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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, 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.


What about composting?

NYC generates massive amounts of food waste. Instead of paying to haul it away, some have suggested it could be collected by community groups, composted at neighborhood facilities, and sold at a profit. Such projects would face profound operational, legal and financial obstacles. 
It's possible that bags of nonprofit-branded compost could be sold as a fundraising product, like Girl Scout cookies, but unlikely. Only massive municipal action can make a dent in our food waste problem, and fortunately that's what we're getting. New City plans to scale up food waste collection and composting deserve our support. 

Finally, here's some money: solar PV system installations 

LIC Partnership created referral agreements with solar installers. The group's outreach to its clients resulted in two solar system installations so far, earning referral fees for the group. With this model, virtually any NYC civic group can leverage its local contacts and earn income, cut costs for its constituents, and helping make NYC more sustainable and resilient at the same time. It's a win-win-win solution. We're giving out the referral agreement and promotional materials on request. You can do this in your community.  Call us. 
We're not suggesting that community groups will only support sustainability projects when they get paid. But why not take advantage of that opportunity, and use it as a conversation opener to other projects? 

After Hurricane Sandy, NYC government and policy circles have focused on making the City more resilient. Will the new emphasis on resilience, and the City's Special Initiative for Rebuilding and Resiliency, complement better known sustainability initiatives? Or will it compete for limited funds and attention, lowering the priority of climate change response?  Identifying projects that promote both sustainability and resilience, while engaging neighbors at the grassroots level, would be of great value.  

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