We’re doing something that seems almost counter-intuitive: we’re asking you, and hundreds of other ordinary people, to donate money to an unusual kind of charity, to help us start what should result in a major economic boost to New Jersey.
This is a way of doing something about climate change that’s significant, personal and concrete. It’s significant because this program will remove millions of tons of carbon pollution each year. It’s personal because we’re cleaning up New Jersey (or, the planet, if you don’t live in NJ). And it’s concrete because this effort will create tons of jobs as energy efficient and renewable energy systems are installed.
Normally this kind of initiative would be undertaken by government, or by private enterprise, or by a social enterprise.
But this opportunity is too important. It can’t be squandered or botched. There must be at least one player who’s beyond reproach, open and transparent, with no hidden agendas and no backdoor dealings. That’s why we created New Jersey PACE as a program of the Center for Regenerative Community Solutions, a 501c3 nonprofit.
If we’re going to prepare communities for the realities of climate change we need to invest in better buildings, better infrastructure, and better ways of doing things. This is what NJPACE is all about.
Our mission, in fact, is “to facilitate the transition to clean energy in New Jersey, by educating our stakeholders about PACE financing, establishing an open administrative platform on behalf of interested local governments, and financing eligible projects in these municipalities.”
The Center for Regenerative Community Solutions was founded, in the wake of Superstorm Sandy, to do three things: educate communities, assist local governments, and provide funding to reduce and ameliorate present and expected climate change effects, especially in low and moderate-income communities.
PACE is, in concept, a public-private-noprofit partnership, a way of using the local government’s tax-collection ability to finance energy improvements on private property, without actually costing the taxpayer anything. Over time, property owners’ payments cover all the costs. So it’s not a subsidy. Local government’s role is only to collect the payments.
PACE financing is similar to a loan, with some important differences. Money is advanced to a property owner in the form of a special assessment (much like a sewer assessment, only PACE is voluntary). The money is used to pay for energy efficient and renewable energy upgrades that will, over the long run, save energy, save money, and cut carbon pollution. But since the loan is on the property, it doesn’t depend on, nor go against the owner’s credit. (If you hadn’t noticed, it’s really hard to get loans these days, so this is essential component of PACE.) These assessments are transferred to the new owner when the property is sold. In the unusual case of default, only the amount owing is due; the loan is never called or accelerated. PACE loans are typically designed to save on energy costs right from the start, since the energy savings are greater than the payments on the loan. And because it’s collected by local government along with taxes, private investors consider this relatively secure, and are enthusiastic about funding PACE projects at reasonable rates.
It’s also similar to an investment, in that it’s expected to produce a return that is, over time, greater than its original cost. And because it’s backed up by the special assessment mechanism, private investors are more than willing to provide the funding, and PACE is attracting an increasingly amount of attention in the financial community.
But in order to make it possible a number of things have to come together that are somewhat innovative, and for some people are quite challenging.
- To start with, local elected officials are not that savvy about commercial energy use, nor are they necessarily comfortable with financial innovation. (“Financial innovation… isn’t that what got us in trouble in the financial crisis?” Well, no, actually. We’re not talking derivatives or sub-prime mortgages; we’re talking about real physical improvements, such as more efficient HVAC equipment and solar PV systems. What’s innovative is really the business model that makes PACE investments possible.) So municipal governments, as well as a range of other stakeholders, need a lot of educating.
- Secondly, the programs need to be designed and operated properly. As with any new approach which could potentially involve millions of dollars, there are ways to “game” the system. Conceivably, owners could try to take the money, and not do the improvements (leaving the obligation to a subsequent owner if they can); or the work could be done poorly; or the owners may be paying more than they should be, and doing things that actually make their properties less valuable. These and other potential downsides need to be prevented by carefully designing the rules that govern these transactions.
- Thirdly, NJ’s current legislation poses some special obstacles. It requires towns to get approval from the state’s municipal watchdog before they can even set up a program. Of the 30 other states with PACE legislation, none require this kind of pre-approval. And the only financing mechanism actually foreseen in the legislation is through municipal bonds (which sends any mayor running in the other direction, based on residents’ fear of tax increases, even if the town and its residents aren’t on the hook for any of the money) or county improvement authority bonds — which brings another entity, with its own interests, into the picture.
- We’ve proposed amending legislation that will eliminate some of these barriers, legislation that’s supported by a majority in both houses of the State Legislature. The new bill allows private sector financing and resiliency measures, which could be huge for “hardening” buildings near the Jersey shore against storm damage. But to get things going we need to get programs approved under the existing law.
All of this requires time and effort and an inordinate amount of patience. People in government, who have their own interests, perspectives, and responsibilities, need to be persuaded. Contractors, property owners, and financial institutions need to be educated. A large number of players need to be coordinated in order to make it possible for there to be a meaningful uptake of the program. For these reasons, it’s been difficult to get programs started in many states, and to get them to a reasonable scale once they are started.
We can’t do this without support, so that’s one reason we’re asking for money. Almost as importantly, however, we think it’s necessary for the public to be informed as well, so they know both what they’re getting if PACE is introduced in their community, and what they’re missing if they don’t.
We realize this is not the kind of cause that typically uses crowdfunding; it’s not sexy to the average person, or easy to understand, or simple for people to get behind.
But PACE is capable of making a real difference. So if you’d like to see meaningful change in the way we produce and use energy in New Jersey, a small donation, from many hundreds and thousands of people, can actually provide us with powerful leverage.
In short, PACE saves the owner money on energy costs; it creates jobs through contractors who get more contracts; and investors get steady, secure returns. In this sense it’s a win-win-win, with no downsides. It aligns the incentives with the desired outcomes, and removes the barriers to having businesses, individuals, and communities “do the right thing.”
Getting the wider public behind this, and getting them to understand its potential, is another step in using it to revitalize communities. Once people understand that PACE can be used to create local jobs, to create local profits, and to shift our communities to clean energy, this clean energy revolution will become unstoppable.
Our role at NJPACE is to make things work, as simply and cost-effectively as possible.
In order to get the maximum number of projects going, we aim to keep our transaction fees to a minimum. Because we’re a 501c3 nonprofit, we don’t have investors who might otherwise force us to generate a profit at others’ expense. Instead, we can charge enough simply to recover our costs on an ongoing basis. Unlike government, however, we don’t have the money to invest up front in building the program.
This is where you come in. We’re asking you to visit our crowdfunding page at http://njpace.causevox.com and donate as generously as you can. Even better, find the button that allows you to create your own personal fundraising page, import your contacts, and see how much money you can help us raise. The $30,000 goal is pretty modest and only covers a minimum of our costs. (Compared to programs in other states that have spent $2-5 million to get to launch, we’ve been pretty frugal, investing our own time and money to get this close to rollout.)
Every contribution helps. The sooner we are up and running, processing projects and collecting user fees, the sooner we can use PACE strategically to revitalize communities.
We’ll be blogging for the campaign every day for the next thirty days — telling our story and engaging people to get involved as a supporter and a stakeholder in the outcome.
Please donate generously. Set up a personal page on our crowdfunding site and invite your colleagues to contribute. Use our contact page to leave us a message. And thank you.