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Good News from the Gulf Coast

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Green Coast is building new, energy-efficient homes for displaced New Orleanians. (Photo courtesy Green Coast Enterprises)

Yesterday, I had the privilege of meeting with dozens of leaders from all over the Gulf Coast who are working on some really innovative clean economy projects. I’m not one to get overly sentimental, but the commitment of these local leaders to rebuilding sustainable and economically diverse communities in the wake of Hurricane Katrina and the Deepwater Horizon oil spill was actually quite inspiring.

These local and regional leaders were in town for the Gulf Coast Sustainable Economies Roundtable at the White House, a series of working meetings aimed at finding ways to replicate their successful projects in other Gulf Coast communities, drive economic development and create jobs.

A few highlights:

Will Bradshaw from Green Coast Enterprises in New Orleans is working to address the glaring discrepancy between good quality, sustainable homes and their high purchasing and occupancy costs. Working with the Salvation Army, Bradshaw is tackling the fact that it was incredibly difficult for low-to-moderate income New Orleanians to return after Katrina and rebuild not only their homes, but also their communities. Returning these homeowners to New Orleans is helping to reduce the stock of vacant and blighted properties, and it’s building a base of wealth for neighborhoods that were hardest hit by the levee failures following Katrina.

Dell Jones of Regenesis Power is working on the nation’s first program to offer solar hot water as a service through utility companies and municipal organizations. The technology isn’t new, but Regenesis Power’s model of partnering with utilities to make this an easy and cost-effective offering to consumers is.

Byron Bishop of Workforce Works in New Orleans is tapping into his community to create a skilled workforce capable of rebuilding some of the hardest hit areas of the city. The Workforce Works model is notable because it tackles three things at once: it offers career track, on-the-job training to disaffected young adults from the community, it delivers the energy savings and environmental benefits of high-efficiency homes to low-income families and it helps redevelop communities hit hard by both natural disasters and hard economic times. Workforce Works has already built 28 state-of-the-art, L.E.E.D. Platinum, fully sustainable and affordable green homes in the Lower 9th Ward—all in just five short months and with an average of 60% savings on the overall projected budgets.

Several students from Harry Hurst Middle School near New Orleans and their science teacher, Julie Rexford, also participated in yesterday’s meetings. The students started a campus-wide recycling program at their school, which will likely serve as a model for other schools in their community over the coming months. Proving that community partnerships are often the most critical element for success stories like these, local commercial recycler Phoenix Recycling agreed to provide the school with free pick-up service for half the school year. In doing so, Phoenix not only helped these kids get a great program up and running, but it also found new customers among the students’ parents and other residents of St. Charles Parish, where the school is located.

Too often we get wrapped up in the obstacles that clean energy projects face. It’s nice to be reminded that bottom-up innovation is happening in communities all across the Gulf Coast—and all across the country.