Energy and Cities: A Q&A with White House environmental advisor

Nancy Sutley, environmental advisor for President ObamaLast week Nancy Sutley, President Obama’s environmental advisor, was in town to deliver the keynote address at the Good Jobs Green Jobs Conference. Sutley is chair of the White House Council on Environmental Quality, a position she took up in 2009 after working for the City of Los Angeles as the Deputy Mayor for Energy and Environment. While in California, both during and prior to her time as Deputy Mayor, Sutley worked on energy and water issues and is known for helping achieve her own mayor’s declaration to make Los Angeles “the greenest big city in America.” (Sound familiar, Philadelphians? Mayor Nutter made a similar declaration back in 2008.) Grid tagged along during Sutley’s tour of the Navy Yard and had a chance to ask some questions about what’s on the federal environmental agenda and how these initiatives relate to Philadelphia’s own sustainability plan.

Grid: We talk about energy efficiency a lot and are always asking what we can do. So, what kind of steps should large cities be taking in terms of being energy efficient and how is the federal government helping achieve these goals?

Nancy Sutley: Well I think there are a couple of things. Clearly you have to look at what you have. So looking at residential buildings – there’s 130 million homes in the U.S. Most people have no idea how their homes use energy, what in their homes use energy, how they [personally] use energy. So looking at ways you can leverage…for example the federal weatherization loan and weatherization program…and things like providing information to homeowners. So there are a lot of different ways you can look at [energy efficiency] and part of what the federal government can do and does do is to, in some cases, provide financial incentives or financing.

And then a city like Philadelphia, like many other cities, also looking at the commercial building stock and…just trying to assess how much potential there is for commercial building retrofits. So that’s really going to take a partnership between the private sector, between the cities and the federal government and then the research institutions like it’s going on here [at the Navy Yard] to understand both the opportunity and what some of the challenges are to getting buildings retrofitted. Because anybody who looks at their electricity bill thinks: “Is there a way I can pay less?” That’s what people care about. They want their bills to go down, but how do we marshal all those resources to help people find simple and straightforward ways to reduce their energy use and save money?

Grid: Choosing to be energy efficient can be like paying for your electricity bills for the next 20 years upfront. So when people are looking at the bottom line, what can be done to encourage energy efficiency?

NS: I think when people hear energy efficiency and energy upgrades, they think “I have to replace my windows,” “I have to do a new roof,” “I have to do solar.” But there’s a lot of things that you can do that will be valuable in the long term, but they’re not long-term investments – things that pay back very quickly. So even just caulking around windows and doors and things like that. There’s a lot of education and information people can get to try to understand what those choices are. For example, the Department of Agriculture has been funding, through the Rural Utilities Service, a pilot program with electric cooperatives in rural areas to go in and do energy audits in homes and come up with what are the cost-effective ways that you can retrofit a home, low-cost ways that pay back very quickly.

Commercial buildings, schools for example, there’s a lot of companies, energy service companies, working with school districts that don’t usually have a lot of cash sitting around, but they look at what their operating expenses are, and they said: “Well you’re spending this much on energy, is there a way you can do this cheaper?” So that’s more of a financing model; we’ll take the risk and we get paid back in a sense through the energy savings. There isn’t one model that fits everywhere, but a lot of different things being tried to try look at new ways of public-private partnerships, new ways of financing, whether it’s for an individual homeowner or commercial property.

Grid: How is the federal government supporting the development of urban space as green space and a source of tourism for cities?

NS: Across the country cities [are] looking at what do they have, what kind of infrastructure, what does it do, and how you can use it to do multiple things. So cities around the country are confronting some of the limits of their existing infrastructures to deal with stormwater and urban runoff and that kind of pollution. The need to develop some new solutions, so things like green infrastructure where you can create assets that perform the function of improving water quality, reducing pollution, but also provide green space and amenities. That’s a really great idea and it’s sort of an old idea that’s new again. Philadelphia is embarking on this very ambitious plan to deal with some of their water pollution issues in that way.…In L.A., where I worked, going back to 2004, voters approved a bond to help to fund, $500 million bond, to fund these kinds of projects in Los Angeles where you could create green space and open space and deal with some of your water pollution problems. It’s a great thing that’s happening across the country.

Grid: Why is the focus on large cities and what role do these places, like Philadelphia and Los Angeles, have in terms of developing the clean economy and green, urban spaces?

NS: I think that, first of all, there is the opportunity in cities with concentrations of population with a lot of people who are talking to each other. Cities are always watching each other too. We were talking a little about the competition between mayors about who could be the greenest city, but I think it’s a lot coming from residents who want these things. I think also that the mayor I worked for, and I’m pretty sure Mayor Nutter as well, I mean everybody is looking for how can we grow the economy, provide a good quality of life for the residents, and that sustainability is a selling point in terms of quality of life. But it’s also a great economic development and we see around the world that the demand for and the growth in clean energy where countries, who are growing very quickly, are looking up what resources are available to them….And cities are a great laboratory for that because you can try a lot of different things and you can help to grow those industries and know that there’s a huge meta-competition among cities to attract industries of the future. And clearly green jobs and clean energy are jobs of the future that are here now and everybody’s doing a lot to try and grow that as an investment in the long-term economy prosperity of their communities.