Wednesday, September 02, 2009

University of Maryland Environmental Student Group to Launch Fall Campaign‏

By Kenny Frankel and Matt Dernoga.

We're part of a student environmental group on the University of Maryland campus called "UMD for Clean Energy." In the past we've successfully petitioned our university to draft and implement a climate action plan to reduce greenhouse emissions 50% by 2020, and the University System of Maryland to commit to carbon neutrality by 2050. This past spring, we were successful in collaborating with statewide environmental groups to pass the Greenhouse Gas Reduction Act, which sets the strongest short-term emissions reduction target in the nation- 25 percent below 2006 levels by 2020. We also recently have been engaged at the federal level, lobbying for climate legislation called the American Clean Energy and Security Act which passed the House of Representatives this past June and will be considered by the Senate this fall.

This upcoming fall, we've decided to get involved in the College Park City Council elections, which take place November 3rd. Why now? At the state level, policies and programs such as the Maryland global warming bill, Empower Maryland, the Renewable Electricity Standard, and renewable energy tax credits are underway or will be soon. At the same time, the federal government is spending record amounts of money on clean energy and energy efficiency, and could soon pass a global warming bill that will drive hundreds of billions of dollars worth of public and private investment into clean energy and energy efficiency over the next decade. In the next 10 years, expect to see money, business investment, and the jobs that come with it raining down on Maryland. Where is it all going to land? We think the areas that benefit the most will be the ones out in front and in the lead on clean energy and low carbon technology policy. Unfortunately, neither Prince George's County nor College Park is leading. We think we're way behind, especially compared to Montgomery County. We want College Park to step up and be the gold standard in the county on this front. We're aiming to not only improve our town, but set an example for other municipalities, and ultimately the county. We want to push low-carbon investment in College Park, and create green jobs in Prince George's County.

This is why we're pushing a platform of various recommendations that range from more sustainable transportation to more efficient buildings to better environmental practices. While some parts of our platform are doable in the short-term, we recognize that with the current economic situation many governments face, other parts are more aspirational, and some involve city collaboration with the Prince George's County Council.

We also know that platforms which are too broad and vague might make for good talking points, but aren't very good at holding elected officials accountable. That's why we've elevated what we consider to be our priority policy to the top of our platform. This is the establishment of a low interest energy efficiency loan fund. Montgomery County recently passed a bill which establishes a green loan fund, although we're uncertain if they've actually gotten it set up yet. The concept is pretty simple, where residents in College Park can borrow from this pool of money like they would a bank in order to pay for energy efficiency improvements in their home. Then, the loan can be repaid in payments roughly equal to the energy savings being realized by the improvements. We've been told in meetings with elected officials the best way to do this is through a modest property-tax surcharge. After the loan is paid back, residents will reap the benefits of substantially lower electricity bills.

Beyond Montgomery County, we know that the city of Annapolis has also recently created a loan fund, although theirs is for renewable energy projects as well. If the city council was open to including renewable energy projects in the fund, we would support it. However, we thought it was best to have a more narrow focus on energy efficiency since there's so much potential to save energy in this country, and efficiency improvements can be deployed faster and cheaper with a quicker payback rate than any other energy source. McKinsney & Company has released a recent report showing that "the U.S. economy has the potential to reduce annual non-transportation energy consumption by roughly 23 percent by 2020, eliminating more than $1.2 trillion in waste – well beyond the $520 billion upfront investment (not including program costs) that would be required. The reduction in energy use would also result in the abatement of 1.1 gigatons of greenhouse gas emissions annually – the equivalent of taking the entire U.S. fleet of passenger vehicles and light trucks off the roads.”

Maryland Politics Watch Blog has written frequently over the debate on re-regulation and what the best way is to bring long-term rate relief to energy consumers in Maryland, and to their credit mentioned efficiency as a core solution. We think establishing financing mechanisms for energy efficiency such as these loan funds is the best and most reliable form a rate relief we're going to see. Fossil fuel based electricity isn't going to get cheaper. If you've ever seen houses in College Park, a lot of them are pretty old and could definitely use some love. The energy efficiency loan fund is our bottom line.

This leads into the campaign we're running. Although our proposals are sound policy and reasonable for a small town, making them a priority for the City Council and the candidates running in this November’s election is another story. Fortunately, there is a unique dynamic to these elections that has never been successfully taken advantage of. College Park is broken up into 4 districts, with two city council members representing each district. Then there's the city-wide Mayoral race. Looking at past elections, less than 1,000 people vote in the city council elections. Candidates for a city council seat typically need a few hundred votes to win, and the margin of victory is less than a hundred votes. Although this was an unusually low turnout, in 2007 a vote count of 95-95-94 in District 2 forced counting of absentee ballots. At the University of Maryland we've got over 30,000 undergrad and graduate students, many that have residency in College Park. Also, many students are registered to vote in College Park anyway thanks to the a massive voter registration drive last fall for the general election, among other efforts.

If someone could figure out how to mobilize students to turn out to this election, we could be a big factor. Unfortunately, attempts by our SGA in the past have been good at registering students to vote, but bad at getting them to follow through. Real bad. We intend to do things a bit different than they've been done in the past, focusing less on registering the apathetic masses, and more on reaching out and collaborating with the tens of active student groups and organizations on campus, many of whom we have worked with in the past. We want to spend our time going after the "cream of the crop" first, both since they're active and much more likely to vote, and second that we actually want the majority of the students we mobilize to understand our campaign and our platform. Plus, we think we only need a couple hundred educated students to make up an influential voting block.

Another difference is we don't want to just tell people to vote whenever and hope they do it. We want to make the vote an event for those who don't have class (or can skip). We plan on organizing a rally at the center of our campus in the late afternoon, and then marching the half mile to city hall to vote. Since only districts 2 and 3 vote at city hall, we'll have transportation at city hall to transport voters who live in districts 1 and 4 and need to vote at Davis Hall, which is a 5 minute drive away. A march can provide a great visual, although we also realize if we are unsuccessful in our campaign, it will be a lonely and lowly populated march. We're not taking the challenge of getting students to vote for granted.

The last main difference is we don't want to make this "students versus the residents", which has been done in the past by running student candidates against the city council. If there are student candidates, we'll make them earn our vote the same we will with any other candidate. We also plan on reaching out to the civic associations in College Park and telling them about our ideas and platform, and listening to theirs. Although a good deal of our organizing is student-based, we want to reach out and collaborate with the entire community as best we can. We also intend to reach out to the City Council and all candidates by meeting as many as possible, preferably all of them. We want to work with the City Council wherever we can, especially on the loan fund. We've already held multiple meetings where we shared ideas with two members of the city council, the current mayor, and the candidate for mayor. We've been taken seriously in all of them, and many ideas have been well-received. Andy Fellows, the candidate for mayor, is planning to come to our group's semester kickoff meeting on September 14 to speak to us and address the platform.

We expect new developments in the coming months as this effort moves forward and evolves past November 3rd. We welcome support and ideas from readers of this blog. Just because a policy idea isn't on our platform doesn't mean we'll exclude it from the conversation. If you would like to find out more about us or contact us, check out our website.


Matt Dernoga, Campaign Director
Kenny Frankel, Media Director