Dobbs Ferry Sustainability Task Force member and former chair Nina Orville, a 17-year village resident, has been named executive director of Sustainable Westchester. Orville takes on her new role, effective Feb. 25, from interim executive director Steven Rosenthal.
Sustainable Westchester is a nonprofit consortium of county municipalities that facilitates collaboration.
Orville previously oversaw Solarize Westchester, an initiative resulting in solar installations in 22 municipalities, and was instrumental in launching HeatSmart, a program providing clean heating solutions.
As founding executive director of the Southern Westchester Energy Action Consortium, which merged with its Northern counterpart, Orville helped establish Sustainable Westchester in 2014.
Between 2010-2020, as principal of Abundant Efficiency, she provided program development and implementation for Solarize Westchester, the Mid-Hudson Streetlight Consortium, and HeatSmart Westchester, often in partnership with Sustainable Westchester.
In her new capacity, she’ll expand her scope from solar development.
“Now I have the opportunity to focus on the big picture for Westchester County,” she told the Enterprise on Jan 26. “New York State has a nation-leading climate law [the 2019 Climate Leadership and Community Protection Act] that has requirements including that by 2030, 70 percent of the electricity on the state grid is to come from renewable resources. Now we’re at 30 percent.
“The opportunity I have at Sustainable Westchester is to help try to ensure that Westchester County is meeting the state requirements and lead the way in New York State, which in turn is leading the way in the country,” she continued.
Support from the state’s Department of Conservation and its Energy Research and Development Authority have been critical to Sustainable Westchester’s work, Orville stressed.
Critical to achieving the CLCPA’s goal of 100 percent zero-emission electricity by 2040 is the Westchester Power program, which provides renewable energy to 115,000 households in 28 municipalities, including all of the Rivertowns.
Solarize Westchester has evolved into the newer Community Solar, enabling up to 10 percent savings on electricity bills. The program doesn’t involve installing solar panels on private property; rather, large installations are being constructed to provide energy for community use through subscriptions. Con Ed will deliver power to residents.
“Greenburgh is the first municipality in Con Ed’s service territory to enroll in Community Solar,” Orville stated. “Tarrytown has already built [an installation] on top of Tarrytown Self Storage near the train station. Solar development is happening throughout the county. It just has to have a location that can support relatively large-scale installations.”
Sustainable Westchester is also partnering with the NY Power Authority and the County to make it easier for school districts to host Community Solar installations, if the districts are appropriate candidates.
Orville talked about Sustainable Westchester’s collaboration with Con Ed’s Grid Rewards Program, piloted last year, that enables customers to reduce their carbon footprint, conserve electricity, and earn savings from the utility.
“By reducing their electricity usage just a few hours a year, usually during the summer when the electric grid is most stressed, people can earn hundreds of dollars,” she asserted. “One man said he earned $700 by reducing electricity usage three times over the summer for a few hours.”
Orville clarified, “It doesn’t mean you can’t use any electricity. It means if you typically set the thermostat for 70 degrees for the air conditioning, maybe set it at 74. Use a little bit less at times of peak demand.”
The general focus for Orville, though, isn’t a specific program. Sustainable Westchester wants to strengthen local economies by finding opportunities to help create “green” jobs.
“A big part of that effort is looking at issues related to equity and access,” she elaborated, “and addressing the reality that there has been more negative impact on low-income communities in Westchester County related to environmental concerns than there has been in wealthier communities.”
She gave several examples. Low-income families spend 13 percent of their annual income on energy costs, compared to the 2.4 percent others spend. Low-income neighborhoods are often adjacent to highways, where there is more pollution, and older, larger apartment buildings still burn fossil fuel for heating.
Heat maps created by Groundworks Hudson Valley show that “redlined” neighborhoods, delineated by the race or ethnicity of residents, have higher temperatures, often for the simplest reasons: too much asphalt, not enough trees — local authorities and developers don’t invest in those areas. Higher temperatures result in more electricity use, perpetuating the economic cycle.
“We want to focus on equity and inclusion... to bring the benefits of the programs we are offering and focusing on issues like green job creation,” Orville said.
Sustainable Westchester’s new leader has always been cognizant of the relationship between environmental and economic sustainability. Between earning her B.A in history and government from Oberlin College and a master’s degree from Columbia Business School, Orville spent two years working in orphanages in remote villages in rural Mexico and Honduras. She questioned how people in those areas could generate income supported by the places they lived.
Her interest led Orville to work for a nonprofit organization that developed one of the first ventures connecting indigenous producers of sustainably harvested products with manufacturers, such as The Body Shop, who allowed those producers a larger share of the value of the goods they sold.
Though Sustainable Westchester covers a lot of territory, Orville is particularly proud of the villages she knows best.
“I’m so pleased that the Rivertowns have always been at the forefront in climate action and have helped lead the way for other communities,” she said. “They’re recognized throughout the state for that.”