If the people living in a poor neighborhood in Buffalo, New York can leverage clean, efficient energy to turn their community around, so can neighborhoods in the rest of the Rust Belt.
That’s the message I’m bringing to Ann Arbor for a North American Students of Cooperation (NASCO) meeting this weekend. As Midwest cities that once fueled the nation’s industrial economy struggle to chart their future, keeping the focus on people and the planet opens the door to a healthier, more equitable, more prosperous future.
I work with PUSH Buffalo, in the heart of one of the poorest big cities in the country, right up there with cities like Cleveland and Detroit, where factory jobs have waned and new jobs have not arisen to take their place. Our efforts center on a 25-square-block area we call the Green Development Zone. When we set up shop in 2006, the average family of four earned $12,000 to $19,000 per year, and lived in expensive housing. Because of Buffalo’s tough winters and beautiful but old and drafty housing stock, most of the neighbors paid more for utilities than they did for rent! On top of that, good local jobs were limited. So people felt stuck. They felt like they could never get ahead.
We asked the people what they needed most. They said they needed quality, affordable housing and good jobs. They said energy poverty — struggling to pay all your bills because the cost of energy is so high — was a major problem. That’s a problem familiar in Midwest cities like Detroit, where one recent survey found almost 27 percent of low-income houses fell behind on utility payments, while another seven percent had their utilities shut off.
Reducing energy poverty was where we started. We began working with community members to weatherize hundreds of homes and save families much-needed money. The people doing this work live in the community. They get job training and earn good wages in the growing clean energy field.
Making houses more energy efficient was a simple but effective first step: residents joined together to address a problem, and saw a real difference in terms of lower bills, better housing, and access to good jobs. They saw that they could own the solution to their problem, and build themselves a better future.
Over the past eleven years, neighbors living in the Green Development Zone have worked with PUSH Buffalo to buy 120 properties, renovate and rent out dozens of affordable apartments, and weatherize hundreds of homes. We have restored vacant lots, put in green infrastructure, set up a hiring hall, and built a busy youth center.
One home — once abandoned and filled with garbage — has become our region’s first net-zero house, creating as much energy as it consumes each year. Forty-three people from the neighborhood have worked there, training on the latest energy technologies including a geothermal heating system and a solar thermal hot water system.
Now we are looking toward solar energy, with a vision of clean energy for all of Buffalo’s people. Despite the cold and the snow, Buffalo enjoys as many sunny days each year as does Fort Lauderdale, Florida. Our first community owned, community shared solar project is at an abandoned school. We’re turning it into affordable housing for seniors, plus an all-ages community center. And while we keep our eyes on building a better Buffalo, we are also reaching out to allies across our state, working for policies that encourage community solar projects and other pathways to clean, efficient, affordable energy.
As changes in technology, markets, and business models rock the energy business, I think of our work in Buffalo as a living example of what a just transition to a sustainable energy economy might look like — and an example Midwest cities can learn from. As the world moves to more efficient, renewable, distributed energy sources, communities can benefit from lower bills and new career opportunities. Instead of some far-off corporation controlling how energy is made and used, neighbors can make their own decisions, and profit from them in a variety of ways that build up their community and the economy while protecting the environment.
We are creating do-it-yourself pathways to employment in the growing clean energy sector, all while expanding the stock of efficient, affordable housing, and strengthening our city. We welcome Midwesteners to come visit PUSH Buffalo, steal our best ideas, and see what your city’s future can look like when people work together to create real hope for the future.
Rahwa Ghirmatzion is deputy director of PUSH Buffalo, which is a local membership-based community organization fighting to make affordable housing and a just transition to clean energy a reality.
This is a tale of two September Tuesdays in the American South.
On one Tuesday, Atlantans begin the painful task of clean up in the wake of a tropical storm. Scientists tell them the fossil fuels they burn contribute to climate change and the warming seas, which are fueling this year’s brutal hurricane season. People sit in the dark without power, feeling powerless.
In that second Tuesday is a tale of hope — not just for Atlanta, but for all of the Southeast and the nation.The following Tuesday, Atlantans gather to shine a spotlight on local clean energy leaders. Hollywood stars celebrate their efforts to move the city toward 100 percent clean energy, which will cut back on local pollution while curbing climate change, building a healthier city and a stronger economy for all of Atlanta. People sit in theater seats, then stand, cheering, feeling powerful.
The national nonprofit Solutions Project, co-founded by actor Mark Ruffalo, hosted that Atlanta celebration at the city’s Plaza Theater. Imagine activists’ surprise when a video featuring Ruffalo – who plays the “Incredible Hulk” in the Avengers movies – and Chris “Captain America” Evans called to them from the silver screen, asking them to stand up and be applauded for their work.
The video, which will be playing in pre-shows at movie theaters across Atlanta for the next few weeks, features animated super-hero versions of each honoree. It’s a multi-cultural, multi-generational team of “environmental avengers.” They’re working hard on everything from fighting dirty coal-fired power plants and overpriced nuclear power plans, to documenting how Georgia’s renewable energy industry is already creating good local jobs for all and growing our economy. They’re in the vanguard of a growing movement that aims to make sure that all Georgians – urban and rural, rich and poor, black and white – benefit from the just transition to clean energy that is already underway across the country and around the world.
The party at the Plaza kicks off ATL100, a campaign spotlighting Atlantans who are helping the city achieve its recent commitment to 100 percent renewable energy. It’s part of the Solutions Project’s 100% campaign, which aims for the day when everyone will be able to choose clean energy and share in its benefits. Despite the work of these local heroes and many others like them, Atlanta has a long way to go. We get less than two percent of our energy from renewable sources.
But like so much of the Southeast, we have an advantage in our tremendous potential for solar power. The hot, sunny days when our need for power is greatest are exactly the days when solar energy generation soars. It’s not hard to imagine solar panels dotting city rooftops, schools, suburban parking lots and rural farm fields, powering homes and businesses, while large-scale solar power plants help utilities keep up with demand. Imagine the difference a real commitment to solar power would make for the health and economic vitality of our region – and for all the people who call it home.
At the Partnership for Southern Equity, we know that just as Atlantans led the nation in the struggle for civil rights and racial justice in the 20th Century, we are well positioned to lead the fight for a clean-energy future that empowers us all. And it’s a model that will resonate with many communities across the Southeast.
We can build up today’s people and economy without jeopardizing future generations. We can craft a future where everyone has access to clean, affordable energy and the opportunities it brings, and can breathe cleaner air in a more stable climate. We can, once again, show the world how real progress is made.
Nathaniel Smith is the founder and chief equity officer of the Partnership for Southern Equity (PSE), a nonprofit working to advance policies and institutional actions that promote racial equity and shared prosperity for all in the growth of metropolitan Atlanta and the American South. PSE is a Solutions Project grant recipient.
After a year of unrelenting attacks on clean energy from the new crew in Washington, 2018 is shaping up to feature more of the same. Whether it’s pulling out of the Paris Climate Accord, working to reverse the Clean Power Plan, or opening up the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge to oil drilling, it seems the Trump Administration has never met a dirty-energy policy it doesn’t like.
But at the same time, in communities across America, people are choosing to ride the wave of clean energy that is remaking the energy industry in the U.S. and around the world. And 2018 is shaping up to be a year when neighborhoods, towns and cities take control over their own energy destinies, working to promote a just transition to clean energy for all, regardless of income, race or zip code.
We work for two organizations – one in the Northeast and one in the South – committed to moving to an equitable clean energy economy. As solar, wind and other sources of clean energy become increasingly cheaper forms of power, we’ve seen firsthand how clean energy development can improve lives and create much-needed economic opportunities, especially in low-income communities and communities of color. We, and other like-minded organizations, are working to make sure that our nation’s energy future helps revitalize these communities.
In cities across the U.S., the need is great. In November of last year, the national unemployment rate among black Americans was 7.3 percent, more than double that of the white population (3.6 percent). And in Atlanta, where the Partnership for Southern Equity is based, the median income for black households is $27,000, while the median income for white households is almost $85,000.
When Atlanta committed to move to 100% clean energy last year, we saw a golden opportunity to create good jobs and promote a cleaner, safer and healthier environment in low-income neighborhoods and communities of color. We are working to ensure that as Atlanta transitions to clean energy, everyone is included in the economic benefits, job growth, and wealth creation that follow. If we do things right, once-marginalized people will be able to participate and prosper in a more sustainable city.
In Buffalo – one of the most diverse and poorest cities in the country – rough winters and old housing stock mean many residents pay more for heat than they do for rent. In one neighborhood, PUSH Buffalo has worked with neighbors to buy 120 parcels of land, renovate and rent out 84 green affordable apartments, and weatherize hundreds of homes. We took an abandoned building filled with garbage and turned it into our region’s first net-zero house – which creates as much energy as it consumes over the course of a year – training 43 men and women from the neighborhood to do clean energy work in the process. We have restored vacant land, developed green infrastructure projects, set up a hiring hall, and built up a youth center that is always busy. And we’ve started our first community-owned solar project, at an abandoned school we’re turning into affordable apartments for seniors, with a multi-generation community center at its heart.
In the new year, we can expect Washington’s assault on clean energy to continue. But across the country, local leaders and everyday individuals are refusing to let what happens in Washington define what happens in their own communities. They are forging ahead to promote a cleaner, more equitable energy future for all. They’re banding together to keep building on the progress made in places like Buffalo and Atlanta.
Let’s support them. Let’s make 2018 the year we put clean power in the hands of the people.
Rahwa Ghirmatzion is the deputy director of PUSH Buffalo in Buffalo, NY. Nathaniel Smith is the chief equity officer of the Partnership for Southern Equity in Atlanta, GA.