D.C. “green bank” equals speedier climate compliance

Washington, D.C. is poised to initiate a “green bank” to leverage dollars to meet the city’s aggressive climate goals.
WASHINGTON—Republican President Donald Trump is using the White House as a bully pulpit to boast about dismantling the Obama administration’s environmental legacy.

However, several doors down on Pennsylvania Avenue, District of Columbia Mayor Muriel Bowser is doing what she can to halt that tear-down.

The Democrat is on the cusp of introducing legislation to offer affordable loans for installing large-scale solar projects and replacing inefficient heating, ventilation and air conditioning systems in older buildings.

Washington would be the first U.S. city to launch what’s known as a “green bank” with an initial infusion of $7 million in D.C. funds.

“We need to lead the way when it comes to protecting and preserving the environment,” Bowser said, adding that the initiative “will create more jobs for D.C. residents, which will allow us to continue our push for inclusive prosperity.”

The actual number of employment prospects for residents might be cloudy right now. But it’s clear the city needs to step up financing of energy retrofits to comply with its own aggressive climate measures.

For instance, Climate Ready D.C. calls for halving emissions of carbon dioxide and other heat-trapping gases by 2032. In tandem, by 2032 the city aims to cut energy consumption by 50 percent and draw half of its power from solar, wind and other renewables.

Green banking isn’t new among states. Connecticut was the first state to do so, in 2011. Since then, Democratic strongholds such as New York, Hawaii, California, Rhode Island and even one county, Montgomery County in neighboring Maryland, have rolled out Green Banks. And more states are in the planning phases.

Congressional legislation to create a national green bank withered on the Capitol Hill vine last year.

Last June, the Coalition for Green Capital prepared a 105-page report that covered every conceivable angle of creating, funding and maintaining a green bank for the D.C. Department of Energy and Environment.

In a presentation to D.C. officials last month, coalition leaders emphasized that the city could spend up to $1.4 billion on its buildings and $1 billion on its solar power infrastructure to meet its sustainability goals.

For instance, the city now has deployed just 19 megawatts of the 662 MW of solar power it is estimated to need by 2032 to achieve its clean energy goals.

Those investments are more attainable by combining public and private capital and distributing it via green bank leases, loans and credit enhancements, according to the coalition.

Alex Kragie, program director with the Washington-based coalition, praised Bowser and DDOE Director Tommy Wells for boldly strengthening their commitment to eco-leadership.

“The beauty of a green bank is that it can adapt to the environment in which it exists,” Kragie told Renewal News in an interview. “It’s a wonderful blank canvas at this point.”

Preliminarily, it looks as is bank funding — a total of $35 million over five years — will come from Solar for All. That initiative, launched by the city in 2016, was designed to provide the benefits of locally generated solar energy to low-income households, senior citizens, small businesses and nonprofits. It is funded by fees levied against utility companies that fail to comply with D.C. renewable energy requirements.

Wells said the homework his department undertook to devise a comprehensive energy proposal revealed that failing HVAC systems in buildings, most of them privately owned, released close to 75 percent of the city’s greenhouse gas emissions in 2015.

That finding prompted the city to set specific efficiency standards into its long-term plan, Clean Energy D.C. To be in compliance, new buildings will be required to meet strict codes and existing buildings will need to be retrofitted.

Wells, echoing the coalition’s report, said he expects the green bank to leverage $5 in private money for every public dollar spent.

The coalition also recommended that the green bank be authorized to issue bonds so as to accelerate lending and to sell loans and recapitalize.

“A green bank exists to open up that flow of investment,” said Kragie, the acting executive director of Montgomery County’s green bank. “That investment leads to jobs.”

When asked if any of those installation or contracting jobs might be for the chronically unemployed or workers in need of training, he said he didn’t know those specifics because the legislation is still being crafted.

“There are a lot of details that need to be filled in,” Kragie said,  “but there are a lot of possibilities.”

If Bowser’s schedule sticks, the green bank would be operational next year and directed by a board of mayoral appointees.

The bank also could fund experimental technologies such as anaerobic digesters, microgrid infrastructure for electricity delivery, fuel cells or geothermal heat powered by sewer lines.

For starters, however, Wells seems focused on reining in leaky buildings.

“How do they get good, cheap financing?” he asked, referring to building owners and operators. “With a green bank, we’re in a position to fund major renovations with high-efficiency systems.”

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