NYPA environmental justice, community outreach efforts detailed

When it comes to environmental justice and sustainability, the New York Power Authority sees itself as something of a national trend-setter, launching and expanding initiatives to better the lives of customers within its statewide footprint.

Lisa Wansley, NYPA vice president of environmental justice and sustainability, may be a relative newcomer to the utility, having come aboard in May 2016. But she is putting her mark on the largest state-owned power organization in the United States.

Since NYPA released its first sustainability plan in 2010, much has changed on the environmental/energy front across the country, highlighted by a move by many utilities away from fossil fuels and towards renewables such as wind and solar.

More than 70 percent of the electricity NYPA produces is clean renewable hydropower. Marie Berninger, director of business development, says NYPA plans to make awards later this year as part of its “large scale renewable RFP” to developers of large scale renewable projects. This RFP will help meet Governor Andrew M. Cuomo’s Clean Energy Standard that mandates 50 percent of New York’s electricity to come from renewable energy sources like wind and solar by 2030.

Wansley's charter is to make sure NYPA is a force for good within communities, whether through promoting STEM (science, technology, engineering and math) programs in local schools or educating older customers on ways to winterize their homes to cut energy bills.

While NYPA has been involved in sustainability efforts since the dawn of the new century, "My coming to NYPA pulled us into one corporate responsibility umbrella," Wansley said in an interview. "NYPA recognizes both sustainability and environmental justice efforts speak to being corporate stewards."

In its latest environmental justice and sustainability update (https://www.nypa.gov/-/media/nypa/documents/document-library/ejs/nypa-environmental-justice-sustainability.pdf?la=en), NYPA talks about improving the quality of life of underserved and minority communities located near its statewide facilities. NYPA considers community collaboration and engagement as hallmarks of those efforts.

Wansley said she embraces the notion that as a company doing business in a community, "You have to see yourself as part of that community . . . that informs a lot of your decision-making."

It also enables NYPA to meet its stated mission of powering the economic growth and competitiveness of New York state "by providing customers with low-cost, clean, reliable power and the innovative energy infrastructure and services they value."

Education is one of the ways NYPA does that. STEM education is an example. According to its latest environmental justice and sustainability report, less than one in 10 STEM professionals in the U.S. is a woman or minority.

NYPA and Wansley aspire to change that.

She stressed the utility does not want to "be in a position to dictate to people what they need." Instead, it hopes to facilitate change through educating professionals, both teachers and others, of the value of a solid STEM background.

"We heard how STEM programming and funding and teacher funding were lacking on a local level," Wansley recalled. "One of the initiatives is educator training, community educator training. A lot of people in communities have touchpoints with children. After-school programs are a very big thing. One of the things we decided to do” is go around and listen to people. “We started offering community educator training, and that means going into school districts to train" educators on the value of STEM education.

Currently, NYPA is preparing a three-year plan that will incorporate metrics that gauge how its STEM-promotion efforts are going. NYPA also has a “Women In Power” group that helps support, train and elevate women in its workforce.

In the coming years, NYPA and Wansley would like to see more companies - particularly utilities - "have these programs in a very organized way that we do," she said, and that more African-Americans and Latinos are taking advantage of them.

The home weatherization efforts are helping NYPA's low-income customers as well. Utility representatives give community workshops where a facilitator demonstrates DIY techniques for weatherizing one’s own home.

"A couple of people almost brought tears to my eyes," Wansley said, "because people are hungry for information and hungry for resources."

And NYPA is trying to fill that appetite.