The New York State Legislature's passage of the Power NY Act was a bright moment in a session marred by budget cuts and layoffs. The new law allows the Green Jobs-Green NY program to advance toward goals of generating 1 million energy efficiency retrofits on homes and businesses and creating over 14,000 full-time permanent jobs.
Consider this: Sealing and insulating a home saves 20 to 50 percent on energy. But many owners can't afford this work. That's where Green Jobs-Green NY and the Power NY Act come in.
If you're a homeowner and a utility customer in good standing, the state will pay upfront for retrofits. Using "on-bill recovery" -- the financing mechanism created by the Power NY Act -- you'll repay the state over time via your utility bill.
The repayment is less than the monthly energy savings, so it doesn't increase expenses. The fact that utility customers rarely default on their bills -- even if they pay late -- allows the state to attract billions from investors. The potential environmental impact is also impressive: The program could reduce greenhouse gas emissions by the equivalent of removing about 1 million cars from the road.
To date, New York, like other states, has focused on saving the most energy at the lowest cost without regard to community impact. Not so Green Jobs-Green NY with on-bill recovery. Among other unique elements, the program provides funding for community groups to recruit and educate homeowners. It's a real effort to channel the benefits of efficiency toward hard-hit families.
This vision did not emerge from an office in Albany. It emerged from organizers whose daily work -- knocking on doors of cash-strapped homeowners and unemployed workers -- showed the necessity of interdisciplinary policymaking.
Across the state, grassroots organizers saw that low- and moderate-income families couldn't afford heating costs. They pointed out that utilities annually consume about a month's household income in moderate-income households, and up to 17 percent in poor households.
The problem was compounded by inadequate government policies: homeowners who struggled to pay energy bills usually earned too much to qualify for grant-funded weatherization and too little to take advantage of rebates.
So when Center for Working Families built a multi-sector coalition to devise solutions, grassroots groups emerged as driving forces. They laid out the challenges facing homeowners. They kiboshed proposals that may have appealed to financers but wouldn't work on the ground. They built partnerships with local businesses and labor leaders.
As a result of this work -- and with the powerful support of the Working Families Organization (connected to the Working Families Party), small business owners and labor unions -- the Green Jobs-Green NY Act of 2009 passed the state legislature with near unanimity.
The state's initial implementation efforts were rocky. For timing reasons, on-bill recovery was excluded from the Green Jobs-Green NY Act. NYSERDA -- which has a deserved reputation as a top state energy organization -- was forced to begin implementation quickly. Community groups were not fully engaged.
The consequences became clear when NYSERDA created a loan product that would not work for vulnerable homeowners. Community groups quickly pointed out the problems with mounting late fees and untenable loan criteria. (One income stability requirement would've excluded workers with sporadic or seasonal incomes.) Disturbingly, promises to implement wage and hiring standards -- a critical component of the green jobs vision -- were mostly unmet, in spite of support from the NY State Department of Labor.
In the face of these challenges, the coalition, still anchored by Center for Working Families, held to its goals. Three years of organizing and wrangling are producing results.
The Long Island Progressive Coalition has launched a program with the Laborers' Union that has generated 100 energy audits and promises nearly as many retrofits. This has helped contractors go union and hire union-trained ex-offenders, displaced workers and low-income people, including a fair number of women. In Buffalo, People United for Sustainable Housing (PUSH) has built a coalition of contractors that, with the laborers' support, will develop its existing training infrastructure into union training, and will perform mold remediation, lead work and retrofits on Buffalo's troubled housing stock.
The prime lessons? One: Passing legislation requires a diverse coalition and real political muscle. Two: It's impossible to design meaningful efficiency programs without community engagement. In the absence of grassroots voices, energy policy reinforces economic inequalities and leaves masses of moderate-income households unserved. States wishing to replicate New York's program should take note.
In New York, where housing is inefficient and income disparities are large, the stakes are high. Implemented correctly, Green Jobs-Green NY with on-bill recovery will be the first state program to alleviate economic inequality by reducing energy consumption on a mass scale. If we succeed, it will be because we let communities lead the way.