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Nancy Anderson, Ph.D.Torchlight

It's Not A Wrap

By: Nancy Anderson, Ph.D.

November 24, 2009

With the City Council vote on December 9 for the greener greater building legislation, a key promise made in Mayor Bloomberg's PlaNYC 2030 has been delivered to all New Yorkers.

Now the City can shrink its carbon footprint by expanding its energy efficiency and tuning up the operation of the buildings already on its iconic skyline. Just like the Statue of Liberty, New York now can shine its light as the gateway to a world of sustainable cities.

Readers are rarely surprised to find look-back and look-ahead musings in December's media. My final Torchlight of the year honors this tradition, although, with the very notable exception of the green building legislation, the issues most closely tracked during 2009 may lack closure or even legible milestones.

The year saw several newsworthy energy, climate and job developments. State legislation to expand the venerable affordable housing weatherization program was drafted by the Center for Working Families and signed by Governor Paterson in October. Worker training, funded in part by a one-time $112 million infusion of funds redirected from the sale of carbon dioxide emissions allowances, is supposed to begin this year. While this funding strategy has its environmental critics, it could galvanize employment in many communities and provide direct fuel and utility savings for homeowners. As well, with the infusion of federal stimulus funds, which nationally will allocate $5 billion over three years (with $349 million for New York State according to Urban Agenda) to improve insulation and sealing around windows and doors in the homes of lower income Americans this state program will get a big boost while growing the chances for a green-collar sector of New York's economy.

Now, the Obama administration is reported to be looking into establishing a "cash for caulkers" program. Said to resemble the New York model made possible with November's State vote for a law that enables cities to issue PACE bonds, "cash for caulkers" could expand a national capacity for increasing the number of energy efficient home and the volume of green collar jobs.

Something New Yorkers can look forward to during the holiday season is release of a study by the Urban Green Council (formerly the New York City Chapter of the United States Green Buildings Council) that will identify obstacles to more sustainable building practices embedded in City's current building code. With 150 recommendations and running several hundred pages, there will be plenty of fine print to pore over on long winter nights. Anticipating 2010's scheduled review of the Code, this report should be an eco-Santa's list of specifics for greening the code.

Of course, since money doesn't grow on holiday trees and these days it's rarely found nicely wrapped beneath them, tracking the arrival of eagerly awaited federal stimulus dollars makes the Stimulus Tracker page on the Mayor's website another must-read. Direct federal block grant funding to New York City for its energy efficiency efforts totals $80.51 million. What does this figure entail? Nine project categories will be supported in whole or in part (it's not entirely clear from the information posted in the website). For instance, the largest program allocation targets $27.28 million for the energy efficient upgrades of municipal buildings. The federal money is in addition to $60 million appropriated in the City's FY 2010 budget for this purpose. In another category, $16.1 million, originally slated to assist financially stressed property owners in undertaking statutory building energy retrofits, will now go to a pilot loan program. For the present, only the "Administration of the City's Energy Efficiency and Conservation Strategy" is underway. The rest should kick in next year.

Torchlight's regular readers may recall NYC's Local Law 86. Signed into law by the Mayor more than three years ago, it requires new municipal construction and substantial renovations to meet LEED Silver standards. In January 2009, I wrote about the first published Local Law 86 Annual Report and had aspired to write something about this year's report. But, until the Mayor's office posts the Annual Report, there is nothing to be said. Has Local Law 86-covered construction fallen victim to the economic downturn or has the City's attention strayed?

It is evident that the Mayor has come to see 2007's PlaNYC 2030 as a power tool for doubling the number of local green jobs over the next decade. 2009 saw a blizzard of reports and press releases announcing the City's intention of extending that Plan in the direction of green economic development and job growth. The Economic Development Corporation issued a directory of federal, state and city programs for promoting green economic growth in addition to a menu of financial resources for this purpose. City Hall amped up its high performance building vows in a report which sets a goal of creating 19,000 new jobs through its greener greater building plan. If that wasn't enough, the Mayor also unveiled thirty initiatives to grow the green urban economy. This growth is projected to come from energy-efficient building, on-site renewable energy installations, carbon trading and finance as well as greener neighborhoods. Accordingly, an alphabet soup of entities like the Economic Development Corporation, Small Business Services and CUNY are supposed to create a supporting environment for this green economy. True to the Administration's prose style, these publications are filled with precise numbers and lists of actions to be taken. It's good to see so many ideas in a city that is in pressing need of new economic activity and good jobs. Will this be the start of something big? Again, stay tuned in 2010.

Finally, let no one think that the climate-friendly building arena was monopolized by the public sector this year. The Empire State Building is undergoing a major energy efficiency overhaul as its owners seek to reposition and up-market this icon of the Art Deco era. The 1980's vintage World Wide Plaza will start a similar upgrading in 2010. From the perspective of financial resources for making energy efficient, high performance buildings New York's new normal, the Community Preservation Corporation has made a $1 billion loan pool available to apartment owners for energy performance upgrades. Loans will be repaid from savings achieved on electricity and fuel consumption. During its first month of operations, the CPC has given $18 million to owners of ten buildings, including a 375-unit complex in Upper Manhattan and a low-income development in Westchester.

This kind of targeted financing couldn't have come at a better time. New York and other US cities have begun to head in more sustainable directions as the 21st century ends its first decade. Still, there is much to learn from what we've done and much more to wish for. So before signing off for 2009, it's only fair to say that it's not over yet. Stay tuned and see you next year!

Note: Excepting only the news about passing the greener greater building legislation, this column was posted on November 24, 2009 and does not reflect any subsequent developments.

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