The Adams administration has released a new plan that will make the construction of all new New York City schools completely electric and convert 100 existing schools to run on all-electric heating by 2030. But some energy experts are concerned that too many all-electric buildings in the city could overwhelm the grid and lead to dangerous outages.

The Adams administration has said electrifying schools will eliminate the use of highly polluting No. 4 heating oil, which will have major effects on the city’s carbon footprint and help clear polluted air from the city’s asthma alleys.

Under the $4 billion initiative, called “Leading the Charge,” the city also plans to install high-efficiency LED lights in 800 schools by 2026. The initiative will prioritize schools located in environmental justice communities, beginning with P.S. 5 in Bedford-Stuyvesant, which will be the city’s first existing school to provide all-electric heating.

"What we are going to do in our school system is the equivalent of removing 26,000 cars from the road — cleaning our air, cleaning our environment,” said Adams.

However, some renewable energy advocates and researchers say fortifying the city’s grid and tackling the transportation sector first would be a better use of the city’s money and time. Among them is Bolun Xu, an assistant professor of earth and environmental engineering at Columbia University.

Xu says New York City’s buildings are major polluters. Their heating and cooking oils contribute to most of the city’s carbon emissions. That’s not only harmful to the climate, but also to public health in general — particularly asthma. But Xu argues there are a few big reasons to focus on the transportation industry and updating the grid first.

Xu’s first point is that electric modes of transport are low-hanging fruit. They’re easier to recharge than entire buildings. For example, school and city buses are only in use for a limited amount of time each day, and can be kept charging for the rest of the time, unlike buildings. He added that once electric vehicles hit their charging capacity, they actually return electricity to the grid, which can help power other things.

“A bus plugged into the grid is basically a great battery,” said Xu.

The grid in general is another concern for Xu. New York City’s grid has its limits — both in terms of the capacity it can handle now, and the potential capacity it can handle in the future.

“You do get to a point that the grid will be the final limiting factor,” he said.

Xu said that as both city-owned and private buildings continue to transition to fully electric energy, more strain will be put on the grid. The grid’s growth capacity is strongest in New York’s wealthiest communities and weakest in some of the city’s poorest neighborhoods.

Hosting capacity per capita, expressed in kilovolt-amperes. The map's darker regions have lower average hosting capacity, meaning that electrification will be a bigger challenge there.

A heat map of asthma hospitalizations in New York City among children aged 0 to 4. Dark blue areas represent the areas with higher rates of asthma hospitalizations.

New York State Statewide Planning and Research Cooperative System (SPARCS) Deidentified Hospital Discharge Data, retrieved from New York City Department of Health and Mental Hygiene NYC Tracking Program: Environment and Health Data Portal. [Asthma Hospitalizations; 2000-2016].

The map of the city’s grid vulnerabilities also overlaps with some of the neighborhoods most impacted by pollution from buildings — New York’s asthma alleys. That means those neighborhoods won’t have as much capacity to transition to electric energy, and concentrations of pollutants will still be higher there.

Xu also pointed out the possibility of outages.

“If you electrify everything, then you have a higher demand, and if the green infrastructure doesn’t keep up, then you end up having a higher chance of outages,” said Xu.

And that potential outage-causing demand is higher in the winter.

“That means people have a higher chance of not getting heat during the winter,” Xu added.

Doug Gordon, the host of a podcast called “The War on Cars,” welcomed the mayor’s decision to electrify schools, and said the city should focus on decarbonizing all sectors. But he added that if he had to pick one, he’d pick transportation, too.

“But if you do that with cars, you get fewer respiratory diseases, less emissions going into the atmosphere, but then you get other things like safety benefits, you get a more livable city,” said Gordon.

He also said it would be a little more cost-effective than the $4 billion the city plans to spend on electrifying schools.

“The bang of your buck in reducing carbon emissions from automobiles goes far beyond the climate savings, and it's maybe one of the best uses of city dollars I can imagine, because it pays itself back in so many different ways,” Gordon said.