By  Jeff Smith, PDG D 7170

From rust belt to green economyThe United Nations Climate Change Conference (COP 28) will take place from November 30 to December 12 in Dubai.  This annual summit is the world’s only multilateral decision-making forum on climate change, drawing representatives from almost every country in the world.  

Media emphasize the many obstacles impeding government action, but UN Secretary Antonio Guterres has implored civil society to step up as well.  Rotary International and ESRAG will have a strong presence at COP 28.  Rotary played a key role in the formation of the United Nations, and the two organizations have been partners ever since.  This is an excellent time for Rotarians and partners to take bold action to meet the global challenge of climate change.  

As a past District Governor who is now working on sustainability with several districts, I can tell you that Rotary has huge potential to catalyze regional solutions because of the expertise, relationships, and credibility our members have built up through years of humanitarian service with our communities.   This article offers an example: the collaborations through which Rotarians are contributing to multi-stakeholder work to build a thriving, equitable, net-zero solutions to move Central New York from Rust Belt to green economy.   We’re ready to take this work to the next level through the merger of three Rotary Districts as Rotary CNY.

Let’s put our human resources to work! Rotary has a wealth of past presidents and district governors that have the skill set to advocate for Rotary, develop community partners, and to manage major projects and programs.  We also have a tremendous array of vocational skills.  Every member of the Rotary Family – Interact, Rotaract, Rotary Community Corps, Student Exchange, RYLA – can contribute.  

To better understand the potential role of Rotary one should follow Dr. Steven Covey and “begin with the end in mind.”  Rotary has long urged the development of holistic strategies for community development.  Now those strategies must incorporate environmental sustainability.  Each of our districts is unique.  Some are rural and some are urban.  Other key characteristics include the natural assets, level of economic growth, indicators of well-being such as poverty rates, and industrial make-up.  

How D 7170 Rotarians promote regional revival and green economy: 

District 7170 is a seven-county rural region in the Southern Tier of New York State.  Our largest city has a population just below 50,000.  Manufacturing flourished here from 1900 to 1970, but then began to decline, turning us into one of America’s “Rust Belt” regions. The Southern Tier has been enduring the loss of good-paying jobs and rising poverty for five decades.  Our poverty rate now exceeds our state and federal averages.  

But even though we are rural, our district generates significant innovation, and is the home of great research universities such as Cornell.  Endicott Johnson Shoe Company, IBM, Singer Link Flight Simulation, and many other companies were started here.  

The Rotarians of D 7170 are a powerful resource. Many of our members work for energy companies, manage environmental non-profits, and work for municipalities on developing environmental sustainability plans.  D 7170 Rotarians also have skills in other fields, such as education and project management, that will be essential to bring about the region’s transition to a green economy.

Asset-mapping and building partnerships

When I retired from the utility industry, I decided to use my vocational skills to support regional economic development and well-being.  I developed a needs and opportunity assessment of the Southern Tier of New York State.  Several initiatives sprang from this review, including the formation of Tier Energy Network (TEN).  TEN is an industry-led nonprofit supporting the development of a clean energy industry cluster for the Southern Tier.  We believed clean energy manufacturing could become significant in our region, given our industrial base and New York State’s focus on environmental sustainability.   

TEN’s membership has a broad set of skills including lean manufacturing, project development, utility operation, wholesale and retail energy markets, investment banking, higher education, environmental sustainability, and other experience.  Most are still active in the industry.  We do not have tons of spare time, but we do have a good skill set for regional development.

TEN developed a bi-monthly forum for members and the public.  For ten years we have provided opportunities for companies and organizations to make presentations.  Participants have included New York State Energy Research and Development Authority (NYSERDA), NYS Independent System Operator, start-up companies, the Ithaca Green New Deal, service organizations, industry associations, and the Ithaca 2030 District (more about that below).  We mentor entrepreneurs, support companies coming into the region, establish international contacts, support other organizations, and support workforce development.  

A few years ago, through a grant from the Appalachian Regional Commission, TEN developed an assessment of the emerging industry cluster for clean energy in the Southern Tier.  This review included identification of all companies, organizations, and incubators supporting clean energy.  It also included a listing of all clean energy projects across an 11-county region.  

Rotary’s DG training inspires the District to get involved: In 2018 I went to San Diego for training to become District Governor.  RI President Elect Barry Rassin made a compelling presentation on the environment.  I decided at that meeting that our district could play a strong role in the environment.  D 7170 published our first district environmental strategy on June 5th, 2020, World Environment Day, just a few weeks before Rotary International announced the approval of Environmental Sustainability as its newest Area of Focus. Our District environmental strategy is updated every June 5th.  The strategy is holistic and sensitive to regional economic development and well-being.

Our district now sees environmental sustainability as an industry cluster in its own right.  County by county, we are identifying all organizations and businesses which are engaged in environmental sustainability.  We also include state, national and international organizations that can support our goals.  We engage in collaboration, and frequently jump in to support established programs.  Our plan encourages project development at all levels: individual, club, district, multi-district, multi-state and international.  

Watersheds focus regional partnerships

D 7170 is home to many natural assets.  Three standouts include the Susquehanna River, the Finger Lakes, and the Delaware River, which provides drinking water to New York City.  The Susquehanna River happens to be the 5th oldest river in the world at 340 million years, before the age of dinosaurs.  

Susquehanna River clean-up organized by Cooperstown Rotary with the Lions Club

Cooperstown Rotary teamed up with the local Lions Club and other community organizations six years ago to clean up their stretch of the Susquehanna River.  The volunteers get in the river with divers and floats.  They bring in a winch for the heavy appliances and any other massive objects that folks throw in our rivers.  In a discussion with the Cooperstown Rotary Club Board in 2018, the president mentioned it would be nice if Rotary would put a focus on the entire 444-mile length of the river.  

Because of the efforts of Cooperstown Rotary, the Susquehanna River became our signature project.  Since we strive to develop a holistic strategy, we broadened the scope to be the Susquehanna Watershed and included all of the relevant categories developed by ESRAG, including biodiversity and climate solutions.  Our long-term goal is to engage the other Rotary districts along the river, and eventually the Chesapeake Bay.  This project will provide a Rotary focus on an entire watershed as a centerpiece for eco-tourism and green economic development. The projects and programs our clubs develop here can be shared with other watersheds.  

Leveraging other regional breakthroughs

During the past three years the Southern Tier’s clean energy industry cluster has grown dramatically.  Now our region produces more efficient rail transportation, exhaust filtration, hybrid and electric buses, lithium-ion batteries, electric forklifts, and green warehousing for companies like Amazon.  Our universities and industries conduct clean energy research.  For example, BAE Systems is conducting research on electric aviation and Cornell is tackling the greening of steel and cement manufacturing.  We have over 50 start-up companies.  Ubiquity Solar will produce two lines of solar cells.  

Our region is competing vigorously for funding.  A Binghamton University-led initiative, New Energy NY, has received $113 million of state and federal funding to expand the US supply chain for the battery industry.  We just received designation as a Federal Tech Hub for Batteries.  We are competing for a Regional Engine Hub Proposal from the National Science Foundation.  The research of Nobel Laureate Dr. Stanley Wittingham at Binghamton University is responsible for these new economic opportunities.

The City of Ithaca has been a leader on the environment for the past two decades.  In 2016 the city became a 2030 District,  one of 24 across the country.  The program is well-documented and supports the City’s Ithaca Green New Deal, a pledge to achieve net zero emissions by 2030.  The Ithaca Green New Deal has been presented to the United Nations and the World Economic Forum.  As we merge the three Rotary Districts to form Rotary CNY, one project we are considering is to encourage more cities to adopt the 2030 Districts strategy.

Our District is now promoting workforce training to fill the new jobs being created in the Southern Tier.  The shortage of workers is the greatest challenge we face for environmental sustainability and the industry cluster in clean energy.  State and federal programs require a focus on creating opportunities in clean energy careers to under-served populations.  Both Rotary and TEN have been supporting community organizations to work on this challenge.  We have been interviewing workforce development agencies and under-served populations.  In September we supported the first Clean Energy Career Summit in our region.  These discussions support Rotary’s role in underserved communities and Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion.  Much work remains to supply the needed workforce.  But we are excited by this opportunity to reverse the declining incomes that have blighted our region.

Energy and education as building blocks for net-zero Northeast

In the western part of the Southern Tier, Steuben County has developed best practice for attracting and permitting large scale wind and solar projects.  The county now has the highest amount of wind power in the State.  This work has been led by the Executive Director of the county’s Industrial Development Authority (IDA).  Now all of the IDA’s in the Southern Tier are teaming up to prepare for the next wave of clean energy innovation.  Sites are being identified and infrastructure gaps are being closed.  Regions that want to compete for clean energy development have to be very forward-thinking.

We’re actively exploring a multi-state collaboration between our district and the Cape Cod Connected Communities project in the State of Massachusetts.  Brian Braginton – Smith, a member of ESRAG, has been working with the Cape Cod Watershed Institute to create a net zero emissions plan for the Cape.  A centerpiece of the project is a net zero emissions school which includes circular-economy materials management, regenerative farming, workforce development, STEM, and entrepreneurial incubation.  The State of Massachusetts awarded $1.3 million in funding for the initiative. Brian has generated interest at the US Department of Energy and the US Department of Agriculture.  

If we can demonstrate a potential for leveraging the accomplishments of Cape Cod Connected Communities, we hope to attract funding from these federal departments as well.  Our district is working with Brian to develop a proposal.  This project also has international connections.  Beyonder is a Norwegian clean energy battery company that has joined the incubator at the Watershed Institute.  They may be interested in our district because of our focus on battery development.  

How the multi-district can scale up impact

On July 1, our district will merge with two other Rotary districts to form CNY Rotary.  Membership will exceed 3,000.  All three districts have environmental sustainability strategies.  The merged district can provide significant impact in Central New York and the Rotary World.  The environmental sustainability committees are working together now.  As we prepare for next year’s World Environment Day, some of the strategies we can consider include:

  • With collaboration partners, evaluate the many state, federal and private funding opportunities.
  • Further develop the project management plan for the Susquehanna Watershed and other natural assets.
  • Achieve our first environmental global grant.
  • Promote and support individual, club, district and partner projects.  Develop a Rotary culture that rewards creativity and collaboration.  
  • Improve documentation of projects and accomplishments for the ESRAG database.
  • Grow the family of Rotary: Interact, Rotaract, e-clubs etc.
  • Expand participation with ESRAG partners including Redwood Materials for recycling of lithium-Ion batteries and devices and with Habitat for Humanity for more efficient low-income housing.  
  • Continue work with under-served communities.
  • Develop an energy savings guide for families along with funding opportunities.
  • Expand the reach of Finger-Lakes ReUse and the Sierra Clubs “Move Out” project that collects and reuses computers and furnishings left by college and university students as they leave at the end of the school year.  

Our district believes a sharp Rotary focus on the environment will:

  • Attract younger generations
  • Support regional transformation
  • Increase membership and new clubs
  • Strengthen the family of Rotary
  • Build local, regional, national and international partnerships
  • Bring Hope to the World

Rotary’s high-level participation at COP 28 spotlights our potential:  We look forward to hearing about Rotary International and ESRAG’s experiences at COP 28.  Rotary and its action groups bring significant resources and experience to the table:

  • RI has 1.4 million members in over 200 countries and territories.  
  • RI has a track record of meeting humanitarian needs through persistence and collaboration.  Polio Plus is a great example of our dedication.
  • The Rotary Foundation has seven focus areas including protecting the environment.  These focus areas are mutually supportive.  For example, climate change intensifies conflict over resources and the global refugee crisis, so Rotary’s work on peace and environmental sustainability are essential to each other’s goals.
  • ESRAG is rapidly expanding resources to equip clubs, districts and partners to meet environmental challenges.  The organization provides regular updates that identify and disseminate best practices around the world.

Our strategies and priorities will continue to evolve as the world navigates through this very complex and challenging goal of protecting the environment. 

Jeff Smith, Past District Governor of D 7170, is Co-Chair of ESRAG’s Eastern North America Chapter.  Now “retired,” he is working nonstop to promote Central New York’s emerging green, equitable economy, drawing on the skills and networks built through his career in the utility industry.