Meet Your City Energy and Environment Advocate

“[An overhaul of the EPA] is not something that can nor will happen overnight, but I think we know that it is something the new administration is interested in.” 

Every week leading up to the 2017 Congressional City Conference we’ll feature a “Meet Your City Advocate” spotlight as part of a series introducing you to NLC’s Federal Advocacy team. This week, I sat down with Carolyn Berndt, our program director for sustainability advocacy.

carolynberndt

Carolyn Berndt is the program director for sustainability advocacy at the National League of Cities. (Brian Egan/NLC)

Name: Carolyn Berndt
Area of expertise: Environment and Sustainability
Hometown: Winchester, Mass.

Carolyn, thanks for sitting down with me today. To kick it off, why don’t you tell us a little bit about your background. Where are you from, where have you been, what have you done? 

Well, I’m from Winchester, Massachusetts, not too far from Boston.

Oh, I guess the Super Bowl went the way you had hoped.

I was wondering how long it would take me to slip a ‘Go Pats!’ into this interview. But, yes – I’m from a suburb just north of Boston, but moved down to D.C. right after college. I didn’t have a job at that point, but I knew I wanted to be in Washington. I’ve had three jobs in government relations, but I never had a personal connection to the first two. I started working with a nuclear engineering company. Fascinating topics and interesting, but not the most engaging job if you’re not devoted to all things nuclear. My second job was with the American Society of Interior Designers doing state advocacy and grassroots, and again, I just wasn’t an interior designer. Both jobs had me working in government relations and I gained an interest in public policy, so I decided to pursue a Master’s in Public Administration from American University.

Go AU.

That was when I really started to think about cities and local government. Chris Hoene, who used to be NLC’s director of research, did a guest lecture for one of my classes at American.

So Chris Hoene was like the former Brooks Rainwater [NLC’s current director of research]?

Yes, sort of. I remember sitting in class and thinking I should check out the National League of Cities. Eighteen months later I landed a job with NLC! What makes my time at NLC different from my previous jobs is that I’m passionate about my city and the neighborhood where I live. It upsets me when people rag on Washington. I understand frustrations with policy and politicians, but D.C. is my home – and it’s actually a very nice place with great people and a great community to live, work and play. I have a profound respect for local leaders and the communities they help shape every day. Everyone deserves to be proud of their city — and everyone deserves a clean and safe environment.

Well, that segues nicely into my next question: Why sustainability policy? 

I more or less fell into it. I have always been passionate about the subject, having spent a lot of time outdoors as a kid – the beach, the mountains, our national parks – and I took several environmental policy classes in undergrad and grad school. And now, as a parent, there is the basic desire to leave my children with a clean and sustainable future.

I always see cities as being ‘pragmatic environmentalists.’ We all want and need clean air and water, but from the local government perspective there are costs. I’m seeing some cities advance sustainability policies for environmental reasons, but many do it because it just makes economic sense for them. They find in the long run it’s ultimately cheaper to invest in sustainable practices now, particularly with disaster preparedness, rather than ignore it and face the higher costs later.

Interesting. So what do you think 2017 has in store for city sustainability policy?

We hope to have conversations with the new administration and Congress on where they see energy and environmental policy going. Some of the messaging has been around an “all of the above” energy strategy. On the issue of climate change, NLC and cities have been supportive of policies that reduce greenhouse gas emissions, like energy efficiency and renewable energy programs. I hope that climate adaptation and disaster preparedness stay priorities for the federal government. I think it’s hard to argue against being prepared for natural disasters, and cities are the first responders.

The administration has made it clear they want to overhaul the EPA, everything from programs and policies to regulations. This could have a big impact on local governments. While cities certainly have some concerns about various agency rulemakings, there are many programs at EPA that work very well for cities, such as the Brownfields program. And of course programs like the Clean Water and Drinking Water State Revolving Loan Funds and WIFIA are important for funding water infrastructure development.

Do you see cities picking up the gauntlet in the absence of federal leadership on sustainability?

I think cities have already been leading. When I came to NLC, “sustainability” was a relatively new thing and NLC had just adopted a comprehensive sustainability resolution. But since that time, more and more cities have been leading many of the commonsense and innovative environmental policies spreading across the country. Cities will continue to lead in this space, and they’ll continue to look for a federal partner.

I feel like I might already know your answer to the next question, but what is your spirit city?

Well… I’ll always be a New Englander at heart, but I’m afraid I have to steal Matt’s answer here and say San Diego. I love being outside and I love the beach. The idea of having 75-degree perfect weather year round sounds wonderful!

Join us at the 2017 Congressional City Conference and meet Carolyn and the rest of your City Advocates.

brian-headshotAbout the author: Brian Egan is the Public Affairs Associate for NLC. Follow him on Twitter @BeegleME

Cities Turn to Home Energy Score to Help Residents Save Money and Reduce Energy Waste

An upcoming webinar will show how cities can provide their residents with reliable, low-cost, and easy-to-perform home energy assessments.

Cities like Berkeley, California, and Portland, Oregon, are using the Home Energy Score to help residents easily assess their homes’ energy usage. (RCKeller/Getty Images)

When the city of Berkeley, California, launched its Building Energy Saving Ordinance (BESO) in December 2015, other cities around the country started paying attention. The city’s ordinance requires owners of single family homes to disclose their home’s estimated energy use by getting a Home Energy Score at the time of sale.

Looking for a reliable, low cost, and easy-to-perform home energy assessment, the city landed on the Home Energy Score – a standard rating system created by the U.S. Department of Energy (DOE). The Home Energy Score attracted the city for other reasons as well. First, DOE’s national laboratories and partners had thoroughly tested and analyzed the score. The scoring system is easy to understand and lets consumers compare one home to another anywhere in the country. The Home Energy Score is an “asset score,” meaning the score is based on the home’s physical structure and major mechanical equipment, not how current occupants use the home. Lastly, the scoring tool and training/testing for assessors are both available at no cost.

While the city was excited to embark on this new approach, they didn’t want to slow down real estate transactions and therefore included a provision that provides a 12-month grace period after a home’s purchase should the seller not have the home scored prior to sale.

The city of Portland, Oregon, is pursuing a similar path with its Home Energy Score policy, which its city council unanimously passed on December 14. The ordinance requires sellers of single family homes—both existing and new construction—to obtain a Home Energy Score prior to listing, and to include the score and accompanying report in any real estate listings, in addition to providing a copy to prospective buyers. With 10,000 home sales per year, the city of Portland is poised to grow the Home Energy Score market exponentially (more than 55,000 homes have been scored across the United States since the program launched in summer 2012). The ordinance goes into effect January 1, 2018.

A number of states and utilities have also taken action on the Home Energy Score by incorporating the score on a voluntary basis into statewide initiatives or residential energy efficiency programs sponsored by utilities. The Colorado Energy Office launched a statewide Home Energy Score program in 2015 with the aim of integrating the score into real estate transactions so that the energy efficiency of homes can begin to be recognized and valued. By building up a pool of home inspectors to offer the score at point of sale, as well as integrating the score into utilities’ existing programs, the state is well on its way to making home energy information readily available in the real estate market.

Cities with municipally-owned utilities can play a leading role in driving residential energy savings. Columbia Water and Light in Missouri has done just that by integrating the Home Energy Score into its Home Performance with ENERGY STAR program. With more than 7,000 homes scored to date, the municipal utility views the Home Energy Score as a valuable addition to their toolbox, helping to raise awareness about the value of energy efficiency improvements and being able to quantify energy savings.

Cities are interested in energy planning for a wide variety of reasons, ranging from infrastructure management and resiliency to resource and environmental stewardship. Given that the residential sector accounts for more than 20 percent of the nation’s energy use, homeowners can play a significant role in in ensuring that energy resources are used efficiently.

Register here for a free webinar on Wednesday, February 22 at 3:00 p.m. EST to learn more about how your city can use the Home Energy Score to more readily engage residents and help them understand how to save on monthly costs while improving the comfort of their homes. The webinar will also give examples of how the cities of Berkeley and Portland are using the score to provide reliable, low-cost, and easy-to-perform home energy assessments.

About the author: Nick Kasza is a Senior Associate with the Sustainable Cities Institute at the National League of Cities. He is part of a team that administers the SolSmart program and helps deliver technical assistance to cities pursuing SolSmart designation.

Mayors Continue to Forge a Path Towards Greater Urban Resilience

Cities across the country are thinking of new ways to use resources and community assets to strengthen their response to numerous challenges presented by the on-going impacts of climate change and sea-level rise.

Last week, Shafaq Choudry was in West Palm Beach, Fl. representing the National League of Cities at Mayor Jeri Muoio’s State of the City Address where more than 800 community and business leaders gathered to hear city achievements in sustainability and a pathway forward on climate resilience. West Palm Beach is one of the ten cities participating in NLC’s Leadership in Community Resilience program, which launched in 2016. (Getty Images)

Last week, Shafaq Choudry was in West Palm Beach, Florida, representing NLC at Mayor Jeri Muoio’s State of the City Address, where more than 800 community and business leaders gathered to hear city achievements in sustainability and a pathway forward on climate resilience. West Palm Beach is one of the ten cities participating in NLC’s Leadership in Community Resilience program, which launched in 2016. (Getty Images)

2017 will be a year where local government leads the charge on urban resilience – and National League of Cities will be there to help. Through our Leadership in Community Resilience program, NLC provides assistance to 10 cities across the country that lack the financial and institutional resources, city-wide and cross-departmental collaboration, and internal capacity to implement their resilience goals. Designed to bolster city-led resilience initiatives and disaster preparedness, the program elevates local governments’ commitment towards a resilient urban future, no matter what is happening at the federal level.

These efforts were on full display in West Palm Beach last week at Mayor Jeri Muoio’s State of the City Address. Mayor Muoio focused on last year’s success as well as future plans to a vibrant crowd of 800 business and community leaders, elected officials, and residents. She highlighted how the city’s commitment to resilience and sustainability was rewarded with a 4-STAR rating – the only city to receive this certification in Florida. The city’s focus on reducing greenhouse gas emissions, equitable development, data collection, mobility, and increasing economic opportunities has successfully attracted partnerships with the National League of Cities, Knight Foundation, Bloomberg Philanthropies What Works Cities, Van Allen Institute and Gehl Design Studios.

Mayor Muoio’s sentiments are reflected in cities throughout the country where city officials are working to protect their communities from the recurring impact of climate change on infrastructure, housing, and businesses. The devastating impact of floods, hurricanes, droughts and other extreme weather consistently top news headlines and unlike national politics, weather holds no party affiliation. Building upward from a foundation set over the past eight years, city leaders are pushing disaster resilience initiatives into implementation.

Under former President Obama’s administration, the federal government restored the public’s good faith in disaster response from 33 percent after Hurricane Katrina to 75 percent after Sandy, according to Gallup. Over the course of eight years, Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) Administrator Craig Fugate dealt with 910 disaster declarations, more than any FEMA director in history. FEMA released an action plan in 2013, Crisis Response and Disaster Resilience 2030: Forging Strategic Action in an Age of Uncertainty, to address the gaps in emergency management and opportunities for capacity building. Hurricane Sandy triggered the federal government to shift their approach to disasters from a band-aid response to a holistic resilience planning.

Within three short years, shifts in disaster management and response from a federal to local level has empowered cities to think holistically and act strategically about urban resilience through programs such as the Rockefeller Foundation’s 100 Resilient Cities (100RC) and Rebuild by Design. Formerly a partnership with the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development, Rockefeller Foundation partnered with the San Francisco Planning Department in light of a new Trump era, to launch Resilient by Design. Rockefeller Foundation awarded $4.6 million to the Bay Area to combat climate change and sea-level rise with a focus on providing multiple benefits to vulnerable populations.

Many cities outside the 100RC, Rebuild by Design, and Resilient by Design network are thinking of new and creative ways to use resources and community assets to strengthen their response to economic, environmental and social challenges presented by the on-going impacts of climate change and sea-level rise.

Although the cost of climate change is evident in global and financial centers worldwide, NLC has seized the opportunity to capture a compelling story of urban resilience efforts in small to mid-sized cities across the country through the Leadership in Community Resilience program. We are proud to support efforts like Mayor Muoio’s pledge to reduce greenhouse gas emissions by 2050 and look forward to working with West Palm Beach and the other nine cities in our program throughout the year.

shafaq_choudry_125x150About the author: Shafaq Choudry is a Senior Associate with the Sustainable Cities Institute at the National League of Cities.

Five Ways Your City Can Benefit from the “Solar in Your Community” Challenge

Offering $5 million in cash prizes and technical assistance over 18 months, the Challenge supports local teams across the country in their efforts to develop programs or projects that bring solar to their communities.

There are 19 megawatts of solar installed in the city of Portland. Pictured is the Oregon Convention Center. (Jeremy Jeziorski)

This is a guest post by Odette Mucha.

In 2016, solar energy was the largest source of new generating capacity in the United States. With more than one million solar projects now operating across the country, the U.S. has over 35 gigawatts of total solar installed capacity – enough to power the equivalent of 6.5 million average American homes. This is an industry that is growing fast.

Despite this rapid growth, however, solar energy remains inaccessible to nearly half of American households and businesses, as well as many local governments and nonprofits. There are several reasons for this:

  • Nearly half of all rooftops cannot host solar due to insufficient roof space, lack of control over the roof (renters, condos), or shading.
  • While the federal Investment Tax Credit has grown the solar market, it excludes individuals and organizations with no federal tax liability, such as cities, nonprofits, low income individuals, and retirees
  • Low income populations face even greater challenges, often due to poor roof conditions, lower than average credit scores, and lack of access to affordable financing.

And yet, these communities stand to benefit the most from going solar – from stabilizing their energy costs to reducing air pollution. Cities go solar through the Solar in Your Community Challenge, a program launched by U.S. Department of Energy’s SunShot Initiative to expand solar access to those who have, to date, been left out of the growing solar market.

The Solar in Your Community Challenge encourages the development of innovative financial and business models that serve low and moderate-income communities, local governments, and/or non-profits. Offering $5 million in cash prizes and technical assistance over 18 months, the Challenge supports local teams across the country in their efforts to develop programs or projects that bring solar to these segments of their communities, while proving that these business models can be widely replicated and scaled up.

Why should cities participate in the Solar in Your Community Challenge?

  1. Save Money on Municipal Electricity Bills

Local governments, which own approximately 10 percent of commercial buildings (schools, office buildings, public assembly buildings, etc.), spend approximately $14.7 billion on electricity – 12 percent of total commercial building expenditures (EIA data). Solar energy can cut cities’ monthly electricity bills and make funds available for other priorities.

  1. Create Local Jobs

The solar industry is a proven driver of job growth. As deployment has soared, so have solar jobs – there are nearly 209,000 solar workers in the U.S. today, with more than half of them in installation jobs that can’t be outsourced. Further, these workers are paid competitive wages, with installers making a median wage of $21 per hour.

  1. Help Low Income Residents

Low income households pay a large portion of their income towards electricity bills. An analysis by Groundswell found that the lowest income households spent nearly 10 percent of their income, over four times more than the average consumer. Access to low cost solar can provide price stability and bill relief to low and moderate income households.

  1. Improve Resiliency

Cities around the country are facing increased threats from natural disasters and are taking steps to plan for them. During extreme weather events, solar energy can help prevent outages, provide energy for critical facilities, and aid in recovery efforts. Solar can also provide energy to remote areas.

  1. Meet Environmental Goals

Using solar power instead of conventional forms of energy reduces the amount of carbon dioxide, nitrous oxide, and other pollutants that are emitted into the environment. Reducing the amount of pollution translates into cleaner air, reduced water consumption, and improved health.

Cities can participate in the challenge in two ways – as part of a program team or a project team.

Program teams create new programs that enable the installation of solar for use by low income households, governmental organizations and/or nonprofits. Program Teams will be led by governments, utilities or financial institutions.

Project teams develop and install a new solar system or a portfolio of systems that benefit low income households, governmental organizations and/or nonprofits using innovative and scalable business practices. Project Teams can be led by anyone, but should include a combination of key organizations like cities, solar developers, utilities, financial institutions and community organizations.

The application deadline to participate in the Challenge is March 17, 2017. Click here to learn more about the Solar in Your Community Challenge and apply today!

odette_mucha_125x150About the author: Odette Mucha is a Technology Manager at the U.S. Department of Energy SunShot Initiative. She is the manager of the Solar in Your Community Challenge.

Trump May Not Be Able to Remove Federal Regulations Himself – But Someone Else Could

Three federal regulations of particular interest to cities might be on the chopping block following the inauguration, but the incoming administration would face difficulties removing them on its own.

A conservative Supreme Court could be the key to removing federal regulations under a Trump presidency. (Getty Images)

A conservative Supreme Court could be the key to removing federal regulations under a Trump presidency. (Getty Images)

President-elect Donald Trump has repeatedly stated that one of the goals of his new administration is to get rid of federal regulations. Three on the chopping block of particular interest to state and local government include:

  • the Clean Power Plan (CPP), President Barack Obama’s signature climate change measure
  • the regulations defining “Waters of the United States” (WOTUS), a significant term in the Clean Water Act defining the federal government’s jurisdiction to regulate water
  • the Fair Labor Standards Act (FLSA) overtime regulations, which extend overtime pay to four million workers

Despite the fact that the new administration has a menu of options when it comes to removing final federal regulations, the most effective options are probably the most difficult for the president to achieve. If any or all of these regulations go, it won’t likely be the result of the direct efforts of the new president – the U.S. Supreme Court would likely be responsible.

What Are Trump’s Options?

Perhaps the cleanest way to undo final regulations is to rewrite or eliminate the statutory language being interpreted in the regulation. For example, the WOTUS final rule includes eight categories of jurisdictional waters. Congress could simply rewrite the Clean Water Act to define WOTUS differently from the final regulations. But getting such a change through Congress would probably be impossible as Senate Democrats would certainly filibuster any change they saw as offering less environmental protection than the final regulations.

The Trump Administration could also instruct federal agencies to rewrite regulations, but a number of challenges arise with this option. First, the agency would have to come up with new proposed regulations – and depending on the regulation, this might take a lot of time. Take the Clean Power Plan regulations, for example; they are more than 300 pages long. In addition, once new regulations are proposed, they are subject to a public comment period of either 60 or 120 days. The agency must then consider hundreds or thousands of comments before issuing final rules. Finally, when this process is complete, the new regulations would almost certainly be subject to a court challenge. Changes to agency rules must be non-arbitrary, and supporters of any of the three regulations discussed in this post would likely be willing to sue.

Another option when it comes to dealing with disfavored regulations is to simply fail to enforce them by giving agencies inadequate funding to engage in rigorous enforcement or instructing agencies to make enforcement of particular regulations a low priority. This strategy would be more effective for some regulations than others. For example, if President-elect Trump instructed the Department of Labor to ignore employees being classified as “white collar” when they should not be per the FLSA, employees could pursue lawsuits against their employers for this violation without Department of Labor involvement.

Agencies also have the option of issuing interpretations of regulations that can take those regulations in a different direction than originally intended. This strategy would not work well for dismantling seismic regulations like the Clean Power Plan or very simple, straightforward regulations like the FLSA overtime rules. Also, these interpretations can be subject to court challenge as arbitrary and can be overturned with the stroke of a pen by the next administration.

The CPP, the WOTUS regulations, and the FLSA regulations are all currently being challenged in court on various grounds. The Trump administration can also refuse to defend these laws. But the lawsuits are unlikely to simply go away because interveners would probably step in to defend them. For example, states and local governments have already intervened to defend the Clean Power Plan, and the Texas AFL-CIO has sought to intervene to defend the FLSA overtime regulations.

Enter Justice Kennedy

Before President-elect Trump was elected, all three of the cases described above were likely headed to the Supreme Court. Despite his hostility towards them (and maybe even because of it), these regulations will probably still end up before the Supreme Court.

It is perhaps unfair to speculate how a Supreme Court Justice might look at these regulations (which are all being challenged on different legal grounds) based solely on whether that Justice is a conservative or a liberal. Nevertheless, these labels indicate general legal philosophies and leanings.

Conservative Justices – for a variety of reasons which may differ depending on the regulation – might generally be more likely to view these (and other regulations) with more hostility than liberal Justices. A conservative Justice is more likely to see any or all of these regulations as an attack on federalism or as an example of federal agency overreach. Regarding the CPP or the WOTUS rule in particular, a conservative Justice may see these measures as part of a pro-environment policy agenda rather than as a manifestation of clear law.

While we don’t know who President Trump will nominate to fill Justice Antonin Scalia’s vacancy, all signs point toward President Trump nominating (and the Senate ultimately confirming) a reliable conservative. But this nomination will not change the balance of the Supreme Court before Justice Scalia died; it would remain a 5-4 conservative Court with Justice Anthony Kennedy in the middle.

So, unless membership in the Supreme Court changes again soon, the fate of these regulations may lie in the hands of a person as puzzling, powerful, and unpredictable as Donald J. Trump: Justice Kennedy.

lisa_soronen_new_125x150About the author: Lisa Soronen is the Executive Director of the State and Local Legal Center and a regular contributor to CitiesSpeak.