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Department of Energy Takes a Place-Based Approach to Funding in New York City

image credit: Industry City, Sunset Park (Photo 79700163 © Demerzel21 | Dreamstime.com)
Rakesh  Sharma's picture
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Sunset Park is a working-class neighborhood in Brooklyn in New York City. Populated mostly by Latino, Hispanic, and Asian immigrants, it borders the more affluent and gentrified Park Slope area. A proposal to redevelop its waterfront and expand Industry City, a creative and manufacturing hub, was killed last year by the progressive wing of the Democratic Party. They argued that the move would raise rents and gentrify the neighborhood, bringing whites into Sunset Park and displacing the communities of color that currently dominate its demographic.

Now the Department of Energy is stepping in to fill the void left by the proposal. In a visit to the neighborhood at the end of June, Energy Secretary Jennifer Granholm touted her department’s “place-based” approach to climate change funding and investment. This approach entails that the department partner with local communities to devise energy solutions for funding.

“What I've learned is that every community is unique, and that as we consider how these investments flow, that there are place-based strategies that we've got to craft in partnership with communities," Granholm said while she was in Sunset Park. "What's good here is not going to be necessarily good in Houston or in Louisiana or in Oakland." According to her, this is a different way of investing for the department. (But a page on the department’s website shows that the approach has been used to fund projects as far back as 2015).

Granholm made these comments at the offices of Uprose, one of the organizations that protested against the Industry City expansion proposal. Their Sunset Park Green Resilient Industrial District (GRID) plan proposes rezoning to build a “working class waterfront” with an offshore wind manufacturing hub and solar farms. Extensive help from the city will be required to retrain workers and provide green energy at cheap prices to sustain the local economy.   

Leaving the politics of rezoning aside, the DoE’s place-based approach is interesting because it proposes to pivot an entire neighborhood’s commercial identity around the energy industry. Sunset Park is an industrial hub with maritime capabilities and docks. While it is by no measure among the poorest neighborhoods in New York, it lags the city’s median income and has a higher poverty rate in comparison to the rest of the city. Can the Department of Energy’s place-based approach change its fortunes?

Uprose seems to think so. “The development of a Sunset Park GRID could become a national model for local grassroots planning and implementation of a Just Transition economy. GRID can operationalize many goals of the nationally proposed Green New Deal, New York State passed Climate Leadership and Community Protection Act (CLCPA), and the green development goals called for by climate justice advocates,” the non-profit writes in its proposal.

But there is a cost associated with this transition. And it is unclear whether Sunset Park can handle the costs associated with it. Retraining the workforce and providing new skills for green energy jobs will require funds and multiple agencies – federal, state, and city – to work together, a task that is difficult in the best of times.

The other part of this story, the one that is yet to be evaluated, relates to the quantity and quality of jobs that the new industry will generate. I’ve posted earlier about the pay and benefits disparity between jobs in the fossil fuel industry as compared to the renewable energy industry. if the “working class waterfront” simply replicates existing conditions without a corresponding increase in standard of living, then the DoE might want to reconsider its plan. The new GRID will have to work in tandem with other industries and harness local innovation (instead of importing it from other neighborhoods and areas) to make a difference to the local economy.   The previous rezoning plan was estimated to have created 20,000 jobs across multiple industries. I am not if the Uprose’s plan reaches that figure.

If the experiment succeeds, however, Sunset Park could become a model for similar initiatives by the Department of Energy in other major cities or neighborhoods around the country. Of course, it will require more work and funds to wean neighborhoods and communities dependent on fossil fuels off their livelihood.

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