Humberto Garces was a third-year medical student when, in 2000, he and his brother were forced to flee Colombia.
“I was shot the same day that my father was assassinated,” says Garces, whose father was a journalist and union leader in Colombia. Garces was shot five times and spent about six months in the hospital recovering.
“I couldn’t walk for about a year. As soon as I could walk, I came here to the States,” says Garces. He and his younger brother came to Washington, D.C., where a friend studying at Howard University took them in.
The two started building bridges between Latino and African-American communities and, with the help of local church members, they launched a landscaping company. That eventually led them into home repair work. In 2011, Garces struck out on his own, founding Green Construction Services Group.
“I decided that the vision of the company was to start implementing environmental and sustainable energy programs,” says Garces. “We as human beings have to understand that we have to take care of the planet.” He attributes his interest in the environment to the time he spent as a youth in the Colombian countryside.
Garces landed his first contract on an energy efficiency project with the D.C. Sustainable Energy Utility earlier this year, after a workshop hosted by the nonprofit tasked by the District’s Department of Energy and Environment to implement its energy efficiency and renewable energy programs.
“I’ve been working for the government for the last 14 years, but not as a contractor directly, as a sub-contractor,” says Garces. “This is the first project that I have ever been a contractor directly with the government, which makes me very happy because there wasn’t a lot of paperwork. It was simple for an immigrant and a small-business owner like I am.”
Garces is just one beneficiary of economic development work by the D.C. Sustainable Energy Utility, which gets its funding via a surcharge on all electric and natural gas utility ratepayers in the District. The nonprofit has spurred the creation of more than 500 jobs in the District since launching in 2011.
More than 70 percent of the District’s carbon emissions come from its built environment. Since its inception, the D.C. Sustainable Energy Utility has prevented the emissions of 3.8 million metric tons of carbon — the equivalent of taking more than 830,000 cars off the road for one year. As Garces’ story conveys, the nonprofit is also invested in generating economic opportunity for the District.
“A lot of the contractors that we were working with seven or eight years ago were small Mom and Pop shops,” says Ted Trabue, executive director of the D.C. Sustainable Energy Utility. Now, he says, those businesses are larger with greater capacity to provide services and hire other local D.C. residents.
“Our budget is about $20 million a year, so they know they can count on a large amount of money being spent in the energy efficiency space to meet the demands and to meet the workloads that we’re putting on them,” Trabue says.
In addition to workshops for resident D.C. contractors like Garces, the nonprofit also offers training for the people those contractors hire.
“It’s the people who are being trained to work inside of the buildings as building operators who are making sure that the heating systems and air conditioning systems in these buildings are operating at maximum efficiency,” Trabue says. “We’re training more people to do all of these things, bringing people into the green economy and helping people get jobs in this new workspace.”
The nonprofit offers ten weeks of basic training and then selects candidates for a four-month, paid externship with an employer such as the Washington Metropolitan Area Transportation Authority. The program has a 95 percent job placement rate, Trabue says, and it helps the nonprofit reach its annual mandate of creating 88 full-time jobs for Washington, DC residents.
“There are no other programs that we’ve found in the country that are combining energy efficiency goals and social equity goals,” Trabue says. “Not only are we pursuing energy efficiency and installing renewables, but we are also combining that with social equity work of working with low-income communities.”
Twenty percent of the D.C Sustainable Energy Utility’s budget goes to low-income households, working with local contractors and generating local revenue, according to Trabue.
“The D.C. Sustainable Energy program is one of the most effective I have ever participated in,” adds Garces. “[The program] is trying to encourage people to reduce energy consumption. and it’s also bringing opportunities to small businesses like mine that don’t have opportunities in other arenas because of all the competition.”
UPDATE: We’ve clarified the language in this article referring to the D.C. Sustainable Energy Utility’s nonprofit status and progress thus far.
This article is part of The Bottom Line, a series exploring scalable solutions for problems related to affordability, inclusive economic growth and access to capital. Click here to subscribe to our Bottom Line newsletter. The Bottom Line is made possible with support from Citi.
Zoe Sullivan is a multimedia journalist and visual artist with experience on the U.S. Gulf Coast, Argentina, Brazil, and Kenya. Her radio work has appeared on outlets such as BBC, Marketplace, Radio France International, Free Speech Radio News and DW. Her writing has appeared on outlets such as The Guardian, Al Jazeera America and The Crisis.