Interview: DC Department of Environment’s Tommy Wells

In January of this year DC’s new mayor, Muriel Bowser, appointed Tommy Wells as District Director of the Environment, where he works to protect the environment for our nation’s capital. From 2006 to 2014, Wells served on DC’s City Council, representing Ward 6, where he was notable for supporting walkable neighbors and public transit and for crafting a 5 cent fee on disposable bags that protect the city’s waterways. EarthTalk caught up with Wells to discuss the future of the groundbreaking Sustainable DC plan.

Watch the interview here…

Or read the transcript below…

EarthTalk: Sustainable DC was launched in 2013 with the goal of making Washington, DC the greenest city on the planet. What do you see as the major features of the Sustainable DC plan?

Tommy Wells: Well I think that there’s a number of things. One of the major features of the plan is setting goals in 2020, 2035, and for the city to reduce the amount of greenhouse gas emissions, its carbon footprint, and certainly developing a more sustainable city on a number of metrics that create goals. So the plan sets out goals. And I think also that the plan tries to acknowledge the economy, issues of equity, environment, along with climate change. So cities are where a lot of this is happening, especially in America. Where you have the more mature cities, rather than developing countries, we have the opportunity to have goals, like the plan does, for reducing the amount of fossil fuels that we use to power the city, and then also to essentially not only create more green infrastructure but also to begin to rehabilitate the natural environment for the city.

E: Okay, so could you give just a couple of your major goals regarding greenhouse gas reduction, like what year, what level of reduction do you hope to see.

Wells: Well, we see a 50% reduction, or we expect a 50% reduction, in 2035. But I think that we need to revisit that. I know that in out years we go up to an 80% reduction. But we see Germany, Denmark and other cities like Copenhagen and Berlin that, have goals of really trying to get to zero. And I think that we need to think about what would it mean to get to zero in fifty years. It doesn’t look necessarily possible initially, but we know that the world is changing so rapidly and technology is changing rapidly and that we’re rethinking how we manage electricity and we manage power in general or electricity that we’ve made such great strides in electric vehicles and we’re also making strides in energy management. So I think that around energy that’s going to be one of the most important targets and that’s something that’s going to change over time but I’d like for the city to make a goal of getting to zero emissions.

E: Okay and a couple of the major ways you would do that are what?

Wells: Well, certainly with power, with the use of batteries we could get more to demand management. It’s interesting that Elon Musk talks about his company [Tesla] as being a battery company, not just a car company. And so I think that the other part of that is greater use of geothermal, greater use of other energy sources like a waste sewage system. That the transfer system generates so much heat that we should be able to use that heat for heating buildings in kind of a regional distributive energy plan. So I think that there’s a lot of energy alternatives. For example we’re sitting in my office and no lights are on. And that is because we’re trying to use passive energy in new ways, in smarter ways. I control light in my office with the shades, and it used to be in buildings you almost had to have your lights on. So I think how we use passive energy, how we continue to expand purchase, like the city purchases in aggregate all of its energy for its government buildings from wind power. The more that we can do aggregate buying, put more money into the market to make solar, wind and other types of energy sources that are renewable viable really is, I think it’s going to be part of our future.

E: I know battery is really key, battery storage for using solar and wind 24 hours a day.

Wells: Batteries are a way to store solar power but continue to have power for your home or office through the batteries even though the sun’s not shining at night. So batteries are a way to store power where generally the model has been feeding power constantly, that you constantly generate power and then when demand goes up you generate more power. And peak demand means that you have to have power ready at all times and so you have to have more capital investment ready to go, whether it be nuclear, coal or otherwise. With battery power you can either add the batteries in during peak periods so that you don’t have to have us much capital investment in fossil fuel plants, but also, again you have battery power that you can turn over to at night time when you’re not getting solar.

E: Right. And that’s one of the major issues. Another you mentioned was economic. And DC is noted for being divided largely along the Anacostia River. You know a prosperous part and then kind of a poor, segregated part. So how does that fit into your vision of the Sustainable DC plan?

Wells: In our investments in solar, especially home-based solar, we have about ten small companies that did not exist before the city’s investment in solar arrays and homes. So many of the people that work in these companies, and many of the companies that are owned, are certainly certified minority business companies. And the people that work for them in DC that didn’t have jobs before that came to our job training programs at the sustainable utility that we have. So it’s a pathway to jobs and then with the passage of community solar, which means that we can put out a solar array and you don’t have to get the power directly on the building that it is on, you can use that solar power that you generate and turn it into electric credits against people’s power bills in poorer parts of the city, seniors for example. So if we put solar arrays on some of these churches that have huge broad roofs, and we pay for it, and the church agrees to let us use their roofs for this purpose, then we can provide credits through solar for people in low income, especially seniors, by generating power in the city. And so there’s a way to use solar, there’s a way to use the renewable energy, to get people jobs and provide cheaper power directly, especially for those that our poor. Right now we have a plan that I launched, 130 roofs in 250 days. And that’s to get 130 solar arrays on people’s roofs that are below a certain income so that they will have subsidized-to-free power. We’re putting these power panels on their roofs for free. And that’s a great public investment and it’s a great way to use new technologies for people east of the river, but also where-ever you find people in the district that are in low income and could use help with their power bills.

E: Okay great. So basically solar is actually a way to empower communities that might have felt cut off and isolated.

Wells: Absolutely, but it requires government policy and government intention to do that. Initially we had rebates for those that could make the capital investments for putting solar on their homes. And that generally went to upper-middle-class wealthier families, or wealthier home owners. So, by using the government investments now to say we’re going to invest directly for people in lower income ranges so that they can participate in the benefits of renewable energy, free energy like solar, and that’s where our public investments, at least that’s my intention, that most public investment related to renewable energy will now go to everybody that’s only low income.

E: So it really spreads the wealth, the energy wealth, around.

Wells: Absolutely.

E: Okay. And a third component of the Sustainable DC plan was transit and smart growth including walkability and bikability of neighborhoods. And when you were on the DC council you were especially noted for advocating and helping to bring changes like the bikeshare network. So how do you see this as fitting into the ongoing progress of Sustainable DC?

Wells: Well, definitely if you don’t have to get in your car and you’re able to walk to the amenities that you need, like fresh food, great transit, your doctor’s office, medical care, a drugstore, the health and physical activity places like parks or public rec centers or health clubs, that if that array of remedies arranged in a way the goal being for almost every resident in DC to have what I call five minute living, that they can walk to getting fresh groceries, going to a pharmacy, getting health care all within five minutes of walking there, it creates a very powerful way to live. And I know that when I was the council member for Ward Six through a lot of tax incentives we went from two major grocery stores to having nine major grocery stores throughout the ward. And each grocery store hires between 150 and 200 people. It’s an amazing job creator. And most of the new grocery stores that we open, like the Harris Teeter down by the water front, 60 to 65% of the people that work there are from that area, from DC. So the amenities that we create in creating livable, walkable neighborhoods, it’s good for the environment, it’s good for our health because you’re walking to fresh food, you’re walking to the things that you need, it’s good for safety, less likely to be isolated in crime, that there’s a whole lot of benefits directly related to being able to walk your child to school or for your child to be able to bike to school. Having livable, walkable neighborhoods is a healthier way to live. Now, clearly we also, because so many people want that, we have a problem with gentrification. As soon as you have a great elementary school and crime goes down and you can walk to your grocery store, the value of that property skyrockets. And so we need to be sure that we have government policies that assure affordability. And also when necessary to help supplement that with government supplements so that we can continue the diversity of our city.

E: Okay, so walkability and smart growth is a quality of life issue and also an environmental justice issue.

Wells: Absolutely. It’s an environmental justice issue, it’s a social equity issue. You know in coming here to the Department of the Environment, sometimes people feel that, oh, the green movement, the sustainable planet movement, is really for those that have the time and affordability to care about it, people in the middle to upper-middle class. And that’s not necessarily true. The environmental justice issue says that everybody would like to be around clean water and clean air and sustainable neighborhoods that don’t have toxics in them. And so one of the first things that I did, and we’re hiring the person now, I think we just put an offer out. So we’re going to hire someone who’s just going to be focused on equity around environmental sustainability issues. To be sure that we’re in ways ways of being sure that everyone benefits, but also translates the work that we’re doing because everybody believes that they should be able to live in a neighborhood that’s healthy. Because that’s what having a healthy environment means.

E: And I do know that the DC transit network suffered a setback lately when, due to a variety of problems the planned streetcar network is going to be severely curtailed. So how do you see the future of transit that connects these wonderful walkable neighborhoods?

Wells: I think the first thing is, is to be sure that we are working to decrease the requirement that you need to get in your car. The average cost of having a car in the city is about $9000 a year. And so, if you’re making 40 or $50 thousand at best a year and have two or three children, if you just have to buy one car that wipes out about $10 thousand worth of cost. If you have two cars that’s $20 thousand of cost. So if you’re able to go to the grocery store by walking to the grocery store, you know walk your children to a neighborhood school, I think that’s the first thing, to be sure that a pedestrian oriented transit system is there, that there’s sidewalks in your neighborhood, that you have safe streets and that you have amenities you can walk to. Then when you get to transit, I think the concern I have is the affordability of great transit. I love that the circulator [a bus through central DC neighborhoods] is always just $1. Because WMATA the public Metro system is going up, up, and up, depending on how far you go on the subway system is how much more you have to pay. And that could easily be a huge portion of your income, and if you’re taking your kids somewhere that’s a major cost. So I think that the fact that the city’s kept the circulator at $1, but it needs to be expanded much more in Wards 7 and 8, I know that the mayor is looking at, even though the streetcar has been a problem, that’s an understatement, but the mayor intends on running the streetcar up Benning Road [through low-income neighborhoods] out into Ward 7, that will remain at least $1. Aand from the streetcar on Benning Road to Union Station, from Union Station you can go anywhere in the world. And so connecting that neighborhood in Ward 7, continuing to invest in a bus system like the circulator that stays $1, and I think that looking at employers providing more transit benefits is going to be helpful too.

E: Okay, great, so you’re really looking at a holistic economy, environment, community situation. And can you say, because cities are especially important in the sustainability movement internationally. In the U.S. we’re really not getting much help from the federal government. So can you say more about the role of a city like DC and a plan like Sustainable DC?

Wells: Absolutely. The challenge that we have is that at the national level that we have a number of elected leaders from other states in Congress who irresponsibly either want to say that either the globe is not challenged by climate change and greenhouse gases, so they deny it, they say this is a fiction. So that continues to kind of leave the national will behind by not addressing it. It’s irresponsible. And, as the governor of Washington State said, we’re the first generation finally experience climate change and we’re the last generation to be able to do something about it. So where it’s happening is in cities. And so DC, we’re not waiting on the argument of whether mankind can affect the environment or not. I mean that’s such a stupid argument; we know already with the ozone holes that were causing so many problems that by cutting out the Chloro . . .


Wells: The CFCs

E: I always forget the acronym.

Wells: Yes chlorocarbons, whatever, fluorocarbons. By cutting out the CFCs we have been able to make a major change in trying to protect the ozone level above us. So we already know that the things that we do impact the environment. We certainly know that when we see that there’s a major fire, that it impacts not just how you see the sun but it impacts the temperatures around and if there’s any other event that puts a lot of particles in the air that it impacts the climate. So that argument is done and it’s been done. The problem is, is that 30 years ago people predicted what is happening today. That if we didn’t make a change we would violent storms, we would get change in temperature, and it begins to change the planet.

E: Yes and we’re seeing it in Texas ,among many other places.

Wells: We’ve seen the floods in Texas, we’ve seen the strength of the hurricanes, we’ve seen in California where they don’t have rain and they’re running out of water. We see it here in DC. We just had the hottest month of the year ever for May. So that’s the hottest May in recorded history in Washington, DC. We saw Monday a fairly violent storm came through the city. The heat for long periods of time creates energy, and then it’s expressed in not just the rain but the way the wind blows. We saw that with the Derecho [a violent 2012 flash storm] that blew so many of the trees down and knocked the power out. So cities have to address this, we don’t have a choice and we have to be smart about it. So the Sustainable DC plan is a responsible plan in partnership of our leadership with our residents, with our businesses, with the people that depend on Washington, DC. We’re going to address it here in the city. We’re going to try to cool the city with more green roofs, plant more trees, restore the Anacostia River. We’re going to cool the city as best we can, we’re going to try to reduce our dependency on greenhouse gas emissions by having a renewable portfolio for our energy use and we’re going to continue to try to deal with the fact that cars are the number two generator of emissions in the city that contribute to the bad ozone that you get at the lower level that creates greater heat and heat islands. So through the Sustainable DC plan, every city across the world needs to have a sustainability plan. That’s why the city is a member of C40. 75 cities across the world have joined together across the world to not wait on the politicians in Kansas, not wait on the people that refuse to do anything about this.   It’s with our cities, and the cities are the only hope that we have for sustaining our planet.

E: We are an urban planet now and it’s up to the cities to take the lead.

Wells: That’s right.

E: Okay, thank you very much.

Wells: Thank you.