Think Globally, Act Locally: Building Community Clean Energy Capacity in New York State

With the release of its 2015 State Energy Plan and $5 billion Clean Energy Fund proposal just a few weeks ago, New York is poised to become a national and global leader on clean energy. Its goals: by 2030, to get half of our state's electricity from renewable sources, to cut energy use in buildings by 23 percent from 2012, and to reduce greenhouse gas emissions by 40 percent from 1990 levels. New York's blueprint for a clean energy future will also make our electric system more reliable and less expensive, offer our kids and the rest of us cleaner air to breathe, and create good-paying jobs.

And it's not only New York's big picture goals that are noteworthy, but the detailed initiatives, as well - two of which will help New York municipalities put effective and replicable clean energy solutions in place. These efforts--officially called the Five Cities Energy Plans and the New York State Community Partnership--demonstrate once again how states can scale up clean energy, this time by implementing first-in-the-nation programs to engage cities, towns and villages. (Last week's announcement of 83 $100,000 microgrid planning grants that can help local communities become more energy-resilient provides yet another example of how the state is prioritizing local solutions.)

Working with local governments is so important because, in many ways, they are the gateways to clean energy adoption. Local governments, after all, set building energy codes that determine if our homes and offices are energy hogs or smart, efficient users of energy resources. Municipalities determine rules that can make installing solar power easy and less expensive or time-consuming and burdensome. Municipal buildings and operations often represent a significant percentage of local energy consumption and provide opportunities to "lead by example" through smart energy choices. Zoning, too, can help spur clean energy deployment and can promote active, carbon-free transportation--walking and biking--as well as "location-efficient" housing and businesses that are sited close to public transportation.

Not only that. Good policy decisions at the local level can drive economic development and create jobs, like those in the fast-growing clean-energy sector. And local governments frequently serve as trusted resources and advisors in their communities, able to model new technologies and demonstrate clean energy best practices.

One thing local governments often don't have, though, is the kind of expertise and capacity they need to make the clean energy transition happen. That's where the Five Cities Energy Plans and the New York State Community Partnership (NYSCP) come in. (The Five Cities program is working with New York's five largest cities, after the Big Apple: Albany, Buffalo, Rochester, Syracuse, and Yonkers. The NYSCP focuses on smaller communities.) Through the Five Cities effort, the New York Power Authority (NYPA) will help cities implement their new energy master plans, developed in collaboration with NYPA and released earlier this year, which include actions in four categories: energy planning and coordination, energy distribution and supply, energy efficiency in buildings, and transportation efficiency. NYPA will provide support to help these cities make their plans a reality, including funding for energy managers and clean energy measures, like energy efficiency upgrades that more than pay for themselves, as well as up to $20 million for the most innovative ideas. The initiative will also help New York's bigger cities share information and technical expertise, all while cutting municipal energy use by at least 20 percent by 2020 and saving these five cities as much as $400 million annually on energy bills.

The NYSCP, spearheaded by the New York State Energy Research and Development Authority with NYPA's help, will provide similar expertise and information sharing to assist smaller communities in achieving their clean energy goals. The state will create a centralized online portal of energy tools and resources; will host community summits to share best practices and successes; and, will establish community certification and recognition programs, along with innovative competitions and a number of other efforts to build local energy capacity. The aim here is not only to help individual communities, but also to develop a knowledge base and a set of best practices that communities everywhere can use.

With New York's first-in-the-nation plan to bring clean energy and its many advantages to the communities we call home, the Empire State can help create good, local jobs, improve our air quality and our health, create cost savings for municipalities, their residents and businesses, and help fight the worst impacts of climate change. These efforts will not only provide tremendous benefits to New Yorkers, but will serve as important, transferable models. They'll demonstrate how states can optimize their resources and their impact by most effectively working with cities and highlight the connections among smart energy policy, increased economic development, and sustainable revitalization. Focusing on clean energy solutions at the local level can also help states achieve their climate and energy goals and meet their targets under the EPA's Clean Power Plan.

Let's hope that as New York goes, so goes the nation.