Sunday, March 31, 2013

How to Double Participation in Con Ed's Energy Efficiency Program

Although NYC has some of the highest electric rates in the country, and businesses routinely cite high energy costs as a major headache, very few small businesses take advantage of government energy efficiency programs, because they are often confusing and difficult to navigate.

One of Con Edison’s Green Team programs (Small Business Direct Installation), rolled out in 2009, is more accessible. After receiving a free energy efficiency survey of their facility, business owners get a brief report of suggested upgrades for lighting, heating, ventilation and cooling systems. The report shows how long it will take for savings from the upgrades to pay for the discounted installation costs, almost all of which pay for themselves within a year. Con Edison offers a 70% discount on the installation costs of upgrades. Costs are instantly covered by grants, so clients do not need to fill out applications or wait for rebates.

Despite widespread advertising and contractors promoting the surveys door-to-door throughout the City, many businesses assume it’s too good to be true. Contractors report that only 15% of businesses that consent to a free survey proceed to purchasing the recommended energy efficient equipment upgrades.

In 2010-2011, LIC Partnership, a local economic development nonprofit serving Long Island City in Queens, mailed, phone and emailed many of its business constituents about the Green Team program. LIC Partnership staff directly referred many individual businesses to the staff of Willdan, the Con Ed contractor assigned to the area.

Results from Con Ed's contractor with no community connections in LIC


Willdan staff surveyed a total of 868 business customers in Long Island City between January 1, 2010 and May 31, 2012, and 238 of those businesses (27%) proceeded to purchase some of the upgrades recommended in their survey reports.

Of the 654 of 868 surveyed businesses not contacted by LIC Partnership staff, 151 (23%) went on to purchase upgrades.

Results when community group in LIC referred its constituents to a Con Ed contractor

When LIC Partnership staff personally contacted and referred 214 businesses for surveys, 87 (41%) purchased upgrades. When LIC Partnership staff collaborated with Greg Meyer, a single Willdan employee, 23 of 51 businesses referred (45%) purchased upgrades.

(Link to full data set.) 

"The main obstacle I encounter in this program is an endemic lack of trust. When cold-calling, I have found that customers generally sign up for energy efficient retrofits 15% of the time, and the few that do generally take 6-8 months to get the project going. In LICP’s warm market, I’ve found the majority of customers they directly refer me to elect for an energy efficiency retrofit, and they generally do so 1-2 months after initial contact. The end result allowed me to successfully navigate a high-efficiency network based off of mutual trust and respect with a high close rate instead of the more commonly used system of pavement-pounding, wishing and hoping." - Greg Meyer, former Con Ed/Willdan contractor in LIC

These results clearly demonstrate that when a community organization reaches out its constituents on behalf of a program, participation will be much higher than if representatives of the program - who have no direct link to that community - do the outreach themselves.  But what's their incentive to perform the extra work?

Promote your program for free?
Yeah, right.  Show us the money. 

Even though Con Edison encourages community groups to promote the Green Team program, they are not specifically required to.  Whatever incentive Con Ed community support grants may offer is not tied to results.  LICP's efforts, based on the environmental advocacy interests of its staff, are completely atypical.

As NYC Councilmember Dan Halloran said, "You can't do anything without the .... money. Money is what greases the wheels, good bad or indifferent."

To engage NYC's many community groups with limited resources, we looked for sustainability projects that might offer even a modest source of income.

We didn't find any easy answers in urban agriculture and composting.  The most promising project we found was promoting solar energy system installations for referral fees.  Two of LICP's referrals installed systems, earning significant fees for the group.  We are making our model available to the public, and encourage you to try it in your neighborhood.

But what about energy efficiency upgrades themselves? Promoting them would be a great project for community groups, but except for a few groups that are specifically funded to work on those programs, there aren't financial incentives directly tied to results.

Imagine what would happen if Con Ed were to offer nonprofits referral fees of 3% of the total cost of any commercial or residential facility upgrade project their referrals completed.  It's likely that the annual number of Green Team projects completed would rise, and energy consumption would decrease.  Perhaps the most important outcome would be the recruitment of neighborhood leaders across the City as grassroots spokespersons for energy conservation. 

Tuesday, March 12, 2013

Sticking up for styrofoam: chemical industry lobbyists oppose NYC styrofoam ban

This afternoon at Long Island City Partnership - my day job - the front desk of our office building called to say that some people from NYC Council were here to see us. This was surprising, as we know our local Council staff well and they would certainly call or email us in advance if they needed anything, let alone if they planned to visit. But we told security to send them up.

The two men introduced themselves as representatives of the American Chemistry Council. Wait, the front desk told us you were with NYC Council, I said. They apologized for any miscommunication, saying they told security they were here to discuss an issue before NYC Council. Uh huh. 

“We’re meeting with business groups like yours to briefly explain how the City’s proposed ban on styrofoam will drive up costs and is bad for business. We’d just like a few minutes of your time.” We said that we were busy, but took the flyer and said we’d call them if we had any questions.

In Mayor Bloomberg’s recent State of the City address, he outlined many, many new initiatives.  They included plans to start curbside pickup of yard and food waste in Staten Island, expand school food waste collection and composting, expand the types of plastic the City recycles, and to ban styrofoam in food packaging. A few weeks later, the American Chemistry Council has boots on the ground in NYC, sticking up for styrofoam.


In its flyer – check it out here - ACC claims that (1) paper products are twice as expensive as styrofoam products, (2) that styrofoam products function better than paper products, (3) that NYC Department of Sanitation can’t recycle most paper products because they have a wax or plastic coating, and (4) worst of all, it’s a missed opportunity to start a styrofoam recycling program.

Before researching any of these claims, our first question should be whether we can believe anything the American Chemistry Council says.

A quick visit to the ACC website shows that one of its top initiatives is promoting fracking for natural gas. North American natural gas supplies were in decline until a few years ago, when hydrofracking shale became the popular drilling technique. It’s the controversial procedure whereby water and a proprietary mix of corrosive chemicals are pumped into shale deposits deep underground at very high pressure, releasing natural gas.

According to ACC:

…Energy mavens from around the world met in Houston last week for IHS CERAWeek, where the economic benefits of natural gas from shale to America’s manufacturing sector proved a popular topic yet again. America’s chemical manufacturers are especially rebounding from the economic decline, courtesy of abundant and affordable sources of natural gas from shale that the industry uses as a fuel and a raw material, said several energy analysts. Daniel Yergin, chairman of CERAWeek, described to NBC News the “unfolding oil and gas revolution in the U.S. and the economic impact it has had on jobs, manufacturing and competitiveness.” …

Concerned citizens around the country are up in arms about it. One problem with this procedure is that drilling chemicals and natural gas leak into nearby water supplies, permanently contaminating them. Sometimes there's enough stray natural gas in tap water for it to be set on fire.

Another is that the amount of unconventional natural gas that can be fracked – leaving aside the health and environmental impacts – has been vastly exaggerated by industry. If we don’t have “100 years of natural gas” – then building out our infrastructure as if we did could turn out to be a very bad investment.  That's exactly what Post Carbon Institute says in its new report, "Drill Baby Drill: Can Unconventional Fuels Usher In a New Era of Energy Abundance?"

...Governments and financial analysts who think unconventional fossil fuels such as bitumen, shale gas and shale oil can usher in an era of prosperity and energy plenty are dangerously deluded, concludes a groundbreaking report by one of Canada's top energy analysts. In a meticulous 181 page study for the Post Carbon Institute, geologist David Hughes concludes that the U.S. "is highly unlikely to achieve energy independence unless energy consumption declines substantially."

Exuberant projections by the media and energy pundits that claim that hydraulic fracturing and horizontal drilling "can provide endless growth heralding a new era of 'energy independence,' in which the U.S. will become a substantial net exporter of energy, are entirely unwarranted based on the fundamentals," adds Hughes in a companion article for the science journal Nature. Moreover it is unlikely that difficult and challenging hydrocarbons such as shale oil can even replace the rate of depletion for conventional light oil and natural gas.

The American Chemistry Council are primary boosters of the shale gas fracking scam.  When they sneak around NYC saying negative things about new recycling initiatives, I suggest you don't believe them. Please contact your real NYC Councilmember and ask them to support the proposed styrofoam ban.