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Nancy Anderson, Ph.D.Torchlight

Rolling Up Our Sleeves

By: Nancy Anderson, Ph.D.

August 31, 2007

The summer storm that wreaked havoc on the New York City subway system was not the first case of extreme weather literally stopping this city in its tracks. And climate change experts warn us that it won't be the last. The first take away message from this soggy saga is that investments in new transportation and communication technologies are needed, and needed quickly, if New York is to withstand a world of rising sea levels and fiercer storms.

The second message is that what we pay for has to work as promised. Acting on these messages will entail input of enough funding for smart research and development to spur the output of green 21st Century goods, gadgets and services. Supporting the education and training needed to manufacture the goods and deliver services for operating essential municipal systems that will prove able to withstand a more climate-hostile world is another must.

At first blush, the Sallan Snapshots by Jennifer Becker and Sara Garretson that call for a new generation of green manufacturers in New York may seem far removed from the solution to the soggy saga, but, in fact they are right on point. They posit both the need and the opportunity for this city to diversify its economy by reinventing its old, dwindling manufacturing base as clean businesses with green products. In fact, the urgent needs of our aging infrastructure — subways and sewers being just two of the notoriously old and vulnerable parts of what lies underfoot — offer a real opportunity for supporting green collar economic development.

In 2006, a report by the Industrial and Technology Assistance Corporation and the New York Industrial Retention Network, "Manufacturing Green: Producing a Sustainable NYC" made three recommendations to the City. First, government should leverage its own purchasing power to stimulate local markets for green products. Second, the City should work with local academic institutions to assist local companies to design and incubate new products. Third, local zoning rules ought to preserve viable manufacturing-zoned land.

In May 2007, at a New York State Apollo Alliance Summit on "Good Jobs and Clean Energy" labor, business, environmental, education, and environmental justice groups met with City and State government representatives to put their heads together on a related clean energy issue menu. In general the recommendations of the reports and the summit meeting make a fine fit with designing and constructing the infrastructure systems that we need to face the impact of climate change.

These ideas are a fine fit, as well, with Mayor Bloomberg's vision of New York in 2030 as a city with one million more residents, many of who will need good paying jobs because it's an expensive place to live. While the Mayor offers a vision, ITAC and NYIRN offer suggestions about how many of these newer New Yorkers can earn a living and make things that are competitive in the greener global market.

In a similar vein, "Delivering on the Promise of New York", a report prepared for Governor Spitzer that lays out a strategy for "growth and economic revitalization", gives a nod to modernizing and greening the State's stressed and aged infrastructure. Under the rubric of "cleantech", an emerging sector of the economy "that produces goods and services which preserve natural resources as well as lower end-use costs", which can encompass alternative energy and power, materials and green buildings as well as transportation. Cleantech solutions that also can be locally sourced must include creative ways to retain and divert rainwater away from subway tunnels and sewers such as green roofs and porous pavements. That way, the effects of any future sorry subway sagas can be mitigated while bringing more green economic development to New York.

Together, these and other clean technology proposals hold great potential for attracting both private and public investment on the supply side of an equation that can stimulate new research and develop clean industries and green collar jobs. "Delivering on the Promise of New York" is optimistic that the demand side of the cleantech equation will find a home in New York and it makes a good case for an essential government role in espousing public policy favorable to this kind of growth.

None of this means that New York City is likely to become home to large-scale heavy manufacturing. Still, even a post-industrial metropolis like New York can function only with a reliable infrastructure that incorporates up-to-date products and technologies. This fact points the way toward a mutually beneficial path that could knit together downstate and upstate green growth. By taking this path, our transportation sector, power supply system, and building stock would thrive with cleantech developments.

New York has to live with its venerable sewer system that combines domestic waste and rainwater and sends it to sewage treatment plants in dry weather and, directly into our waterways in wet weather. As noted above, green roofs, porous pavements and other means to soak up water should be installed to forestall the floods in our basements, sewers and subways and better manage the increased rainfall that New York can expect this century.

So too, our power system, built on an early 20th Century model of carbon based, centralized power production, is no longer the dominant model. Energy efficiency, demand reduction, distributed and alterative energy sources are all high on the 21st Century menu that will put us on a strict carbon diet. Design, manufacture, installation and maintenance of these products and systems would mean good jobs for New Yorkers. Nanotechnologies and computer-aided design can find many more places to set up shop than old-fashioned smokestack industries. [One caveat: research, development and cleantech products cannot replace the ongoing need for old-fashioned, labor-intensive maintenance of all infrastructure components.]

Before green and cleantech products make it to market, the research and development for new materials and new processes also should be encouraged to make its home here. Neither the City's 2030 Plan nor the State's economic development report provide any detail about the potential for downstate-upstate co-operation, but the latter correctly notes that there is a disconnect that leads to lost opportunities. This should be remedied; the need is clear and the demand is here because the infrastructure can never pick up and relocate. The Syracuse University Center of Excellence is one example of a new upstate-downstate incubator for an emerging strategic sector to develop, finance and market green, clean technologies. Here's a good idea that's in its infancy; let's see if it thrives and delivers.

Both City and State are also committed to confronting climate change and cutting greenhouse gas emissions. Meeting or exceeding either the City's 30x30 goal of cutting local carbon dioxide emissions 30% by the year 2030 or the State's similar 15x15 target mean making hard choices and delivering on many promises that exist as little more than outlines at present. There are high hopes that these goals can be met and will have sustained public support. But, still, failure cannot be ruled out and one way to fail is through public programs that deliver financial benefits to selected recipients without ensuring that the recipients are delivering the goods.

Now that New York State's major economic development agency, the Empire State Development Corporation, has sent out letters to 3,000 companies that failed to create the jobs or the investment projections that were promised in return for State benefits, a door is open to making sense of how well other public promises are being kept. As ESDC announced, "the notification represents the first time in the program's history that Empire Zone certified companies will be officially informed of the state's expectations that they make meaningful progress toward their goals in order to continue enjoying the program's benefits." This should lift the hearts of good government advocates everywhere as well as serve as a new benchmark for the bottom line in public policy. More jaded observers might shrug and say, "What took them so long?" But that's another matter.

Let's wrap up by returning to a constant Torchlight theme; government agencies have a responsibility to understand if their policies and regulations are meeting intended goals. New York State, New York City, and Babylon in Suffolk County have statutes that require or support energy efficient, high performance building. Other state jurisdictions may enact similar laws. From a climate change and environmental perspective we need to know how these buildings are performing. For example, Mayor Bloomberg's 2030 Plan posits that direct energy consumption in buildings located in the five boroughs will have to be reduced by 16.7 million metric tons of CO2 in order to meet its emissions reduction goals and this will mean actually achieving significant energy efficiency improvements in both new and existing buildings.

So too, from an economic development policy perspective, we need to know if local businesses are producing goods and services that achieve the high-performance cleantech gains which cost-conscious and climate-oriented markets expect. Documenting these gains will provide positive signs of economic high performance for businesses and investors alike. Such positive signs will also inextricably link to the risks and opportunities created by climate change. Since getting it wrong, from the climate perspective is not an option, let's find out if we're taking the smartest steps for propelling New York up the ranks of global cleantech competitors.

Now is the time to roll up our sleeves, before we have to roll up our cuffs and pump out our basements.

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