energy sources.

There are a number of benefits to improving NYC’s air quality:

Public Health & Quality of Life

The World Health Organization has recognized air pollution as a significant public health problem. Ambient air pollution is estimated to have caused 4.2 million premature deaths worldwide in 2019. By improving air quality, we are decreasing the risk for creating, or worsening, health issues for the people of NYC.

Environmental Justice

While air quality has been improving in recent years, not all New Yorkers have experienced those improvements the same way. In NYC, low-income areas and communities of color are disproportionately impacted by low air quality. In fact, when the Canadian wildfire smoke impacted NYC, the zip codes with the highest numbers of asthma-related hospital visits were disproportionately in low-income Black and Hispanic communities.  

There are a number of local organizations doing important environmental justice work throughout the city. One such organization is WE ACT for Environmental Justice, who works to improve environmental conditions specifically in Harlem, where children are hospitalized for asthma three times as often as the rest of the city.

By recognizing these disparities and working to improve air quality conditions, we can move towards a more just future for all New Yorkers.

Climate Change Mitigation

Mitigating climate change means improving air quality and vice versa. Burning fossil fuels produces greenhouse gasses that are responsible for both poor air quality and the warming of our planet. 

NYC is already taking action to reduce greenhouse gas emissions, as mandated by the Climate Mobilization Act, by moving towards greater energy efficiency and by expanding the city’s capacity for electricity generation from renewable sources like solar.

Tourism and Economy

NYC is one of the epicenters for tourism. Heavy tourism tends to decrease the air quality of the visited area, but good air quality is considered one of the main attractions of tourist destinations. Improved air quality will increase NYC’s tourist economy as well as keep its native New Yorkers healthy.

Brooklyn SolarWorks customer under solar canopy on roof in Brooklyn
Switching to clean energy sources like solar is a clear solution to improving NYC’s air quality.

How Can Solar Energy Improve Air Quality?

The biggest contributor to poor air quality is the burning of fossil fuels, whether it be for transportation, heating, or electricity generation. Naturally, decreasing our dependence on fossil fuels is the best way to reduce air pollution.

One of the many advantages to solar energy is cleaner air in NYC. Solar power is a clean and renewable energy source that produces electricity without emitting harmful pollutants or greenhouse gasses. Plus, it can be used to power electric transportation and electric heating, replacing the need for gas and oil and substantially reducing emissions from both. 

By shifting from fossil fuel-based electricity generation to solar power on a large scale, the city can reduce air pollution and do its part to mitigate the effects of climate change.

Positively Impact the Future of Air Quality in NYC Today

Solar energy is a viable solution to improve air quality in New York City. By transitioning to clean and renewable energy, the city can address its air pollution challenges, enhance public health, and contribute to a more sustainable future. 

You can be a part of the solution. Take the first step towards solar and get your free home consultation today!

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