Thursday, October 1, 2015

Sustainability options for NYC communities

Based on a presentation at "Climate Crisis and Community: Mobilizing for a Safe Future," a 350 NYC teach-in, September, 2015.  

Moving NYC toward renewable power will require massive tangible changes that present organizing opportunities, and will help build the climate movement locally.  Even though both activists and some within government and policy circles understand the need for urgent climate action, most are at best distantly aware of the issue.  Some will buy into's ‘turn off fossil fuel, turn on renewable power’ message fully.  Some will at least be willing to take practical actions and get involved with existing programs that move NYC toward resilience and renewables gradually. Green programs can be promoted in terms with broader public appeal: quality of life or financial benefit. So use different messages for different audiences.  

NYC government climate response is evolving.  Starting with 30% carbon reduction goals by 2030, set out in early PlaNYC reports, and adding a resilience focus after Hurricane Sandy, the de Blasio Administration’s One NYC plan adds the goals of addressing equity to the new carbon emissions goal of 80% reductions cuts by 2050.  They will be figuring out the details of how to do this for some time, and have probably not thought out how neighborhood organizing and climate advocates can help them achieve difficult but essential City goals.

Leveraging local connections

Neighborhood groups can be valuable partners to 
resilience / sustainability programs that offer tangible quality of life or financial benefits by referring their local contacts.  When Con Edison representatives contacted Long Island City businesses about free energy surveys and discounted energy upgrades directly, 27% of those who got the free survey wound up purchasing recommended upgrades.  When LIC Partnership, a local business group, referred its contacts to Con Ed, the percentage that bought the recommended upgrades went up to 45%.  Many groups can do this, but few have the motivation to push for green programs.  Some energy conservation and renewable power contractors offer referral fees to community groups, based on a percentage of new project income resulting from clients referred by the community group. For marketing materials and sample referral contracts, see

Lessons from the Transition movement and WEACT

The Transition movement is a community level response to climate change, resource depletion and economic instability that encourages grassroots driven community planning to increase local resilience and start local projects.  Its success in the UK is likely due to cultural characteristics.  Folks in big US cities don't have the same habits of group participation, and are too busy for long open-ended planning discussions.  Despite extensive outreach, a Transition-inspired resilience festival in the Rockaways didn't catch on. See and

However, if a major community group puts all its weight behind a climate response project, and pours in massive resources, the results can be very different. 
WEACT, a community environmental group active in Harlem and surrounding neighborhoods for three decades, created a climate action plan for northern Manhattan based on four principles: energy democracy, emergency preparedness, social hubs and participatory governance.  Check it out here.

Where to start in your neighborhood? Perhaps by finding some neighbors and local advocates to focus on one or more targeted interventions, from which other relationships and collaborations may arise. Here are a few.

Cut energy use

NY State Energy Research and Development Authority (NYSERDA) has an overwhelmingly 
large number of programs. Narrow it down to their Home Energy Efficiency Programs.  Options will vary for each project, but you don’t have to sort it out.  Contact your NYSERDA representative, who will determine exactly what programs and incentives can apply.

NYSERDA contractors will perform free home energy assessments, and provide reports of recommended improvements, such as added insulation and energy efficient lighting to high-efficiency heating systems and Energy Star certified appliances.  The report will include upgrade costs, energy savings, incentives, and time until the energy savings will pay for its cost of installation. 
Click here to start the process.

Manhattan: Samuel Man, 212-505-6050,
Brooklyn / Queens: Simon Mugo, 718-637-8652,

Con Edison also offers energy saving programs for residents, small business, multi-family and commercial buildings. Small businesses can qualify for up to 70% off the cost of recommended lighting upgrades.   Ask your NYSERDA rep whether the Con Ed or NYSERDA programs are a better value for your situation. Of course you can contact both.

Contact your building management agent or coop board members.  Ask them what if any energy upgrades have already been done, and encourage them to contact your NYSERDA rep to discuss the costs and savings of other measures.   

Big buildings with high energy use may benefit from combined heat and power systems, in which both electricity and steam heat are generated on site from a natural gas fired generator.   CHP offers big increases in energy efficiency, and can maintain some power if the grid goes down.

Install solar energy

Rooftop solar technology allows homeowners and multi-family buildings to generate part of their own electric supply.   According to Solar One, the price of solar has decreased over 60% since 2011. Incentives and tax benefits cover up to 75% of system costs

- NY-Sun incentive: $0.70 / watt, so a 4,000 watt (4 kW) PV system would receive a $2,800 rebate.
- NYS Residential Solar Tax Credit: 25% of post-rebate system costs or $5,000, whichever is less
- Federal Residential Solar Investment Tax Credit: 30% of post-rebate system costs
- NYC Solar Property Tax Abatement: 20% of post-rebate system costs

A 4 kW PV system with an installed cost of $24,000, minus the NYSERDA rebate and the Federal, State and City tax incentives, only costs $5,400. Innovative financing options mean that most homeowners can go solar with zero money down and monthly payments that are the same as or cheaper than your current electricity bills.

Here Comes Solar is a program that supports solar advocates within co-ops and condos.  It helps them recruit and organize fellow residents; provides building-specific analysis on costs, benefits and performance; obtain proposals from multiple certified and vetted solar contractors at the same time; help building reps review and compare proposals; and supports building reps for each stage of the installation process.  Contact Angelica Ramdhari at

Recycling and composting

What other interventions could you explore? Our food and agriculture system uses incredible amounts of energy in transportation and processing.  For the big picture, look at the 
Foodworks Report.  A report is expected soon from the NY State Food Hubs Task Force on increasing consumption of food grown in the state.  Simple choices include supporting farmers markets.  Lots of groups in NYC promote urban agriculture.  Rooftop gardens are a trendy concept, but right now there are very few of them.  What's an easy place to start? If your neighborhood has lots of backyard space, consider encouraging neighbors to start gardening.

About a third of all waste generated by NYC residents is organic waste including yard waste, food scraps, and compostable paper. Since the City has to pay landfills to accept our waste, and to ship it long distances, composting saves us money.  By storing food waste in special rodent-resistant bins, it can make sidewalk trash less of a food source for rats. The City is picking up organic compostable wastes from houses and small buildings in a growing number of neighborhoods. 
If you live in a building with over 10 apartments, you can request bins for clothing donations and electronics recycling, and organic waste collection.

Emergency preparedness

NYC Office of Emergency Management offers the 
Community Emergency Response Team (CERT) training, which raises awareness about emergencies and disasters and provides basic response skills needed for fire safety, light search and rescue, disaster medical operations, and traffic control.  The three hour interactive class meets one night a week for ten consecutive weeks, with discussions, exercises and group building activities  based on the Incident Command System. NYC CERT instructors are active FDNY, NYPD, and NYC Emergency Management personnel.

Organize an event in your neighborhood

How do you find collaborators, and test which projects appeal to your neighbors? Consider organizing a community forum co-sponsored by climate activists, elected officials, City sustainability programs, and civic groups.  A very successful forum like this took place in July 2015 in Park Slope and can be easily replicated, with local variations, in your neighborhood.

For more information, contact Dan Miner at, or visit