On Earth Day 2005, Albany Mayor Jerry Jennings signed the U.S. Conference of Mayors Climate Protection Agreement, a national initiative launched by Seattle Mayor Greg Nickels to advance the goals of the United Nations-brokered Kyoto Protocol through local action. Participating mayors commited to “meet or exceed Kyoto Protocol targets for reducing global warming pollution by taking actions in our [their] operations and communities,” through methods such as the use and utilization of emissions inventories, the promotion and use of alternative energies and transportation models, and increased energy efficiency through infrastructure improvements and education. The target for the Kyoto Protocol, and in turn for the mayors, is to stabilize greenhouse gas emissions at or below 1990 levels by 2012.
It wasn’t until four years later, on Earth Day 2009, that Jennings actually signed an executive order formally establishing the City of Albany’s sustainability agenda, which put forth a host of proposed initiatives covering topics like public spaces, built environments, green jobs, transportation and waste management, among others. Included in the agenda was a plan to explore potential funding options to “hire a full-time Energy and Sustainability Coordinator,” to ensure and measure the success of the various initiatives.
“Lack of resources is the major challenge for all cities trying to implement climate protection measures,” says Doug Melnick, director of Albany’s Department of Economic Development and Planning. “Mayor Jennings saw the need and signed the agreement with hundreds of other mayors, but the question then became about how to do it.” Environmental sustainability quickly became the purview of Melnick and the Planning Department, but he says that objectives were difficult to realize. “Without additional funding, you’re looking at lots of extra work and not enough staff to really do it.”
Enter federal stimulus funding: The Energy Efficiency and Conservation Block Grant Program, signed into law in December 2007, was funded for the first time under the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act of 2009. The program assists state and local governments in the development, promotion, implementation and management of projects or programs designed to reduce energy use and fossil fuel emissions, improve efficiency and create jobs. Under the Recovery Act, EECBG received $3.2 billion, $1.8 billion of which was directed to cities and counties around the country. Albany received an EECBG grant near the end of 2009, providing the city with the means to implement and manage environmentally sustainable programs.
“That was really a defining moment,” says Melnick. “That’s what made a lot of what we’re doing now possible. So many of the sustainable initiatives that are going on around the country right now are being paid for with federal grant money.” Grants, he points out, that are usually the first thing to disappear from the federal budget in times of economic austerity. “The trick is going to be figuring out how to self-finance these programs when the grant money runs out in 2012.”
Prior to receiving the federal funding, the city was able to implement only minor changes, according to Bob Van Amburgh, executive assistant to the mayor, like transitioning to nontoxic and environmentally friendly products. “Once the stimulus money took hold,” says Van Amburgh, “we were able to create the Office of Energy and Sustainability and now there are any number of initiatives that we have moving forward.”
The Mayor’s Office of Energy and Sustainability was established last year with the expressed goal of coordinating “energy conservation and efficiency initiatives among the municipal departments and to drive community-wide efforts to be a more livable and sustainable community.” Under Melnick’s direction, the small department also coordinates the efforts of the Sustainability Working Group, a committee organized by the Mayor’s Office and composed of city government commissioners and staff who work together to ensure strategic cooperation across departments. “We asked key individuals in various city departments if they would commit to this group, as well as people from the housing authority and other tangential city agencies,” says Van Amburgh. “We meet once or twice a month to strategize . . . and they’re able to spear-head the things that they think are most critical.”
According to OES Sustainability Coordinator, Clara Fang, the city is still working to reduce the use of harmful chemicals in municipal operations. In 2009, the landfill began a nonchemical pest control program, and graffiti is now removed with green products. Calcium cholride has been replaced by magnesium chloride, which is less corrosive, for the purposes of snow removal. Central Maintenance has adopted the use of environmentally friendly products in municipal building projects. To these basic efforts, the OES has added a range of other programs and initiatives: a greenhouse-gas-emissions inventory used to identify the top producers of harmful gasses and set reasonable targets and priorities for their reduction; solid-waste initiatives intended to divert 65 percent of waste from the city’s landfill by 2030; municipal fleet and public transportation initiatives; methane gas collection; a bike plan; building efficiency upgrades. These initiatives coordinate with other projects and departments to integrate sustainable practices within Planning Department’s comprehensive 2030 plan.
“It’s a great opportunity for us,” says Melnick. “Usually the comprehensive plan and climate action plans are done separately. This has given us the chance to create a culture of sustainability within the comprehensive plan for the city. I really see Albany as leading the way, from a sustainable planning perspective.” The comprehensive 2030 plan, which likely will include things like bike paths and more green spaces, is expected go before the Common Council this summer.
Councilman Dominck Calsolaro (Ward 1) has long been an outspoken advocate of environmental sustainability in Albany. “I have been critical of the city’s whole solid-waste management program for years,” he says. “From opposing the landfill expansions, to the lack of enforcement of recycling rules and regulations, to a lack of foresight by the city administration on re-use and reduce strategies in solid waste management.” It has only been in the last year that Calsolaro feels Albany is finally moving in the right direction. “We’re finally getting some initiatives going, we’re finally talking about reducing and reusing.” Even so, Calsolaro would like to see the city do more, and has been working to introduce a new organics recycling bill and to explore new composting methods. “I really think we can still do a much better job.” He points to other cities like San Francisco as examples of innovation and action.
It remains to be seen what will happen when the money runs out next year. “Of course we want to keep the Office of Energy and Sustainability open and functioning, but we will have to find the money,” says Melnick. “We will probably be looking for help from the community.”
Calsolaro fears the worst. “The city’s administration has a poor record of following through with many projects once the grants are used up—or the press conferences are over,” he says. Citing several examples of lapsed initiatives, he adds that the Common Council has little to say about budgetary matters. “I don’t see the council continuing funding programs that the mayor doesn’t put in the budget. I fear this process will end with the end of the associated grants.”
“We have made strides in the last year,” he says. “But we’re not there yet. We should have started years ago.”