Transcript: Podcast with Chris Rhie | Sustainable Energy Systems🎙️⚡

Below is the transcript from the interview with Chris Rhie! Check it out on Spotify. CR - Chris Rhie, AMW - Awoe Mauna-Woanya

CR: So degrowth is the idea that we need to think about an economic system where we have everything that we need to provide for the needs of the current generation as well as future generations. We've been stuck in under the assumption that infinite growth is good and necessary for a quality of life. But it keeps getting us into trouble. And I think this is a once fringe idea that is maybe still a little bit outside the mainstream, but getting more and more mainstream that we have to be having a conversation about how much is enough. And I think we're starting to get there. We got a lot of we got a lot of hearts and minds to change. But let's make it part of the conversation.

AMW: Welcome to Fostering Our Earth, a space for imagining and detailing what a sustainable future can really look like. I'm your host and I'm super excited to officially launch this podcast over the last few weeks and months. I've been interviewing some absolutely incredible folks, practitioners in their own way, working towards our sustainable future. We're going to kick this off with a discussion on energy, exploring what a sustainable energy system can look like. That clip you just heard is the one-word take away from my interview with Chris Rhie and we'll get into that shortly. Chris is a nationally recognized expert on urban sustainability and a former associate principal at Buro Happold in L.A. He focuses on equitable strategies for combating global climate change and works with all kinds of client across local government, higher education, corporate and nonprofit sectors, all to develop sustainable infrastructure, land use and climate policy frameworks. He led the team that wrote L.A. County's Sustainability Plan and New York City's first comprehensive environmental justice report. Basically, what I'm trying to say is that Chris knows this stuff, and we're about to have a really fun and informative conversation that touches on energy, lifestyle changes and racial inequities in our energy system. He shouts out a few really cool organizations and gives us tips on ways to think about energy in our everyday lives. I'll be jumping in and out to narrate and summarize the conversation as it happens. So without further ado, here's Chris.

CR: All right. Well, thanks for having me. This is going to be fun. Looking forward to it. And one of my favorite topics and I'll try to explain it in a way that everyone can understand because energy, there are so many dimensions to it, but there are ways to break it down in a way that we can all understand.

AMW: Awesome. Well, let's just jump right in to get everyone on the same page. Let's explain. Like we're five. What is a sustainable energy system? Why does it matter? And what role does it play in our sustainable future?

CR: Yeah. So backing up a little bit too, I always start with the, the, with the definition of sustainable development. I like to use the Commission report which which defines sustainable development as providing for the needs of the current generation, while also providing for the needs of future generations. It's pretty, you know, it's pretty holistic. Like that can mean a lot of different things. And often we consider the three legged stool in sustainability, right? So we think about environment, equity and economy together. So well, we'll touch upon parts of that throughout our conversation here. But as it pertains to energy, you know, what is what is energy and what's an energy system? Quite simply, it is all of the resources that we need to provide heat, light and power, the stuff that we need to provide quality of life in this present generation. So the big challenge and question for sustainability and energy and what's that? What's that intersection is what are the resources that we use for that heat light and power? We have a bunch of options, right? And historically, we've done everything from burning wood, from forests. You know, presently we extract oil and fossil gas from the ground. And there's been all sorts of things, right? Coal dung from cows And we're but like whenever we burn something, right, or whenever we use combustion, that makes the air difficult to breathe. And it also causes our atmosphere to trap more heat. So, you know, one or two small fires, you know, are not actually a big deal in the grand scheme of things. However, we have literally billions of fires happening across the world. They're not like open flames, but like a car is like has hundreds of explosions every single minute. And so that combustion is a is a big, big problem for a global climate change, not to mention the fact that if we're thinking about provide for future generations, we have a limited amount of fossil fuels in the world that is accessible. On the other hand, we have solar energy and the sun has virtually unlimited energy. I mean, by by, you know, the scale of a human lifespan. Let's just consider it totally unlimited and we can capture it using solar panels, wind as another resource we can capture by use of turbines. And there are other renewable sources of energy, but solar and wind are, I think, pretty emblematic of the energy solutions that we need to start looking towards and scaling up and making that the the basis of our energy system rather than the supplement to it.

AMW: Absolutely, Chris. Next, can you speak about the current state of sustainable energy systems in the U.S.? According to the EPA, about a quarter of our emissions come from electricity generation and another 13% come from direct emissions in the commercial and residential sectors. This includes fossil fuel combustion for heating and cooking, among other uses. Tell us more about where we are now and where we're heading in the future.

CR: Yeah, so over the past couple of generations, we definitely have been heading in the right direction. According to the U.S. Energy Information Administration, renewables are about 20% of utility scale electricity generation in the United States. Another fifth, about 19% comes from nuclear generation. Nuclear isn't considered renewable, but it is fossil. I'm sorry, it is carbon free. So that means that 2/5 of our resources come from carbon free sources. That's about the same proportion that comes from fossil gas. Nowadays, and the last fifth is mostly coal. So we are getting there. You know, that's that's not insignificant. But, you know, we're still below that. The halfway point in terms of our carbon free electricity sources, on the other hand, there are, you know, for every couple of steps forward, there are we we do take steps back. You know, I think when we first were talking about doing this podcast together that same week, you know, BP, British Petroleum, had reneged on its commitment to reduce oil and gas production. Right. They. I mean, they're their profit maximizing entity and the market's changed. So, you know, I don't know. We shouldn't be completely surprised that stuff like that happens. But it is disappointing. And, you know, we're not seeing and we are seeing, you know, our capitalist system valuing profits and shareholder interests over the environment. So there are some, you know, pretty big ah societal challenges to, to address. And you know, I think consumers are a large part of changing that narrative and there are, there's an interest in everything from electric vehicles and solar energy. And I, I even have, you know, chats with friends and family from outside, way outside the industry who are asking questions about battery energy storage. So there's there's interest and awareness. And, you know, we hope that that that translates into action.

AMW: At the time of this recording, the sixth edition of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, also known as IPCC report, came out reminding us of our rapidly changing climate and the role our human and fossil fuel based and capitalistic based activities play in driving the change. Around the same time, President Biden approved the project, Willow, which is an oil drilling project on the public lands in Alaska. This project, if it produces as much oil as expected, will release about 277 million tons of carbon dioxide into the atmosphere. That's about 4% of the US's annual emissions today. How do you take news like this and how is this symbolic and or really like ironic of the struggles we're facing for this energy transition?

CR: Yeah. I, you know, like the science is clear and it has been clear for quite some time. And, you know, every time the IPCC comes out with a report, it's it's like it feels like variations on a theme, right? The urgency is not diminished. If anything, it is increasing. And, you know, there are advancements in science. And if you really dig in and and look into some of the more detailed findings, but the overall message is pretty clear, right? Like we we need to be acting. We needed to be acting like generations ago. And we're we're getting later and later. So. Yeah. it's tricky one. You know, I think the Biden administration sort of allowing these lands to be opened up for extraction is again, that is that is something that is disappointing. I don't even know how to totally reconcile it. Right. It's like hopefully we can apply a long lens and, you know, hope that we're moving in the right direction overall. You know, a transition can't happen. over night as much as we would like it to. We haven't totally prepared our grid to handle a transition to a renewables based grid. We are facing material shortages to produce the solar panels and the batteries and which also require rare earth minerals that come from pretty dubious sources. We have a lot of reliability issues to sort out when we move to intermittency. I'm sorry, that's getting a little wonky, but when we move to solar and wind, right, the the way that electrons flow from those is dependent upon whether the sun is shining or the wind is blowing. And that's different from having a form of liquid fuel from having gas or or oil, which you can sort of turn on and off whenever you want. So that that's a pretty big there are big engineering challenges. There are sourcing challenges. It's going to take some time. And I think one critical question is like at what point do we draw a line in the sand and say, like, we're not going to be investing any further into an energy system that depends on extraction? I'm I am disappointed that, you know, that that continues to happen and that new projects are being approved. You know, I can I can understand, you know, we have some existing resources, but a new project is going to be active for decades. Which is not what we need. And the science is pretty clear on that.

AMW: No absolutely. It baffles my mind and makes me think like if we have access to this information that surely, you know, policymakers, decision makers also have access to this information and hopefully we could be making the right decisions each step of the way especially when, you know, projects like this, like you said, like, will impact us for not just today or tomorrow, but for decades to come. Let's keep digging deeper. So, like, are there any other considerations to think about when balancing energy efficiency and affordability and environmental sustainability in building design or in urban planning? You brought up some points about intermittency issues that we have to consider. And yeah, like, is there anything else that we have to think about?

CR: Yeah. Lots, lots of things said to to take into account. Um, let's see, Where do we begin? Well, let's talk about land I like talking about land because, you know, I'm a I'm an urban planner by training, actually. And it's this part of the equation that folks are always thinking about, especially when it comes to electricity. Right. Because we don't really see where electricity comes from. Sort of the layperson doesn't really know where it comes from. It just sort of magically arrives to the outlet and they're while. And I had even been working on a project as a consultant, and I won't say the project, but I was working with a pretty sophisticated team of, energy economists, and we were coming up with different forecasts of what the potential was to develop utility scale renewables. And they came up with a figure for a certain geography that had a lot of constraints, like residential land uses and topography. And, they came up with this number based on, like what the market could support. And I said, where the heck is this going to be built like. Oh, yeah, I haven't thought of that. And so just like if a fossil fuel power plant is, you know, it's not that different from fundamentally a it's not that different from engineer car. Right. And so which is like remarkably compact for the amount of energy that is stored in a liquid form. And then you combust it you know, you turn an axle or a turbine and to produce usable power. and the form is very compact and historically was located very close to population centers. That's a that's a whole nother issue, which I'll get you later. But you could do that. You could just located a power plant anywhere where you had a few acres and, you know, permissible zoning. You need way more land to produce an equivalent amount of energy from a solar project or a wind project. And it is not necessarily close to the population center. Right. Some of the wind resources are across the Great Plains in the U.S. Solar, you know, where we're trying to find land where we can. But it means that we have to transmit the electricity over long distances. There are also engineering challenges. With that, it increases costs. There are also environmental concerns with regards to building renewable energy projects, you know, solar projects that are being built in the desert in Southern California, in Arizona are taking up dust and which has which impacts air quality. Wind projects, you know, I think famously have had impacts on wildlife and birds in particular. There's been a lot yeah, there's been a lot to mitigate that. But you know, that's also something that's happened and not to mention, you know, movement of animals on the ground. So like land is a land is a big thing that I think isn't maybe not talked about as much, but is something that we also need to consider. I think. When we build, we build them out of generation that we need to support demand. And so the less energy we use, the less we have to build. And thus far, you know, we talk about efficiency, which is really about changes in technology. So we use more efficient systems to heat and cool our homes. We move from gas fired furnaces to electric heat pumps, for example. Are we changed in more efficient light bulbs or, you know, improve the insulation on our homes? But like there's also this, you know, the other side of the equation is conservation, which is really about behavior change and getting folks on a large scale to use less energy. That is a very tough nut because we are used to our certain certain conveniences. But to ask folks to like maybe not switch from a gas card to an electric car, but maybe give up a car altogether, think about an e-bike or know do you really need all of those six different devices that allow you to check your email? It's you know, this is this is a part of the equation that hasn't really been been addressed as as much as it can. A lot of it does focus on technology fixes while allowing folks to more or less enjoy the same kind of lifestyle. But we haven't really looked at lifestyle changes, which, quite frankly, we probably need to if we're going to have any shot of meeting our our climate goals.

AMW: Awesome. I mean, this last point you're talking about, and it's something that I'm really trying to explore and share that, you know, sustainability isn't just, the technology that we adopt. You know, it's also us, you know, it's practices that. We as humans, you know how we interact with the world around us, you know, and less consumption is very much a huge part of it, whether it's material consumption with like our endless buying of everything or even energy consumption and thinking about how we, you know, like, do we need to drive the 2 minutes to the grocery store down the street, you know? But then again, some of the stuff's also out of our control. You know, maybe things should be built closer to us so that people aren't forced to drive and emit fossil fuels. And so yeah we're hitting on a lot of really good points and thinking about the lifestyle changes. and the infrastructure changes, the technological changes that are all intertwined in fostering a more sustainable future. Earlier you made a point about fossil fuel combustion polluting the air. And that makes me think of environmental justice issues and the role that energy systems play in addressing racial equity or transitioning without harming racial equity. So like what that like. Could you talk a bit about like the importance of addressing racial equity in our transition to a more sustainable future? Or what does that look like?

CR: Yeah. And you know this also is also relates back to land use in that. Communities of color in the United States were restricted through policies like red lining from obtaining home mortgages and in certain areas in quote unquote desirable areas, and were otherwise subject to other forms of housing discrimination. And often times, especially in our major cities, were forced to live in areas exposed to disproportionate environmental pollution. Those could be adjacent to a power plant or or downwind of a power plant, but also ports and other transportation infrastructure, solid waste infrastructures, including incinerators and other sources of pollution. And what is. And know back to like also our conversation on consumption those communities, environmental justice communities today are bearing the brunt of everyone else's consumption. Right. And despite the fact that, environmental justice communities, which include low income households, tend to consume less on a per capita basis. So they are contributing less to our, you know, our our greenhouse gas emissions, yet are bearing more of the brunt of air pollution impacts. And that is. Deeply saddening and something that we really need to discuss every time we are talking about this just transition or energy transition and. So what are different ways of going about it? Some of it is very procedural in terms of when when there are discussions to be had about building new energy resources, actually engaging community and taking that input into account. There is also, you know, at the local and state level, the disbursement of different funding opportunities, grants, loans, etc. can be prioritized for environmental justice communities. And we're starting to see that happening in California and other states are sort of following suit. So, you know, I think those are a couple of the most direct there are. I think it's really important for practitioners, energy and environmental practitioners to constantly be asking this question no matter what what the subject is that they're working on. So if we're talking about decarbonization, let's say, in the building design industry, you know, if we're talking about like new investments, those incur costs, you know, upfront costs, how are we financing that in a way that allows it to be affordable to the to the users, to the tenants, to whomever might be benefiting? How are we thinking about, you know, is this going to contribute to the forces of gentrification in sort of rapidly changing neighborhoods? And what can we do to mitigate that, that risk of displacement? The good thing is that it's being it's a question that's being asked more and more. A lot of government resources are lined up to support the integration of their environmental justice considerations into all lines of work. But we have to you know, we have to do it ourselves as well.

AMW: No, you're absolutely right, Chris. And when thinking about our transition to a more sustainable energy system, it's so important that we not only think about it holistically, but also from this environmental justice perspective that you're bringing up. Sure, we have the technological upgrades that need to happen or the lifestyle changes that we need to adopt, as you said earlier. But there are also the structural changes that need to happen both in the U.S. and globally. The benefits and the burdens of our current system are not distributed fairly. One way to think about this is with energy burden, which is an indicator of burden based on percent of income spent on energy costs. So think heating or electricity. Low income folks in the U.S. experience three times the energy burden. This means that They spent three times more of their income on energy costs than average in a sustainable future. Energy accessibility and affordability is not burdensome, both nationally and globally. What do you think about this, Chris?

CR: Yeah. Yeah. The global perspective, I think is, you know, yeah, 100% it totally rings true. And you know, the US is the single largest emitter in history of greenhouse gas emissions. but it's other places in the world that are even more acutely feeling the impacts of sea level rise and, and other climate change impacts. And, you know, we're feeling some in the U.S., but like the results of our actions are, you know, pretty, pretty widespread.

AMW: Yeah, absolutely. You mentioned gentrification briefly, and it just makes me wonder, like, how else could we engage with communities and stakeholders when we're thinking about sustainable energy? Like, how do we communicate with folks? Because people are very much afraid of gentrification or even the thought about what gentrification even means. Like if that's the right word, if, you know, like what happens to an area. Like, how can we talk to is it just that people aren't educated enough about, you know. Our energy systems Is it that some stuff is just outside Their grasp, like, for example, if you live in an apartment building, Or if you rent an apartment, it's not as easy to just put a solar panel on your roof or make some of these changes. Like how do we engage with communities? How do we think through some of the logistics that goes into this sustainable energy system transition?

CR: Yeah. I mean, I think it starts with working with trusted community based organizations that have been involved in community development work in areas that are at risk of displacement. You know, one example in New York City is We Act which has been looking specifically at the adoption of decarbonization strategies, induction cooktops and heat pumps in affordable housing. And with great success from what I'm what I'm able to glean here in Los Angeles, the Liberty Hill Foundation has been running the Empower program that promotes savings, upgrades and clean energy to low income households. These are examples of organizations that are trusted in the communities where they're working, you know, and not just. Swooping in with a slew of programs and funding opportunities. So I think it's really important to center CBO's in in this discussion in this fight against climate change. To make sure that it is widely accepted. Yeah. Lots of lots of cool orgs doing it, doing great work. Um, yeah, I really like. In terms of bringing everybody to the table, have the work that HEET is doing in Massachusetts. That's h e e t. They've been doing a phenomenal job around rallying folks around energy transition, talking about the public health impacts and urgency around energy transition, transition from fossil gas. You know, Massachusetts had a series of explosions in the Merrimack Valley a few years ago, which really kind of put at the center of sort of public consciousness in terms of that there's this aging fossil gas infrastructure in the ground. And how do we think about moving to a sustainable energy system, not just. To mitigate climate change, but also for the very immediate public health risk that that is posed by that infrastructure. And they've done it. They've done a great job by engaging not only CBOs, but also the academic community, utility companies in a way that is very open, I think, and honest and says that, look, this is a problem that we all need to face together. There are huge challenges. But we're not trying to, take different sides. We should be we should all be rowing in the same direction.

AMW: Absolutely. Absolutely. Okay. We're going to move on to sort of our and so what we've talked about a lot, honestly, for each of these topics, each of these points, we could go down like a rabbit hole and have a whole, you know, podcast series, like talking about every single piece of it. So like, let's sort of think about sort of takeaways like what should the everyday person do or be thinking about, you know, their energy system? And yeah, like, what should we do? Like we all use energy for everything in our lives, but like, what should we do? Or if we wanted to learn more, like what resources could we turn to do? You'd normally turn to and yeah, like, what do you think?

CR: Yeah. You know, I, I got my start towards an environmental career in college as a, as a, I guess you'd call it, like a community environmental educator. So I was the one who would, like, ring on folks doors and, and say, like, hey, here's a recycling bin and here's, here's a compact fluorescent light bulb to, you know, exchange with your incandescent, which now basically feel like a dinosaur. But yeah, but these days, you know, my quick home decarb tip is try a portable induction cooktop. it looks like a hot plate it is not a hot plate. It instead of using electric resistance heat, it uses induction as essentially magnets to excite the particles within your pan or sauce pan. It heats up very quickly. It's easy to clean and you can get one for like around 100 bucks and keep your gas range if you want. You know, I was just talking to I was actually just talking to my friend last week at the Climate Resolve fundraiser. And as I said, nobody tried to decarbonize their home. And I said, how about your how about your situations like how we've got this beautiful you know, we've got this beautiful old range and we're not quite ready to give it up. I said, Well, I plugged this and next to it, like it doesn't take up much space It's pretty cheap and like, see how I like it? So that's my, that's my quick tip in terms of what people would do right away. And Yeah. Another quick tip you can get through your utility company. Most utility companies a smart thermostat for your home, which will help you save energy by helping to optimize when you heat or cool your your space. You can also buy these at any electronics retailer, but most utilities programs. I'm sorry. Most utilities do have programs to provide one for free. It's fun. You can connect to your phone if you want and control them from afar or like see your usage, history, that kind of thing. But it's relatively simple to do, and yet nothing you can do to sort of support the energy transition.

AMW: Cool. And what about tips? What resources do you use or turn to?

CR: Um, yeah. In terms of like finding out more about this topic, like a few publications that I follow I really like today explained it's a Vox podcast, covers a wide range of current topics, but they do cover primarily she's from from time to time and MIT Technology Review. I'm a little biased as an MIT alum, but I do think your publication is great and does tell us a bit deeper. And there's also intersectional environmentalist where you can follow them on on social media as well as there is they have a Joy podcast which is quite delightful. So yeah, those are a few places to start. But anyway, those are awesome resources.

AMW: Thank you very much for sharing and one sentence. What is your dream for the future? One sentence. A phrase degrowth.

CR: Degrowth so degrowth is the idea that we need to think about and an economic system where we. Have everything that we need to provide for the needs of the current generation as well as future generations. We've been stuck in under the assumption that infinite growth is good and necessary for a quality of life. But it keeps getting us into trouble. And I think this is a once fringe idea that is maybe still a little bit outside the mainstream, but getting more and more mainstream that we have to be having a conversation about how much is enough. And I think we're starting to get there. We got a lot of we got a lot of hearts and minds to change. But let's make it part of the conversation.

AMW: Yeah, of course. I love it. Chris, thank you so much for joining us. Really enjoyed chatting with you, learning so much. And it's it's always a pleasure. All right. Thanks for having me on. All right, folks. That's it for this episode of Fostering Our Earth. I hope you enjoyed and or learn something new about energy and our sustainable future. For more, subscribe to the bi weekly newsletter. Where I continue our exploration of the various components of this future. You can also find fostering our Earth on Instagram. Don't forget to rate and review us wherever you're listening and feel free to hit me up if you have any thoughts. Until next time, keep fostering your earth today for a better future tomorrow.

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