Power to the People: Surdna Wants Communities to Control Their Own Energy

Influenced by the aftermath of Hurricane Sandy, the Surdna Foundation is taking its energy program beyond efficiency and toward helping lower-income communities gain control over their energy supplies. 

When Hurricane Sandy hit New York in 2012, it showed how bad income inequality can become in a stressed city, with lower-income communities feeling the pain worse than the wealthy parts of town. For the Surdna Foundation, watching this unfold revealed that making city housing more energy efficient wasn’t going far enough, says Helen Chin, the foundation’s Sustainable Environments program director. 

In an interview with Inside Philanthropy, Chin described one of the newer developments in her program—a shift in focus from energy efficiency to include energy democracy—helping communities gain more control over their utilities.  

“We’re particularly interested in this distributed energy system as a way to create wealth for the communities we’re talking about. But also to allow communities to have more choice in what their energy future will be,” Chin said.

Surdna is a medium-sized, national foundation with assets of just over a billion and annual giving of $46 million in 2014, derived from the wealth of the Andrus family (Surdna, get it?). The foundation’s giving sits at the intersection of city sustainability, arts, and economic development. 


Since a little over two years ago, Chin’s environment program has been focused primarily on city infrastructure, and how to give lower-income areas and communities of color more control in major metropolitan areas. 

Yes, "infrastructure" is a dull word. But the way it's managed dictates how just and equitable a city is down to its core functions, Chin said.

“The reality is that there have been many systems or infrastructure decisions that have been put in place that adversely impact communities and actually create barriers for opportunities for some communities. They actually create disparities.”

Energy is a long-standing priority for Surdna, primarily when it ccomes to efficiency and reducing greenhouse gas emissions. Fixing up old buildings is “low-hanging fruit” when it comes to saving energy, but it's also a way to help lower-income communities get a leg up. But Hurricane Sandy made it clear that there were other opportunities Surdna could be focusing on. 

“When Sandy hit, what you had were very efficient public housing and affordable housing, but you had seniors, I kid you not, that were stuck in their buildings for two weeks,” Chin says. Energy efficiency only goes so far when residents don’t have control over their services. “At that moment, we realized maybe, why be so prescriptive?”

The growing energy democracy movement they’ve since embraced will build into Chin’s program starting in July, and it exists at a similar intersection of renewable energy and justice. 

Rather than having entire metropolitan areas subject to the whim of centralized corporate control—which may or may not benefit each area’s needs—the idea is to have ownership more distributed among locals. Just as a neighborhood might grow its own produce in an urban farm, it could also provide its own locally sourced solar power.

Related: Resilience is Hot Among Climate Funders. Here's Who Is Out Front Prepping for Doom

So the goal of the Surdna subprogram is to ensure that low-income communities are informing the discussion about where energy comes from. It’s not just about disaster relief, though, as it also will address periodic summer blackouts, utilities costs, and reliance on fossil fuels. 

The program is starting with funding in New York, but the funder expects the upcoming execution of the EPA’s new carbon pollution rules to open the door for cities to locally unplug from coal-fired power.