Monday, March 1, 2010

Local Municipalities Struggle for NYSERDA Green Funds

Municipalities inside the Adirondack Park are facing hurdles and isolation from the New York State Energy Research and Development Authority (NYSERDA), according to a review of NYSERDA practices. NYSERDA is the agency that channels all energy efficiency and renewable funding for New York State, including stimulus funds, Regional Greenhouse Gas Initiative funds, funds from the Green Jobs / Green Homes NY bill, the Systems Benefit Charge that Adirondack residents each pay on their electric bill,and more.

Concerns first arose among local officials after NYSERDA abruptly canceled Canton-based Community Energy Services’ contract to run the North Country Energy $mart Community program in 10 counties (at $150,000 per year). The nonprofit was forced to close its doors after eight years, putting eight full- and part-time employees out of work and leaving the North Country without a central coordinating organization for local Green jobs and technologies, according to the Watertown Daily Times.

Green energy proponents with long-standing relationships with CES who asked not to be identified because of fears their own funding applications would be jeopardized told the Almanack that NYSERDA never cooperated with CES and could not appreciate the unique demands of rural communities.

“CES had never had adequate support from NYSERDA,” one said. “[CES] had tried to find solutions to adapt programs to the North Country’s needs, where for example construction teams operate as a one- or two-man self-employed show rather than the 20-30 common in urban areas.” Sources said NYSDERA was uncooperative, and their response, canceling CES’s contract and leaving the area without any access to knowledgeable support, was unproductive.

At the time, NYSERDA claimed it was revamping its North Country program and promised to issue a new request for proposals “any day.” In the meantime, NYSERDA’s economic development staff in Albany was tasked with overseeing the local program. Five months later a new Request For Proposals for the contract was issued, one that is still inadequate to address the needs of smaller communities—such as the lack of Building Performance Institute (BPI) Accredited Companies in the Adirondacks—according to critics. BPI companies do the comprehensive home assessment/audit as well as the retrofit work under NYSERDA’s Home Performance Program. “There are many hoops to jump through,” one local energy expert said, “and most small local contractors don’t see the value or don’t have the time and money to get through the process.”

Jeffrey Gordon, NYSERDA’s Director of Communications, responded by saying that “our plans in the North Country include expanding the program, to hire an additional [Energy Services] Coordinator.” “Previously there was one and a half coordinators; our plan will be to provide three total to better serve the large geographic area,” he said. “Furthermore, and Energy Services Coordinator does not need to be involved.”

Gordon also pointed to NYSERDA’s “pre-qualified incentive path” for smaller Existing Facilities and the agency’s Small Commercial Audit Program, for smaller smaller Industrial and commercial facilities, State and local governments, not-for-profit and private institutions, colleges and universities, K-12 schools, and non-residential facilities. The Small Commercial Audit Program is not hindered by the lack of local BPI accredited contractors because it is administered through L&S Energy Services, Inc., of Clifton Park, a company that handles all projects from Westchester County to the Canadian Border, from Vermont to Lake Ontario.

Local officials and green energy proponents have also been disturbed by additional steps required by NYSERDA for its Small Community Block Grants, which they feel have limited local municipalities’ access to $29 million from the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act (ARRA) provided for small municipalities across New York State. Because of their small size, local municipalities seeking those funds are required to submit individual proposals for projects, while larger communities were given a check directly from the Department of Energy to use funds at their discretion.

The ARRA stimulus money is supposed to fund projects that reduce energy use and fossil fuel emissions, and improve energy efficiency, but local applicants say new hoops for small communities are an unfair burden. Not a single community in the Adirondacks met the “Large Community” standard, and so none were allocated funds directly from the first round of ARRA Community Block Grants [pdf].

Grant applications for the Small Community Block Grants—$1.8 million over a 14 county area—were due February 17th. Local municipalities had just six weeks to devise a project and develop the application and supporting materials. Essex County planners said they only got a helping hand from NYSERDA in January, a month before the application was due.

A green energy proponent who works directly with local Adirondack municipalities said local governments are “short-staffed, they are part-time, poorly paid, and the requirements for NYSDERA applications are exacting.” “They were asked to prove a certain level of energy savings which required precise calculations, space measurements, a year of energy bills, some software usage that many here are not familiar with,” the source said.

Local municipalities were required to have a municipal energy audit done in advance, which takes longer to arrange in the North Country where there are very few certified energy auditors. Communities were required to pass a resolution in support of the application even though many local town boards meet just once a month. Victor J. Putman, Director Essex County Department of Community Development and Planning, said, “I can’t see how a town without an engineer and a planning department could have applied.”

Essex County was swamped with requests from its 18 towns and 4 villages, and was forced to leave behind the county government’s needs in order to help them through the process of securing audits and preparing applications. With the county’s help, municipalities filed 14 applications from 11 towns totaling about $500,000. Each application took a staff person working 4 to 5 days to complete, a requirement locals said stretched the meaning of “Block Grant.”

Jeffrey Gordon, NYSERDA’s Director of Communications, said that since 2008, NYSERDA incentives to four counties in the North Country totaled approximately $4.8 million, which includes funding for photovoltaic installations, energy efficiency, and residential investments—that number does not include large-scale investments (none of which were in located inside the Park anyway). About $2.1 million of that money was from the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act (ARRA).

A closer look at that ARRA numbers, however, reveals less than $100,000 has gone to municipalities in the Adirondack Park. “The Park has been slighted again,” Putman said. “I would like to see a redirection of priorities to areas with the highest needs.” Essex County has some of the oldest infrastructure and housing stock in the state, the highest demand for energy, and pays some of the highest energy rates, Putman said.

When pressed with the question, “What funds have gone to municipalities inside the park?” NYSERDA’s Jeffery Gordon pointed to a number of projects in municipalities outside the park, projects for a few non-profits inside the Blue Line. Gordon said NYSERDA provided $2,100 for the Town of Jay for “technical assistance,” and cited $16,000 Warren County received for various energy efficiency projects [how much of that money was spent in the Park could not be determined in time for this report]. An additional $77,000 went to the Town of Harrietstown Housing Authority for technical assistance and energy efficiency incentives for two multi-family housing facilities. By way of comparison, at the same time the Town of Queensbury, just outside the Park’s southern border, received $167,000 for various energy efficiency projects.

The balance of the nearly $5 million allocated by NYSERDA in the four counties went to a few local nonprofits and for-profit companies inside the Blue Line. For example, last year $75,000 in financial incentives was awarded to Adirondack Woodsman’s Pellet Company for business-development planning in Long Lake, and $350,000 was awarded to the Wild Center in Tupper Lake to install a wood pellet boiler and a solar-thermal hot water array system. $10,000 in incentives was provided for Elizabethtown Hospital, $361,500 to Saranac Central School and $246,400 to the North Country School to install high efficiency wood boilers.

Adirondack residents each pay a Systems Benefit Charge (SBC) on their electric bill, which is used to fund NYSERDA’s Energy $mart Program and other projects designed to improve the state’s transmission and distribution infrastructure, including energy efficiency, education and outreach, research and development, and low-income energy assistance. The fund amounts to about $1.87 billion from 1998 through 2011, according to the Public Service Commission (PSC). How much of that money residents of the Adirondack Park have paid and how much they’ve received back is an open question.

In March 2006, the PSC ordered the Systems Benefit Charge be extended through June 30, 2011 and increased the annual funding to $175 million [pdf]. As a result, an estimated $896 million (including interest earnings) will be collected during this five-year period ($427 million for peak load, energy efficiency, outreach and education; $182 million for research and development, including renewable energy; and $190 million for low-income energy assistance).

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