Saturday, June 4, 2016

Summer 2016 Update

Here's what I'm up to in Summer 2016. I have ended my six month contract to do community outreach for a New York State home energy conservation program.  I don't have another conventional job lined up, and it feels great.
This spring I went to a weekend retreat with futurist Chris Martenson, and took notes. As Martenson often says, given the increasingly volatile trends in the environment, energy and the economy, the next 20 years will look nothing like the last 20.  Conventional employment options in NYC seem even less interesting to me than they did before, and this seems to be a good time to speed up exploration of unconventional options.

I also completed the Building Performance Institute's Building Analyst course, and have learned how to do blower door tests, so this summer I plan to volunteer with some home energy contractors and get practice.  In July I'm going to visit Albert Bates at his Ecovillage Training Center, help out on the farm for a few days, and ask him about possible roles for biochar in NYC.  I met a guy in the Bronx who has a magical energy conservation widget and when I get back in town, will try doing sales for him. 

Nothing is certain, and I will certainly be living off savings. Here are more details. 

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From January to June I've had the opportunity to test some of the ideas I set out in my fall 2015 post. I was working at Sustainable South Bronx, a community organization which is the outreach partner for NYSERDA's home energy conservation program in the Bronx.  NYSERDA, also known at New York State Energy Research and Development Authority, is the State energy agency, and it has a lot of programs.  The Home Performance with Energy Star program, available around the state to owners of 1-4 family homes, offers a free home energy assessment by a specially trained, NYSERDA-monitored contractor.  

The assessment tests for gas and carbon monoxide leaks, and how much air leakage is taking place in various parts of the home, which suggests where insulation and air sealing should be installed.  The contractor provides the homeowner with a report which lists the most cost-effective home improvements, how much they would cost, and how long it would take for the energy savings to pay for the cost of the measures.  If the homeowner decides to go ahead with some of the projects proposed in the report, they can get discounts on the measures and put them on a 3.5% interest loan, compared to the standard commercial loan rate of about 8% interest.  

The program - also known as the Green Jobs Green NY program - was introduced around 2009.  Many have observed that the number of New Yorkers signing up to participate in the program has been far less than originally anticipated.  In January 2016, City Limits published a series of articles on the program

Bronx, like Brooklyn and Queens, has a vast number of individual homes and small apartment buildings with 1-4 units, mostly in the north and east sections of the borough.  Just as SSBX is NYSERDA's community outreach partner for the program in the Bronx, the service is promoted by the Staten Island and Queens offices of Neighborhood Housing Services, and El Puente, a Brooklyn group serving the Latino community. SSBX has had 11 actual retrofit projects take place between 2014 and now.  

The NYC housing services groups, with their internal streams of already existing clients, have numbers that are higher.  In upstate, all the contractors are housing services groups.  Several have between 100 - 200 retrofits during this time.  RUPCO, serving the Hudson Valley, accrued around 350.   Again, only a small fraction of the vast numbers of individual homes in upstate counties have participated in the program. 

Each step of the process is challenging: getting in front of homeowners when they're in a receptive mood; getting them to sign up for a free home energy assessment; having them choose from a list of NYSERDA participating contractors and schedule the actual assessment; and finally to purchase recommended energy conservation measures.  

At first I spoke at many community board meetings.  I gave presentations to civic groups and homeowners associations.  Responses were quite limited.  Other community outreach partners said that they too started with presentations to groups, then scaled back to having exhibit tables at community events set up by other groups. So that's what we did too. Me and my two young colleagues just went to a Bronx Chamber of Commerce event at the Bay Plaza mall and got the contact information for 20 people, who we will count as leads toward our quotas. 

We started going to sidewalks outside of subway stations.  One innovation I was pleased with was printing out the talking points for the program on large sheets of cardboard so it could be easily ready by pedestrians.  Here's Matt Caruso and Danny Castro.

We spent a few hours at the Parkchester stop on the 6 train.  The indifferent responses of passersby confirmed that mostly apartment dwellers live near this stop.  Another afternoon, we tried a station in another northeast Bronx with lots of homes in the neighborhood. The reaction was similar.  Well, we tried...

We contacted Bronx hospitals and colleges to ask if we can table outside their staff cafeterias or in building lobbies.  I'm waiting for NYSERDA to approve my proposal to offer houses of worship and community groups referral fees of $50 for each of their leads that signs up for an energy assessment by a given date. That might get some traction.

My contract is up at the end of June. Matt and Danny can stay busy for the rest of 2016 expediting retrofit projects already in the pipeline at a low-rise condominium community, and do as many of these challenging community outreach events as they can cope with. I've pointed them to the job search gurus at the Five O'Clock Club and encouraged them to fix up their resumes and LinkedIn profiles and keep looking.

My situation is different.  After many years of full-time employment, at Long Island City Partnership, then Manhattan Community Board 6, I am much less interested in permanent employment or conventional options than I was before.

- In April I joined about sixty other readers of futurist Chris Martenson at a retreat in western Massachusetts.  As Chris writes, trends of accelerating environmental degradation, economic volatility and depletion of fossil fuel resources means that the next twenty years are going to be unlike the last twenty.  There are opportunities for better quality of life through building community while localizing production of renewable energy I took extensive notes on the weekend, which I shared with PeakProsperity readers here.

- I completed the Building Performance Institute's Building Analyst course at the Green Jobs Training Center in Howard Beach, Queens. It's an intro to building science, and the basics of conducting home energy audits using the blower door test.  Later this summer, I'll ask a few of the home performance contractors I know if I can volunteer with them a few times to get more practice.

- Albert Bates, director of the Ecovillage Training Center in Tennessee, has kindly invited me to stop by for a visit.  I've known him for many years through very specialized conferences, not unlike the Martenson workshop I mentioned. After all this office work, helping out on the farm for a few days will be very therapeutic. 
The Ecovillage Training Center is a living laboratory with a mandate to contribute to a more sustainable planet. We offer a unique environment for folks who are just beginning to learn and think about implementing more sustainable practices and others who have dedicated their lives to topics around permaculture. We believe being transparent about what has worked and what has not is the best possible way to train farmers and citizens for the future. We learn, practice, teach, and share what we know about how to make the world a better place.

The Ecovillage Training Center began in 1994 as an effort to break new ground in education by teaching people the skills necessary in the 21st Century. Over the past 20 years we have evolved into a center where students can learn from the mistakes and the successes of others. Appropriate technologies and permaculture consciousness are infused throughout the buildings, organic garden, water systems, and the 4000 acres of protected woods and meadows of the greater Farm Community. It is not enough to understand the challenges; what is needed are viable strategies and, more importantly, the capacity to think, improvise, and create. Those skills do not come out of a book or DVD. They come from hard won experience, trial and error, and the chance to make mistakes, regroup, and try again. This is one way to truly experience what it means to live more sustainably.

As an author, master permaculture teacher and climate change pundit, Albert is also an advocate for biochar as part of a suite of regenerative agriculture practices.  Biochar is made by heating biomass like wood chips or corn husks to several hundred degrees in the absence of oxygen, so it doesn't catch fire. The resulting charcoal can be composted, to infuse it with healthy bacteria and fungi, and added to farmland to improve water retention and soil health - while permanently and inexpensively storing carbon dioxide. I expect to visit him sometime in July, and get his input on what NYC could do with biochar.  Carbonize some of our sewage sludge perhaps? 

Through my Bronx outreach I met with an energy services company that has a fairly unique technology to reduce electrical system waste in large buildings by 10-20%.  I'm calling it the magic energy widget, but it's no joke.  I will try doing commercial sales.

And see what happens next.

In honor of the summer solstice, here are some pictures of the Coney Island Mermaid Parade...