A Net-Zero Energy Future is Within Reach

  • RBF staff and trustees at the District Energy plant in Vancouver.
    In April 2018, members of the RBF staff and Board of Trustees visited Vancouver's District Energy, which uses excess heat from the sewer to power buildings in Vancouver.
By RBF Trustee Joseph Pierson, as excerpted from “Reflections on the Pacific Northwest”

This spring, I was grateful to embark on an adventure with the Rockefeller Brothers Fund to the Pacific Northwest. Organized by the Fund’s Sustainable Development program, it was extraordinary and essential to our understanding of the region, efforts to combat climate change by changing the way people live, and the RBF’s support for NGOs and municipalities in crafting strategies toward a net-zero energy future.

The Pacific Northwest is distinguished by the collective progressive vision of a network of public officials, NGOs, and visionary entrepreneurs, all of whom are playing a role in ensuring the carbon-neutral future of many of the cities, states, and regions therein. The efforts are all led by people with a shared conviction that change must happen, and that it is only going to happen if people engage on the subnational level.

Our first stop on the trip was Vancouver, where the RBF has been supporting local environment initiatives since the 1990s transformation of the Mid-Coast Timber Supply Area to the Great Bear Rainforest. Today, Vancouver wants to be the “greenest city in the world.” Its three objectives are zero carbon, zero waste, and healthy ecosystems—all on track to be achieved by 2030.

Getting there serves as a lesson that anything is possible if you need and want it enough. This was underscored by our visit to District Energy, where we were shown how wastewater can become a commodity: a closed system provides heat and hot water to an entire neighborhood using only the excess heat from the sewer.

What is truly remarkable about the process Vancouver has begun is the extraordinary commitment on so many levels, from code standards and enforcement, to participation of the business community, to residents’ enthusiasm and support for the process.

This optimism for the energy future and the resolute belief that a carbon-neutral future is attainable within a matter of decades was repeated throughout our trip. Paired with this was proof that a responsible energy policy and a robust economy are by no means mutually exclusive; everywhere we went the opposite was true.

In Washington, we traveled to the state capitol to visit with Jay Inslee, the charismatic governor. According to the governor, Washington is “Exhibit A” in debunking the myth that a strong environmental policy is bad for business. Governor Inslee described for us his vision for a green economy and his strategies for making it happen. He leads by talking about health, follows up with jobs, and finishes with climate change. The last is the biggest, but still a partisan issue in Washington state, so the boost to the economy that has come with his climate policy has helped.

Inslee is promoting his vision for a 100% renewable electric grid for the Pacific states and has initiated the greenest public transportation system in his state’s history. He has promoted an absolute cap on CO2 emissions for the biggest industrial polluters. The governor’s ambitious plan for renewable energy in Washington faces continued challenges from a mixed state legislature, but his determination and success so far are impressive.

Another theme of our trip was the impact of climate policy on low-income communities and on social inequalities in health, transportation, and overall quality of life. Most of the grantees and municipalities we met with were mindful of the potential burden posed by climate policy changes on low-income households and are developing strategies to ensure that the needy share in the benefits of a carbon-neutral future.

At our final stop on the weeklong trip, Commissioner Andrew McAllister of California’s Energy Commission spoke about the state’s high standards for building codes: all residential projects will be zero net energy by 2020, and all commercial projects by 2050. But such standards must be proven cost effective, and the state has a commitment to consider its impact on lower-income residents. We also heard from several RBF grantee organizations in San Francisco that are fighting the expansion of fossil fuel refineries, terminals, and other infrastructure in lower-income neighborhoods.

After this extraordinary trip, I came away feeling that so very much is possible. The grantees and officials with whom we met, who are committed and creative in crafting a net-zero energy future, are proof. Why aren’t we all doing more?