Harnessing Private Capital to Bring Clean Energy to Rochester’s Commercial Buildings


Our Possible Rochester initiative has taken another major step forward, with the launch of our community-oriented site, PossibleRochester.org.

Our business-oriented site, PossibleRochester.com, which focuses on C-PACE (Commercial Property Assessed Clean Energy) as a financing mechanism for upgrading commercial properties to clean energy, has been operating since February when the city announced the launch of the C-PACE program.

The dot-org site, by contrast, is all about leveraging the opportunity that C-PACE represents for the community, and specifically for regenerative development and design. We call this Community PACE.

In the emerging post-pandemic economy, investment is still the catalyst for changing structures and systems. C-PACE can bring hundreds of millions of dollars of new private investment into an older industrial city like Rochester.

This investment will initially come from outside the community; but as the concept becomes more widely understood it can increasingly be created locally, by regional banks, credit unions, and other financial institutions. This increases the local benefit because the interest payments are retained locally as well. The important thing, in either case, is that the buildings are upgraded, the emissions reduced, and the owner’s operating costs are lowered. And green jobs and job training opportunities are created in the community.

What this means for the City is better buildings, cleaner air, local jobs, and participation in the new green economy. This represents an opportunity for other “for-impact” community organizations to join forces to make this vision a reality in the city’s commercial areas. We believe that a community-based approach to C-PACE is what’s needed to make the program successful in reducing carbon emissions and transforming our built environment.

The usual way that C-PACE is introduced into a community is through professional networks in real estate and energy services, and this clearly needs to be a part of our strategy. But viewed through a more regenerative lens, there are other approaches as well, which use Community PACE to engage in a meaningful dialogue with property owners, civic officials, and community leaders in a sustained campaign to transform the City.

The magnitude and difficulty of the challenge should not be underestimated.

The City of Rochester alone has more than one thousand buildings over 20,000 square feet, amounting to some 100+ million square feet of commercial space. Making these buildings more efficient and switching to renewables requires an awareness of the best technologies, the ability to evaluate their performance in specific circumstances, and the commitment to see the upgrade projects through to completion and verification.

To reach the city’s, and the nation’s, climate goals means improving building performance by 50% across the board or taking half the total number of buildings down to net-zero by 2030.

Ultimately, of course, all our buildings need to be carbon-neutral or preferably “climate-positive” (e.g., using living plants to absorb carbon and help filter the air in their immediate environments).

A paper by W. Craft et al. provides a preliminary but nonetheless illuminating discussion of building retrofits as seen through the lens of Pamela Mang’s, Bill Reed’s, and others’ concepts of regenerative development and design. They emphasize that this perspective is in addition to the need to strive for net-zero buildings — to actively contribute to the restoration of ecosystems by incorporating natural elements and improving the health and wellbeing of both the occupants and the community.

“Considering that in developed countries the majority of buildings which will exist in 2050 have already been built, it is essential that building retrofits start to make this shift towards regeneration….

“If we do not make this fundamental transition towards regeneration it will be impossible to go beyond simply slowing the rate of depletion and degradation. In order to do so, we must engage with the living world by (re)aligning human and natural systems. Pamela Mang and Bill Reed support this by defining regenerative design as the “reconnection of human aspirations and activities with the evolution of natural systems – essentially co-evolution.” Chrisna du Plessis suggests that the two underlying questions of this regenerative worldview are, “how can we learn to live in harmony with nature” and “how can our efforts make the world a healthy and life-enhancing place?”[1]

Craft et al. go on to say that “the first step towards regenerative design and development is not a change of techniques but a change of mind,” i.e. of perspective and of mindset. They contrast the “reactive” mindset of “net-zero, green buildings, resource efficiency, etc.” with the “proactive” mindset of “net-positive, restorative, and regenerative” elements, including the reimagining of each building as exchanging positive energy with the surrounding built environment.

Translating this into real-world terms in the complex circumstances of a city like Rochester is impossible without the tools and resources needed.

As Rochester Mayor Lovely Warren stated in announcing the C-PACE program:

“The C-PACE program protects the environment, and helps our partners in the private sector improve the value of their property at no cost to the taxpayer,” said Mayor Warren. “I am proud to bring this new and innovative financial mechanism to Rochester, especially now as we work to implement the actions identified in our Climate Action Plan and Rochester 2034 Comprehensive Plan. Programs like this advance the goals of our Equity and Recovery Agenda and support our efforts to create more jobs, safer and more vibrant neighborhoods, and better educational opportunities.”

Now it’s up to the businesses, the institutions, and the citizens of Rochester to make it happen.

[1] W. Craft, L. Ding, D. Prasad, L. Partridge, D. Else: “Development of a regenerative design model for building retrofits,” International High- Performance Built Environment (2016), published online at www.sciencedirect.com as Procedia Engineering 180 (2017) 658 – 668.

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