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City, citizens discuss a sustainable future at summit

Andrea Perez

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Doug Coward, Executive Director of Solar and Energy Loan Fund, during the St. Petersburg Sustainability Summit Tuesday. (Photo: City of St. Petersburg)

In 2017, Mayor Rick Kriseman established the Office of Sustainability and Resiliency (OSR) to develop a citywide Sustainability Action Plan (ISAP). The plan is to be aimed at enhancing sustainability and resiliency through city departments and the community.

St. Petersburg was one of the first cities in the state to commit to becoming a 100 percent clean energy city after Kriseman signed an executive order.

“The work that we do over these next three and half years is really the culmination of a passion that I’ve had since my first days on City Council,” Kriseman said Tuesday, during the City’s Sustainability Summit. “Every single department in our city is either involved or touched by our sustainability and resiliency work.”

Tuesday’s four-hour summit, at the Childs Park YMCA, was open to the public. “A lot of what we’re doing here today under our ISAP efforts is we’re growing the soil,” said councilwoman Darden Rice. “We are growing the soil and the conditions to really drive to the DNA of the city’s planning.”

As part of the ISAP, the City pledges to increase solar installations and access to financing sustainable home renovations. One key player in this effort is the non-profit Solar and Energy Loan Fund (SELF).

The community-based lending organization provides homeowners with access to low-cost financing for energy efficiency upgrades, clean energy alternatives and wind resilience.

“(It’s) one thing to promote solar, but we don’t want to just do it for the most affluent people, we want to make sure that working-class families have the ability to take advantage of these programs as well,” says Doug Coward, SELF’s executive director.

SELF is focused on serving women, veterans and low-to-moderate-income homeowners who often can’t get loans from other lenders.

Its loan terms vary for each homeowner and project. The non-profit offers private consultations and one-on-ones, where a staff member and potential clients discuss their needs, financial situations and go over what Coward calls “socially responsible lending products.”

According to Coward, SELF’s goal is to finance a minimum of $3 million of sustainable home renovations over the next three years, with several million dollars in low-cost loan capital from banks, private investors and outside faith-based organizations.

Another financial collaboration that has benefitted SELF is with Solar United Neighbors; a Washington, D.C.- based nonprofit that advocates for the needs and interests of solar energy owners.

This year, with the support of Solar United Neighbors, Florida co-ops installed more than a dozen solar panels across the state, with low-cost financing plans carried out by SELF. “Florida is basically the black hole for clean energy; we’re way behind all the other states,” explained Coward. “I finally decided that I wanted to create this non-profit green bank, because we felt financing would be a key to help unlock the clean energy economy.”

Coward, alongside Jessica Lewis, SELF’s St. Pete program manager, gave an hour-long presentation at Tuesday’s summit, about the financial benefits and home equity opportunities St. Pete residents can obtain from SELF’s lending programs.

The nonprofit is based on the City of Port St. Lucie, where Coward served as a commissioner for 12 years, with interest on clean energy policies. SELF reports show it’s helped more than 700 families finance $6 million in home improvement projects in 63 jurisdictions in Florida.

According to Coward, the decision of establishing a satellite office in the city and hiring a full-time staff person to assist residents was crucial to the mission of impacting underserved communities.

“If people had access to low-cost financing, and could overcome the higher front of making these investments, they could then reap the benefits of those technologies and also capture rebates and tax credits that are currently out of their reach,” he said.  

The current Integrated Sustainability Action Plan (ISAP) report shows that financing for sustainable home improvements is one of the assets that will help mitigate climate change, and frame resiliency around social equity and economy in the city.

“This is the first local government that I’ve ever been to that gets there must be a financial inclusion to all of this,” Coward said. “I was attracted to this market because the local government gets it.”

His focus on St. Petersburg coincides with the Office of Sustainability and Resiliency’s (OSR) efforts to develop innovative environmental solutions, which began with a public online survey in 2017.

Amongst the key findings, solar and renewable energy is a priority. Linked to that were residents’ concerns with rising utility costs. The public had access to the survey for three months, and a total of 1,594 responses were collected after the survey closed in March 2018.

The OSR presented general ideas encompassing the ISAP’s goals and strategies for the next three years, and presented an overview of the city’s first greenhouse gas (GHG) inventory.

According to OSR director Sharon Wright, the purpose of the inventory was to identify the most significant sources of emissions in the city in 2016, target them and help the city identify cost-saving opportunities in the process.

The data was collected by VHB, the company the city teamed up with to assess the city’s GHG emissions.

The emissions include municipal government operations and community activities like grid-supplied electricity consumption, fuel burned in road vehicle and the decomposition, and incineration of solid waste.

One surprising finding shows that stationary energy consumption is responsible for the most substantial portion of community-wide GHH emissions in St. Pete. An effort to reduce those emissions should have to be achieved through highly effective programs and large-scale shifts to cleaner sources of fuels used to condition homes, businesses, institutions and industries.

“The easiest stuff is going to be building on the momentum that already exists,” says Kari Hewitt, VHB’s Director of Sustainability. “The more excitement there is in the community, the more easy it is to get things done.”

Tuesday’s program included small information and technical sessions related to topics such as energy bill savings, composting initiatives and socially responsible financing for sustainable home improvements.

Residents engaged with city staff from various departments in a half hour break out sessions categorized in four areas of input. These included: “Job and Transportation,” “100 percent Clean Energy,” “Community and Equity,” and “Development and Infrastructure.”

By the end of the session, city staff listed general comments made by the public. There were few ideas and most were broad, but according to Wright, any type of citizen’s input is crucial for the ISAP’s completion – anticipated by the end of 2018.

 

For more information about the City of St. Petersburg’s Integrated Sustainability Action Plan visit  https://www.stpete.org/sustainability/building_energy.php

St. Pete homeowners interested in learning more about SELF can call tel. # (772) 468-1818 or visit www.solarenergyloanfund.org.

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1 Comment

1 Comment

  1. Antolin PEREZ

    August 20, 2018 at 9:17 am

    It’s quite encouraging to know City of St. Petersburg’s commitment to “100 percent clean energy city” At the same time ensuring low cost financing. However it’s regrettable our president, is not committed to the welfare of future generations. By refusing to accept climate change is a reality.

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