Buffalo has spent generations trying to beat back its bad weather reputation.
A hotel guidebook in the western New York city shows sailboats out on the water on a sunny day, with a headline that reads: “This is the Buffalo you don’t see on the Weather Channel.”
But that is not the image people generally have of the city. Highmark Stadium, home to the National Football League’s Buffalo Bills in Orchard Park, about 12 miles south, saw wind gusts so heavy at a Thursday night game in early December that the visiting New England Patriots threw only three passes.
“People think of Buffalo and you hear all the cliches,” said Ryan McPherson, chief sustainability officer for the University at Buffalo. “You have to be a person who likes snow.”
Paradoxically, though, the region has been transforming into a climate-change haven, drawing on its cooler temperatures, reliable infrastructure and ample fresh water from Lake Erie.
Buffalo is actually at low risk for the “big five” natural disasters that are worsening due to climate change: wildfires, hurricanes, tornadoes, floods and earthquakes.
“Younger people — and I’m talking about the 40-and-under crowd with younger children — are very concerned about coastal living, hurricanes, storm surge, these kinds of events. They are looking at areas that I would call ‘climate safe,’” said Alan Rubin, a principal at Blank Rome Government Relations and co-leader of its severe weather emergency recovery team.
“A place like Buffalo has its winter, but it’s never a storm-surge environment. When you look at economies of scale, they are sort of nicer places to live than Miami or [Los Angeles], or New Orleans or Houston,” Rubin said.
“It used to be up and down the east coast, but places like the Carolinas, Hilton Head, are becoming more dangerous places to live.”
State, city and institutional initiatives have helped foster collaboration in the Buffalo region.
The multi-community “One Region Forward,” launched through an initiative called A New Way to Plan for Buffalo-Niagara, represents a collaborative effort to promote more sustainable forms of development in Erie and Niagara counties in land use, transportation, housing, energy and climate.
McPherson coordinates campus-wide efforts to further UB’s sustainability efforts. They include operations, curriculum external engagement and research.
“Our goal is to become one of the best public research universities in the country, in the top 25,” he said in an interview. “We’re well north of that. Climate action for UB is very important.”
In addition to Buffalo, Milwaukee and Duluth, Minnesota, are also climate-refuge cities. “All are going through some real challenges with adaptation.” McPherson said.
Duluth, like Buffalo, sits along the Great Lakes, which provide 20% of the world’s surface freshwater. It sits on the southwest tip of Lake Superior.
“Places like Buffalo and Duluth are really in front of a lot of ways to look at infrastructure in ways that make a lot of sense,” Rubin said.
“The countries that are good at flipping infrastructure for clean energy — Norway, Denmark, the Netherlands and Finland – are similar in topography to Minnesota. I see a concentrated effort in Minnesota, places like Minneapolis, to deal with the environment.”
Beyond climate and proximity to the lake, local engagement in infrastructure construction is another factor, according to researchers at the University of Minnesota Duluth’s Labovitz School of Business and Economics.
“Duluth has been investing in a clean-energy future in ways that not all former industrial towns have,” University of Minnesota Duluth Bureau of Business and Economic Research research assistants Ben Palmquist and Daniel Ye wrote.
In October, Plug Power, a green hydrogen power and zero-emission fuel-cell provider, broke ground on its first green hydrogen production facility at the Science Technology and Advanced Manufacturing Park, or STAMP, in Alabama, New York, a Genesee County town about 40 miles northeast of Buffalo.
“There is a strong work ethic here,” Gov. Kathy Houchul, a Buffalo native, said at the event. “Employers are recognizing that this is in our DNA, that this is what they will get when they come here and invest here. They’ll get the very best people. But also to know that this is the place where the clean energy revolution is happening.”
The facility will be a jumping-off point to produce carbon-free cell power. Officials expect the plant to produce 45 metric tons of green liquid hydrogen daily servicing the Northeast region and to create 68 clean-energy jobs.
Thanks to Niagara Falls, the region holds a surplus of hydroelectric power. Plug Power and other companies, including Polymer Conversions and Sucro Sourcing, have tapped reliable fast-falling water to generate electricity through hydropower.
New York Power Authority, one of the largest municipal issuers in the Northeast, is incentivizing the project. That includes a 10-megawatt allocation of low-cost hydropower from the Niagara Power Project, $1.5 million from the Western New York Power Proceeds program and 143 megawatts of high-load factor power that the Power Authority will procure for the company on the energy market.
Hochul administration officials say that will lower electric bills through a reduction in electricity delivery charges.
According to chief executive Andy Marsh, Plug Power’s cross-continental green hydrogen network aims to supply 500 tons per day by 2025 and 1,000 tons per day by 2028.
Buffalo, in September 2019, received bronze-level Climate Smart Community certification from New York State, seven months after Mayor Byron Brown declared that Buffalo would become a “climate refuge city.”
That year, the city, in partnership with the University at Buffalo, Buffalo State College, the State University of New York at Erie and Erie County, signed a power purchase agreement where all the partners issued separate but linked requests for proposals to place solar panels on public assets, including 32 city or Buffalo Sewer Authority owned- facilities and sites.
New initiatives include LEED streetlights. Older housing stock, meanwhile, makes the city ripe for climate-sensitive retrofitting, Blank Rome’s Rubin said.
“The architectural industry is monitoring that, things like reframing and LEED lights. The housing costs are less, so more money can go into fixing homes.”
According to McPherson, Buffalo has the right mix of people.
“Buffalo’s a city of many folks … Polish, Irish, African-American,” he said. “They feel a sense of innovation and community. There’s been an uptick the last few years, and that uptick has been fueled by younger people.
“Millennials and Generation Z are interested in things like climate change.”
Many students, he added, factor sustainability into their college choices.
The Buffalo Sewer Authority released “Rain Check 2.0,” adding hundreds of acres of green infrastructure to help capture rainwater and protect city infrastructure. According to projections, the city’s annual rainfall will rise four inches by mid-century.
The authority’s $49.2 issuance of sewer system environmental impact revenue bonds earned it The Bond Buyer’s 2021 Deal of the Year Award in the small-issuer category. It marked the authority’s first bond sale since 2003.
Proceeds will implement green infrastructure projects to reduce the runoff of sewage, suspended solids, nitrogen and phosphorus into the Niagara River and Lake Erie.