Finding Opportunity in Crisis

In the 1960s, John Kennedy challenged America to send a man to the moon. Now, forward-looking leaders are challenging us to invest in a new Apollo Project—to achieve energy independence and rebuild our economy

When the smoke cleared from Manhattan after September 11, 2001, and the shock eased, rebuilding the city was on everyone's mind. For Jeremy Reiss, a labor activist, that meant more than filling the craters with new buildings. The city needed an approach that would reduce its economic and energy vulnerabilities. Reiss had a vision of strengthening the social and economic fabric of Lower Manhattan through clean energy technologies, while building alliances between labor and environmental justice groups. Projects would create high-quality jobs, reduce energy use, and divert construction waste away from poor neighborhoods. Reiss believed that New York City could become a global leader in green building.

In 2004, when Reiss helped create Urban Agenda to fulfill his vision, he was able to tap into a national group with the same idea. The Apollo Alliance is a coalition of labor, environmental, and civil rights groups with a bold 10-year, 10-point plan to move the country away from foreign oil dependency through domestic investments in renewable energy and energy efficiency. Inspired by President Kennedy's ambitious goal of putting a man on the moon, the Apollo Project is at once a jobs, environment, and energy security program.

Since its unveiling in the spring of 2003, the Apollo Project has been endorsed by 17 international unions and the Sierra Club. Its advisory group includes United Steelworkers President Leo Gerard, U.S. Senator Maria Cantwell, Representative Jesse Jackson, Jr., and Sierra Club President Carl Pope—bringing together a broad coalition of groups that have in the past too often worked at cross-purposes.

What draws these groups together is an idea that addresses a host of seemingly separate problems confronting the United States—the loss of family-wage jobs, war in the Middle East, a stagnating economy, global warming, and pollution, concentrated especially in poor communities. The Apollo Project creates solutions to all these issues by recognizing the links between them, building promise of a stronger, more sustainable nation.

Greening the rustbelt

The industrial heartland has been devastated by a slower disaster than the one that struck New York, brought on by a declining manufacturing base and massive job losses due to recession, globalization, and outsourcing.

Milwaukee is among the Midwestern cities that have been hit hard, its downtown blighted by suburban flight and collapsing industry. But now the Apollo Project is providing a template for labor and environmental leaders who are striving to turn the city around. With the help of the Apollo Alliance's Midwest coordinator Bill Holland, they are creating a large-scale energy-retrofitting program in Milwaukee's downtown, using a mix of public and private funds, with work carried out by local members of the building trades unions and the communities where the projects are located. The Midwest is already a major manufacturing hub of energy efficient appliances and home building, and increasing demand for high-performance buildings will boost these markets. Altogether, clean energy projects like this could create 200,000 new jobs in the Midwest by 2020 and up to $20 billion in increased economic activity, according to a study by the Environmental Law and Policy Center. About 32 percent of the jobs would be in construction and manufacturing.

Breaking the solar bottleneck

In the Pacific Northwest, the Washington state Apollo Project is embarking on an endeavor combining energy efficiency measures with solar photovoltaic (PV) energy at the Puget Sound Electrical Joint Apprenticeship and Training Committee Center (PSEJATC) in Renton. This project will not only showcase cutting-edge energy efficient building techniques and solar energy applications, but also expand the pool of skilled electricians trained in solar PV installations.

Apprentices and journey-level electricians of the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers (IBEW) will upgrade the center's lighting with energy efficient models and install sophisticated energy management systems. These steps alone promise to reduce the PSEJATC's electricity demands by 240,000 kilowatt-hours per year and prevent the annual emission of nearly 336,000 pounds of carbon dioxide.

Workers will gain hands-on training in PV technology when they install a nine-kilowatt PV integrated system that will cantilever solar panels above the windows, creating a “solar awning” that also reduces the building's need for air conditioning. Work is scheduled to begin in August 2004.

A grant from the local utility, Puget Sound Energy, is helping to defray project costs, but in the long run, the system will pay for itself by capturing savings through decreased energy use and generating “free” solar power.

A solar crucible

Fifteen years have passed since the devastating 1989 Loma Prieta earthquake wreaked havoc on California. In West Oakland, the double-decker Cypress freeway collapsed, dropping the top level onto the lower and turning the structure into rippling waves of concrete and exposed steel reinforcements. The destruction of the freeway killed 42 people, required nine years to rebuild, and further decimated a neglected and disenfranchised part of the city.

Redevelopment is now transforming West Oakland into a transit village, combining affordable housing with retail. With guidance from the Apollo Alliance, volunteer-based Oakland Solar is helping to build a 33-kilowatt PV system at the Crucible, a renowned non-profit educational collaboration of arts, industry, and community in the heart of West Oakland.

Because the Crucible does energy-intensive metal fabrication, including welding, blacksmithing, and casting, energy costs are high. The Crucible had already taken steps to reduce waste.

“The Crucible was founded on the principle of the reuse and re-purposing of objects, keeping them out of the waste stream and finding unique ways of using them,” said Director Michael Sturtz. He saw solar PV as the perfect next step.

The solar installation will involve IBEW Local 595 members, students from the Crucible, and trainees from the Cypress Mandela Pre-Apprenticeship Training Program in West Oakland, which has been nationally recognized for turning people's lives around to positive career paths through training in electrical, hazardous materials, and construction jobs.

Just as these communities are reaching out for ways to turn around stagnant local economies, the Apollo Alliance is guiding the U.S. toward a healthy energy future that reclaims the underused energies of people and place.

“A federal commitment to the Apollo Alliance would reverse the destructive policies on both jobs and energy,” said the Steelworkers' Leo Gerard. “It would create a whole new foundation for the U.S. economy that cannot be outsourced and that promotes livable communities and a healthy environment.”


Carla Din is environmental liaison for the United Steelworkers and the Western policy director for the Apollo Alliance.

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