Let’s get Greenwise

SN&R chats with Mayor Kevin Johnson about his sustainability plans for Sacramento

Jeff vonKaenel is the president, CEO and majority owner of the News & Review newspapers in Sacramento, Chico and Reno.

Let’s hear an overview of the basic vision you have for Greenwise Sacramento.

OK. The overall vision is that we want to be the greenest region in the country. There’s so much buzz nationally about green this, green that, there’s a lot of buzz. But we truly have an opportunity to be a leader nationally when it comes to green, and that is exciting. And I also think that we could be a leader or a hub in green technology. So I’ve dubbed it as the Emerald Valley, just to try to get us kind of rallying around some sort of brand.

We started an initiative called Greenwise, and the point of the initiative, first and foremost, was to convene people. There was so much good work already happening, but they were all happening in isolation. So it was very clear to me that if can convene people and coordinate and collaborate and align our efforts, leverage our efforts, that right there we’d put ourselves in a position of strength. So we’ve already won that convening and getting everybody together. The second thing that I thought we needed was a shared vision in our region, not just in the city of Sacramento. What is our vision for this region when it comes to green? I can give mine, but it has to be all of us collectively coming together to say this is the vision we want to have our region become known for when it comes to green. When you think of the finance world, you think of Wall Street in New York City, and when you think of big-time politics, you think of Washington, D.C., or when you think of Hollywood entertainment, you think of [Los Angeles], when you think of high-tech, you think of the Silicon Valley. Can we make our region, synonymous, our identity synonymous with being one of the greenest regions in the country? Can we be known for that?

There’s two things that need to happen in my estimation—one is we’ve got to walk the talk. We just can’t say it, we need targets and goals and ways we are measuring that we really are a standard bearer when it comes to protecting our environment. And on the other side is jobs and industry. Those two are what we are trying to work in parallel to make happen, and I think that’s an important kind of component just in general.

The other thing that I would say, when you think about a regional economy, [is] that we’re much stronger if we collectively agree on a set of some parameters, because if Sacramento does it a lot different that Roseville, and Roseville does it different than West Sacramento, and West Sacramento does it different that El Dorado, we’re not going to get more stimulus dollars, we’re not going to position ourselves as a leader in our region, and that’s the hardest part. Can I get us to agree on general parameters in our region that can create a regional economy? I think that’s very important.

We’ve had the No. 1 growth in green jobs in Sacramento over the last decade—83 percent growth in the state. We have a governor who’s willing to put some political capital out there on [Assembly Bill 32] and on some very controversial issues, which is great. We have aggressive policies in California and, to be quite honest, Sacramento has a competitive advantage over other places around the country and we should be a leader in the state of California if we do our part. It’s up to us to make it happen. So that was kind of my thinking in terms of starting the Greenwise initiative.

I’ve been struck by one thing that makes us different. I think a bunch of other cities are kind of lining up forces so that they can take angel investors for high-tech projects and be in a position to do that. But the part that I took from what you’re doing, in bringing Van Jones in, and using language about helping the least among us—

Social justice, basically.

Yes, the social-justice component. Marrying those two concepts together. That’s the part that I think is really intriguing, and that’s the part I don’t think other regions are really doing—they’re not trying to do the social-justice aspect.

And I think that, at the end of the day, that’s going to be our differentiator. If we don’t do it right, then we have only ourselves to blame. It has nothing to do with federal dollars—it’s “Is this a core belief of ours?”

So I did like five guiding principles, I don’t know if you saw them. But one of them was green-collar jobs, regional economy, innovative policies, green IQ, and in that green IQ, the whole point is social justice, public awareness, outreach, educating the public—that one is one of the most exciting for someone like me. Like, the rest of this stuff is technical, half the time, but that’s the one that’s really exciting. When you think about [U.S. Rep.] Doris Matsui’s role, she’s plugged in nationally: [President Barack] Obama and his administration, the Department of Energy and [Housing and Urban Development] and everybody—if they’re looking for a place around the country that does it well, then why not make us be that place? So that’s No. 1.

In terms of green tech, there’s three I’s: intellectual capital—we have UC Davis, [Sacramento] State, that’s important. In terms of innovation, we have cutting-edge utility companies, PG&E and SMUD, those are really significant. Also in terms of innovation, we have a lot of clean-tech, green-tech companies, 120 to 140 in our region. But the third I, to your point, is the influencer piece, meaning, for one thing, that we’re conveniently located in proximity to the state capital. And then also, you have the fact that we might be able to get venture capital from the Silicon Valley to invest in our region. … They are land-locked in Silicon Valley, they’re looking for opportunities, and we’re conveniently an hour and a half, two hours away. That’s up to us to be aggressive to meld all three of those together—bringing people together, articulate a vision, but the social-justice piece, that’s the one that I am the most passionate about.

What is the role of innovation? And where do you see the public being involved?

I think there’s two things I could say. No. 1—there’s chancellor Linda Katehi, an intellectual superstar, a giant; she’s going to really challenge the professors there to create startup companies and businesses like you do at major universities, so that innovator piece is going to go to a whole other level. Don’t just talk about the research and the ideas, let’s do some startups and attract investment. The neat thing for us in terms of the role of the public is, I’ve said this at least at two of the monthly meetings, if we look around this room, at the end of six months, or seven months, and it looks the same way, we’ve failed. It doesn’t matter, I don’t need to measure that on the amount of people that show up. But if it’s just how it looks today eight months from now, we’ve failed.

That’s the public-outreach piece. That is a key component, because we need to make them feel like they can participate in this new green economy. No. 2, the least among us in those communities have to feel like they are participating. That is a huge commitment of mine. And then thirdly, we have to change behavior, the personal responsibility that we all have at home, and in our workplaces, in our schools, there’s a way to meld all these together and that’s what I’m hoping—we have six months left. In the next six months it will all start to come together with that piece of what role the public plays. So for instance, you’re writing about it, and that’s huge. And your papers, forgive me, but your paper was committed before I even got here; now I am catching up to what you guys have been doing. But how do we engage the public at greater heights? I don’t know what that answer is yet. But it’s something we need to be talking about for the next three or four months, so that when we’re done with the action plan that there’s clear implementation steps to involve the public in ways that we have not done before. And I don’t know what the answer is yet.