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Promoting energy efficiency in buildings
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Catalyzing Market Transformation: Eric Walker

Published: Mar 22, 2018 Blog Post

IMT is laser-focused on unleashing the potential of energy-efficient buildings to improve bottom lines and property value, drive economic growth, and reduce harmful pollution to create healthier, resilient cities. Collaborating with building owners, tenants, governments, and other city and corporate stakeholders, as well as NGOs and strategic partners, IMT’s expert staff and leadership team strive to catalyze collective, permanent market change. So, who is IMT? Get to know our subject matter experts in this blog series.

New IMT Board Member Eric Walker believes successful market transformation occurs when local communities tap into their united potential. The Director of Energy Development and Management for Erie County, N.Y., shared why energy efficiency in buildings is critical to this goal and why IMT’s work is an exciting indicator of progress.

 

What do you most value about building efficiency?

I’ve come to view building energy efficiency in a very tangible, almost visceral way. When I worked as a community organizer, I would walk through neighborhoods in the summer and often see people outside on their porches escaping the heat—their poorly insulated houses often made it hotter inside than out, not to mention the significant cost-burden of air conditioning. Conversely, in the winter, people would want—really, need—refuge from the elements outdoors but poor housing quality often meant they were living with temperatures that weren’t terribly different than those outside. I drove my organization’s work around energy efficiency and retrofit readiness, which required a big community engagement effort to translate longstanding challenges into local programming, like targeted weatherization and healthy homes interventions to make their homes more livable.

IMT’s energy efficiency work in both residential and commercial buildings isn’t that different than those projects: IMT is really good at convening and problem solving—we’re working with various stakeholders to achieve mutual benefit because efficiency addresses occupant comfort, unlocks untapped resources, and increases affordability, to name a few. Done well, we are developing policy and market frameworks that allow people to participate in the market more broadly and achieve basic needs. The opportunity of building energy efficiency makes this possible.

What perspective do you bring to IMT?

When I first learned about IMT, I was immediately fired up—I jumped out of my chair and started calling people. I had just read the new study IMT completed that showed how energy efficiency can mitigate mortgage foreclosure risk, published in partnership with the University of North Carolina Center for Community Capital, and I thought it was extremely useful, inspired work, particularly within the context of the very recent mortgage foreclosure crisis.

At the time, I was a community organizer in Buffalo, New York, doing grassroots economic development work to address some of the impacts of the foreclosure crisis on low-income neighborhoods and communities of color. I was excited to mobilize research, like the report coming out of IMT, within local governments to create real neighborhood solutions. At the same time, I was having kitchen table conversations with local leaders about the prohibitive high cost of energy in the area, so I was working first-hand with both the opportunity and the need for energy efficiency.

Today, I apply all of these experiences working with local communities as the Director of Energy Development and Management for Erie County, New York. I’m always wrestling with how to leverage the power of government and the communities we serve to drive solutions to big-ticket, entrenched social challenges like energy affordability, inequality, and climate change. I’m optimistic that we are beginning to recognize the opportunity of local government in particular to have an impact.

At IMT, I bring the perspective of activist turned bureaucrat. My interest is in working to develop new opportunities for IMT within the ecosystem of nonprofits working to help local governments play increasingly critical roles related to energy, equity, and environmental challenges while driving economic development. IMT has already had taken a leading role here: Through the City Energy Project, for example, we’re making place-based investments in cities that want to tackle these kinds of challenges and providing them with the right resources and increased capacity they need to increase efficiency in building stock while also building a peer network of similarly aligned cities. That work is replicable across a range of social challenges and can be really powerful. The work IMT is doing with cities and their market actors is highlighting a key construct necessary to achieve an expanded purpose: facilitated place-based investment, anchored by critically engaged local leadership, fueled by networked collaborative action across sectors for collective impact.

For example, Erie County is beginning an exploration of community aggregation focused on increased energy security and access to efficiency and renewables for low-income households. The county government is the major provider for home energy assistance in our area, so when we are thinking about this project, the question is not only how do we purchase energy supplies for our climate goals but also how do we do this in a way that will help the community? Rather than just doing the bare minimum to meet our mandates, we first want to interface with our vulnerable populations to understand their needs and how the new services we develop can support them. The same work to provide energy services will get done, but we are vastly increasing the amount of impact we can have as a local government actor while using our purchasing power to achieve better market outcomes. This is the type of shift where IMT’s expertise has a pivotal role to play.

What does market transformation mean to you?

Market transformation is about recognizing and tapping into dormant potential. Again, the City Energy Project is an easy example because it has become a jumping-off point for a lot of inspired action: It brought together a group of cities with different constituents and challenges and gave them the tools to invest in the opportunity of energy efficiency in their buildings as an economic driver. IMT and its partners are recognized for tapping into that potential and unleashing it through their expert resources, deployed advisers, and continued network of support.

You can see this idea beginning to take shape through the NYC Retrofit Accelerator, which focuses on the ground game by applying energy performance data collected from the city’s benchmarking policy to reach out to specific building owners. Effectively, the organization is using the city’s existing statutory authority as a way to get to scale around renewables, revolving funds, and other critical market infrastructure. Successful market transformation will require using the power of government as a thoughtful resource to meet the triple bottom line.

This reframing of IMT’s work is a measure of intention and self-reflection. Can IMT leverage market insights to develop policy solutions that address challenges within the energy sector both now and looking ahead through a refined lens? Does the inclusion of some “heightened purpose” take us off course or make us more of who we are? I joined the IMT board because I think this reframing makes IMT more of what it already is: a changemaker.

Note: IMT is an official partner of the NYC Retrofit Accelerator.