Winter is miserable in New York. The arctic blasts whoosh in off the water and cut through hats and scarves and coats as if they’re not even there. Other than turning up your collar, leaning forward, and squinting, there’s nothing you can do with the wind other than endure it.
For now, at least. At some point in the near future, it may be possible to harness that misery and use it for good. Imagine one day looking up like a tourist at countless vertical wind turbines along rooftops on Fifth Avenue spinning energy to help power the heat.
Cue AeroCity Windpower, a company looking to create and install self-starting vertical-axis wind turbines for city buildings. It was funded with a $1 million grant from the New York State Energy Research and Development Authority (NYSERDA) to develop turbines—looking less like a traditional windmill than the love child of a parking meter and an egg beater—that could be installed atop city buildings to harness the winter wind. AeroCity CEO Russell Tencer also hopes it could “provide a foundation for green jobs in New York City” that could keep the tax base warm.
Investment in green sectors is supposed to be the great jobs generator of the new now. The U.S. Conference of Mayors projected last year that more than 4.2 million green jobs nationwide could be created in the next 30 years through renewable energy development, retrofitting buildings, the creation of clean fuel for cars, and research and consulting. And where there’s talk of jobs and being green, one is likely to find Mayor Michael Bloomberg: In his third-term inaugural speech, Bloomberg pledged to “find innovative ways to create jobs in the industries of the future,” including, specifically, green technology.
The mayor campaigned on a slate of “30 initiatives to grow New York City’s Green Economy,” and local universities are a prominent part of that plan. It included proposals to partner with a local academic institution, or NGO, to create an “Urban Technology Innovation Center,” develop “Green Knowledge Centers” in partnership with Columbia University, and start a Green JumpStart NYC program at SUNY’s Levin Institute—a boot camp to retrain out-of-work Wall Street types for green finance jobs.
Most of these projects remain on the drawing board: The city’s Economic Development Corporation says it expects a partner for the urban technology center by June, and a spokeswoman for the Levin Institute says the Green JumpStart curriculum is still in the works. The Department of Education says two Green Centers are already running in Manhattan at the School of Cooperative Technical Education and at the Urban Assembly School for Green Careers, with more to come down the road.
In addition to these projects, there’s New York University–Polytechnic’s green jobs incubator. With a $1.5 million NYSERDA grant, NYU-Poly expanded its existing incubator for small-business entrepreneurs to include a renewable energy-focused incubator called NYC ACRE (Accelerator for a Clean and Renewable Economy).
A three-year agreement was hammered out, in which NYU-Poly would cover the utility, tax, and upkeep costs on the 12th floor of 160 Varick Street in exchange for free rent from owner Trinity Real Estate. NYU-Poly charges its incubator tenants cheap rent; AeroCity, for example, pays $250 a month per cubicle, “a bill that’s hard to beat,” Tencer says. The seven NYC ACRE tenants—including an eco-friendly cleaning-products company, a firm that looks to convert excess pressure from water mains into electric power, and a company involved in developing biodegradable plastics—are also able to avail themselves of the resources of universities involved in the program (including the Pratt Institute, NYU, Columbia, and NYU-Poly), whether it’s professorial advice or a supply of student interns.
Tencer used his interns from NYU and Columbia to collect pricing, zoning, and permitting data for cities, counties, and states across the country where AeroCity might one day do business, as well as to amass pricing data for major utilities. “It’s just a beast,” Tencer says of the task. In addition to mundane intern toil, students get a firsthand look at things they’d only previously discussed in the classroom.
Emily Sun, a senior environmental studies major at NYU, works 20 hours a week at NYC ACRE for M.J. Beck, a utilities consulting firm. She remembers a classroom discussion about cogeneration, the idea of capturing and recycling heat generated by power stations for domestic purposes. “I saw professionals talking about this problem that we’re addressing in [our textbook],” she says. “And the book is very optimistic it’s going to happen. But it’s not really that easy.” For one thing, a cogeneration plant can only be effective in the immediate vicinity of where the excess heat will be used, and it’s not easy to build a power plant in a residential neighborhood.
The practical nature of the internship is what attracted Sun to NYC ACRE. “I didn’t want to be out in a garden or anything,” she says. Instead, she wanted to learn about smart grids and sustainable energy. She has also learned “a lot about the energy industry—[from] how it’s structured and energy generation to different sources of energy, too.” But, like many seniors, she hasn’t figured out her post-graduation plans. “I was thinking about maybe going to work for a utility,” she says. “Probably. Because I think it’s a really cool thing.”
Sun’s experience speaks to one of NYC ACRE’s goals, says Micah Kotch, the incubator’s operations director. “You want to start people out at an intern level where they’re going to be able to get their hands somewhat dirty,” he says. “So if you can get a kid to intern with a small start-up company, he can come out of school potentially with his own idea and create his own company.”
Helping to graduate green-savvy students bolsters NYC ACRE’s dual mandate. “One is to help young start-up companies grow,” Kotch says. The second is “to really help develop a sector.” One impetus for NYC ACRE, he says, was a 2007 report by the New York City Investment Fund (NYCIF), an arm of the Partnership for New York City that seeks to boost future business. The clean technology, or cleantech, sector saw $7.6 billion in venture capital invested in it in 2008, according to a report by GreenBiz.com. The NYCIF report warned that if New York didn’t do something to encourage cleantech here, it was at risk of losing out on its share of those types of investments, as well as the jobs and tax revenue they create. Through its green programs, the city is looking to increase that number by 13,000 jobs, basically doubling green employment here by 2020.
“The green economy plan as a whole is focused on growing other industries,” says Economic Development Corporation spokesperson Vivian Liao. Rather, the goal is to promote entrepreneurship, to help new companies along, and “see the city as a place to grow their business.”
“We really can’t avoid the move toward a green economy,” says Leigh Pasqual, spokesperson for Urban Agenda, a public policy group that has developed its own roadmap to boost green jobs here. “Creating the connection between green and sustainable economic growth is critical for New York City.”
James Parrott of the economic watchdog Fiscal Policy Institute agrees, though he cautions that it’s going to take bigger economic changes to “get us out of the deep hole we’re in.”
“Universities need to gear up for the growing need to train workers,” Parrott says. “But it’s not a panacea.”