What About Clean Energy?

Updated: July 16, 2012 at 12:00 AM

FreshFixNYC app team, winner of "Best App for Parks and Public Spaces" with Rachel Sterne (second from left). MetroFocus/Esha Ray.

UPDATED: The results are in. The winner of the Reinvent Green “Popular Choice App” award is FreshFixNYC, decided via the City of New York’s Facebook page and announced on Monday, July 16. FreshFixNYC makes it easy for users to find particular products at farmers markets in the city. You can either search by product name or zip code.

FreshFixNYC also won the award for “Best App for Parks and Public Spaces” at the Reinvent Green hackathon on Sunday, July 1.


This past weekend the city hosted its first sustainability “hackathon” called Reinvent Green, a joint collaboration between NYC Digital, the Mayor’s Office of Long-Term Planning and Sustainability, Polytechnic Institute of New York University (NYU-Poly) and Brooklyn Beta. In this two-day-long competition, candidates were asked to create digital tools and apps that would encourage a “greener, greater New York.” The “greener, greater” parameters were established five years ago in 2007, when Mayor Michael Bloomberg announced the ambitious plan called PlaNYC, to respond to climate change, improve the quality of life for New Yorkers, and build a stronger economy.

Technology plays a major role in achieving the PlaNYC goals. The new applied science campuses taking root on Roosevelt Island and in Downtown Brooklyn are supported by the city. With the installation of solar panels on ten city buildings this past April, the city’s solar power production has tripled to 648 kilowatts. And Bloomberg is nurturing the tech sector itself. According to the report New Tech City by the Center for an Urban Future, over 1,000 tech start-ups have been founded in the past five years. Some of those companies, such as Tumblr, Gilt Groupe and Foursquare, offer tools that enable the success of other companies in turn.

PlaNYC’s vision of a “greener, greater New York” includes reducing carbon emissions by 30 percent by 2030. But the number of clean tech start-ups – companies designing the tools needed to make renewable energy – are nowhere near the number of start-ups in other sectors like digital tech or fashion tech. According to the Center for an Urban Future report, most of the growth in start-ups have been Web-based and in creating mobile technologies. The low barrier to entry for Internet start-ups and the city’s large pool of software programmers makes the digital realm attractive to the next generation of creative thinkers.

Most start-ups are in digital tech and use Web-based or mobile technologies. Flickr/hackNY.

This weekend’s Reinvent Green hackathon drew individual programmers and developers, with many students and hackathon habitues among them. Participants organized themselves into 13 teams that spent two days seeking to use the city’s open data to earn prizes such as “Best City Crowdsourcing App,” “Best App for Recycling,” “Best App for Transportation,” “Best App for Parks and Public Spaces,” and “Judges Pick.” The “Popular Choice” award will be decided via the city’s Reinvent Green Facebook page on July 15.

“Judges Pick” went to the “Green, Greener, Greenest!” app team, whose app is meant too create competition among neighborhoods to reduce the most energy consumption, plant the most trees, and overall, be the most green neighborhood.

The competition judges included Micah Kotch, director of Incubator Initiatives at NYU-Poly, Jessica Lawrence, managing director of NY Tech Meetup, and Charles Adler, co-founder of Kickstarter.

“The great thing about the city’s [open data], is that you can actually help the city to run more smoothly, more efficiently, and more effectively,” said Rachel Sterne, the city’s Chief Digital Officer, about the transparency of information in the city, “It’s about connecting the decisions made in City Hall with the millions and billions of individual decisions happening every single day, that collectively add up to an enormous impact on the environment.”

Reinvent Green was part of the city’s goal to harness the talent of the technology community to help individuals make smart decisions about their own energy consumption and live greener. Understanding energy consumption is a vital part in reducing one’s carbon footprint. According to the PlaNYC report, New Yorkers collectively spend $15 billion per year on things like electricity, heating, and cars – one of the highest amounts of energy spending in the country.

But reducing consumption is only one side of the city’s environmental goals. To physically create renewable energy is difficult and requires more than just software programming. It requires actual machines and infrastructure, something that’s harder to “start up.”

Working with nature

By using tidal power, the total potential for the world equals 25 times the world’s current energy consumption.

Thanks to incubators like the NYC Accelerator for a Clean and Renewable Economy, there are clean tech companies working with solar power, wind power, water power and biomass to find new forms of energy. NYC ACRE is funded by a four-year, $1.6 million grant from the New York State Energy and Research Development Authority.

Wind Analytics, one of almost a dozen companies from NYC ACRE, uses a web-based software tool to help architects and engineers make informed decisions about where to place small wind turbines according to the wind resource in an area. These wind turbines then generate clean energy and reduce dependency on coal, oil, and natural gas. The company was founded in upstate New York but moved to the city because of the many resources available.

“New York is a center for financing, and a lot of venture capital has been building up in the city,” said Cullen Kasunic, vice president and project manager at Wind Analytics, “It’s a good place to position ourselves.”

According to Kasunic, the city has an immense wind resource in areas like Battery Park, the Brooklyn waterfront, Coney Island, and other coastal areas. The challenge now lies in developing this new market for wind and overcoming challenges in mounting small wind turbines on building roofs. But he believes that the talent and skills are available.


The chart above shows the various renewable energy projects funded in the state through NYSERDA. Wind projects account for over 1,300 megawatts of energy produced through these sources. (PV means solar power projects.) Photo courtesy of NYSERDA.


Verdant Power, a New York-based company established in 2000, works with hydropower and recently completed their first project in the East River called the RITE project; the country’s first commercially-licensed tidal power system that creates clean energy from the river’s currents.

“By using tidal power, the total potential for the world equals 25 times the world’s current energy consumption,” said Trey Taylor, co-founder of Verdant Power, “So how do we make that happen? By empowering people use their indigenous resources, we can build sustainable communities which leads to economic stability and ultimately, job creation.”

The next step, Taylor says, is putting in an entire system of up to 30 underwater turbines with help from insurance companies and engineering firms, and build new projects in the Hudson River.

Clean energy does in fact create jobs, says Dayle Zatlin, Assistant Director of Communications at NYSERDA. The organization also funds five other incubators around the state, including one in Stony Brook. According to Zatlin, these incubators have worked with over 80 companies, and have helped firms raise over $60 million in private funding and create over 160 new jobs.

Verdant Power's Free Flow System Turbine. Photo courtesy of Verdant Power, Inc.

“When businesses invest in clean energy, the companies are reducing the cost of buying power from the electric grid, making the cost of doing business in the state more affordable and increasing the potential for new hires,” said Zatlin.

A 2011 “New York Solar Study” report by NYSERDA goes more in depth about job creation in the future, which you can check out here.

Where is everybody?

It is evident that New York City has the resources and talent to create clean energy – so why aren’t more startups heading in that direction?

“The internet is so fashionable, and the way we move and access information is so exciting and we’re finding easier and easier ways to do that,” said Taylor of digital tech companies. But he believes this is exactly where clean tech companies can thrive.

“The next step is how to meld hi tech with clean tech – how might our system work with wind and solar power?” he said. Right now, Verdant Power’s underwater turbines works with the city’s existing Con Ed transmission grid when the tides aren’t flowing. But by working with other clean energy companies, Taylor believes we can create a new, “baseload” power and virtual smart-grid that will remove our dependency on the existing city grid.

Micah Kotch, director of NYC ACRE, finds that infrastructure startups versus what’s known as “clean web”, needs much more financing and capital than digital startups and much more knowledge of the scientific process of creating energy alternatives. Making machines commercially available requires a stricter distribution channel, he added, rather than digital applications which can automatically be put on iTunes and be accessed by millions of people.

“Energy is such a complex issue, with so many different touch points, that there’s not just one discipline that has a lock on thinking about energy transformation,” said Kotch, “Because you really need engineers, and you really need programmers. But you also need designers and people who can think about human behavior change. The thing about building a clean energy economy, the solutions we’re going to see have to be trans-discplinary.”

So how do any start-ups in the clean tech industry market themselves in a world dominated by social media?

“I think that in the clean web economy, the environmental benefits are secondary, and the first thing that people will think of is convenience or improvement in quality of life,” said Kotch, “When people think of ‘green’ they immediately think of cost-premium, so you immediately lose a segment of your audience when you market it like that.”

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