Community groups can promote solar for income, starting sustainability conversations
Several years ago, I looked into ways that community-based nonprofit organizations (CBOs) could earn income from promoting sustainability initiatives. I published a report about it in fall 2012, and through several posts at BeyondOilNYC.blogspot.com, summarized the updated results: there's probably no opportunity for CBOs to earn easy income either through compost or urban agriculture, although we found some promising innovations. The good news: CBOs can earn money from promoting solar energy systems right now. Community solar promotions can start many other conversations on local sustainability and resilience.Government leadership on sustainability is centrally important, of course, but enlisting the active support of community organizations is potentially powerful.
Because CBOs can reach out to neighbors and networks of close relationships, they can be very effective marketing partners in sustainability projects. The articles in this series drew on interviews with many sustainability program providers and advocates in NYC, and on our direct experience promoting a range of services in western Queens at Long Island City Partnership.
Lessons from the City's white roof painting program
Through promoting the NYC program to paint roofs white we learned that voluntary programs just don't work if they're not perceived to offer more value than the standard choices. Highly reflective white roofs are much cooler in summer than NYC's standard black tar roofs. While it's great for the City as a whole, savings to individual building owners from lower electric bills were too small to induce them to pay for the cost of paint, even if the City took care of labor costs. The City sensibly made roof cooling compulsory. Officials upgraded the building code to require that new and repaired roofs meet minimum reflectivity standards - which will gradually and unobtrusively cool more of NYC roofs.
Case study: community group promotes energy upgrades, participation goes way up
People are more likely to sign up for a program after being contacted by a community group they know than by the program’s outreach staff, who they don’t know. We proved this in Long Island City. Con Ed's Green Team energy efficiency retrofit program is a great deal for businesses but it's still a tough sell.
When LIC Partnership promoted the program to our constituents, the businesses we referred participated in the program at a much higher rate than area businesses contacted only by program contractors.Check out the details of our successful energy efficiency retrofit promotions. We were motivated by our environmental agenda. Other groups could get similar results – but would be more effectively motivated by money.
With the right cash incentive for results, nonprofits around the City would get on the phone and call their contacts, and energy retrofits would skyrocket. Maybe someday Con Ed will decide to offer such incentives to supplement its omnipresent ads... Until then, are there sustainability projects viable today through which civic groups could use their connections to earn income?
Business projects in urban agriculture?
Despite the buzz, there's actually very little urban agriculture in NYC considering the vast amount of rooftop and backyard space available. It's very hard to run such projects as businesses: start-up costs can be high, and profit margins are usually low. Entrepreneurs with enough money to build high-end rooftop greenhouses capable of year-round production can do well producing high value greens and tomatoes. But where cash is limited, options are fewer. However, we found some opportunities for groups more concerned with hunger, nutrition and environmental literacy than cash profits.
Groups could aggregate vegetable production from multiple parcels in a neighborhood, either selling produce or giving it to food pantries. The Food Bank for Westchester set up farms on the sites of five nearby nonprofits and donates the yield to food pantries. That model could be applied to NYC, if community groups were to use vacant public lots. The City is already working to identify vacant public lots and get residents to turn them into community gardens. Even more potential garden space would be available if one were to add temporarily vacant private lots. They're usually not considered for gardening, as no one would want to go to the effort of building permanent raised garden beds on them.
But add low-cost, portable planters, and temporary gardening use of lots becomes more feasible. Just move the planters to new sites each year. Or use temporary, biodegradable planters - straw bales. Combining these innovative practices could make it easier for community groups to promote gardening. The City's biggest yields from low-cost urban agriculture are likely to come through environmental and health education as well as community building.