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Setting the pace: Lawyer Erin Deady is an environmental steward

After graduating from the University of Miami in 1993 with a degree in marine science affairs, Erin Deady got a job in the Virgin Islands, leading ecotours. It was a fun job until the day she took a group of tourists out on a sailboat and couldn’t find a single sea turtle to show them — not even in St. Thomas’ Turtle Cove, where she’d always been able to count on seeing green sea turtles gathering and feeding on seagrass.

“But I did find pieces of turtle and pieces of shell,” she says. “Somebody came in and wiped out that population of turtles. It was alarming, upsetting and emotional all at once.”

It was also a “defining moment” for Deady, who felt motivated toward a career that would allow her to work more effectively for the environment. She didn’t want to become a scientist, but she was interested in having an impact on laws and public policy.

“I felt like if we had a better regulatory structure,” she says, “it would help.”

So, she moved back to Florida and earned a master’s degree in public administration and environmental growth management from Florida Atlantic University and then got a law degree from Nova Southeastern University. Today, the Lantana-based attorney focuses her practice on representing local governments on issues including sustainability, climate change, environmental restoration, energy, land use and water.

Deady, who grew up in Palm Beach Gardens, was part of the team that founded Florida Green Energy Works (FGEW), a program that “allows homeowners to be able to do energy, wind resistance and renewable energy retrofits to their properties and pay the money back through their property taxes.”

The program, which is patterned after California’s Property Assessed Clean Energy (PACE) program, operates in 15 Florida communities, including West Palm Beach, Delray Beach and Escambia, Pasco and Martin counties.

FGEW recently ushered in its largest project to date — a $2.2-million upgrade to heating, air conditioning and lighting fixtures, along with a new roof, at a BrandsMart in West Palm Beach. Deady says the improvements will “make the store more energy efficient and bring energy costs down, while at the same time lowering greenhouse gas emissions.”

Overall, the acceptance of PACE-related programs in Florida has been slow, but Deady thinks that’s changing. The St. Lucie-based Solar and Energy Loan Fund, for example, finished its fiscal year in September with a more than 300% increase in lending over the previous year: 59 loans totaling $452,000 during fiscal 2013-14, compared to 185 loans totaling $1.4 million in 2014-15. FGEW and the Green Corridor PACE programs saw a combined $20 million in lending activity in 2015, up from $7 million in 2014 and $240,000 in 2013. Deady expects the programs to reach $40 million next year.

“We’re starting to see some shift with the federal agencies — that they’re a little more supportive of the program,” says Deady, who is on the board of the U.S. Green Building Council’s south Florida chapter. “We think that within the next year, PACE is going to be a really widespread tool for people in Florida to use. There’s about $1 billion worth of retrofits in the ground in California and there has been no real adverse consequences to people undertaking this kind of financing there. So, we think what’s happening is the federal agencies have seen that there haven’t been major problems, and they’re starting to become more supportive.”

Deady advocates that local governments “lead by example” and spend on energy-saving retrofits to public buildings. She acknowledges that money is tight, and spends a lot of time working with local governments, particularly those in south Florida and the Keys, to find grant money to pay for green projects. Examples include $1.2 million from the Florida Energy and Climate Commission to help Lantana, Haverhill, Ocean Ridge, Palm Beach Shores and the city of Atlantis develop energy-conservation strategies.