Super green!

Meet Mayor Kevin Johnson’s Greenwise Sacramento leadership team

Illustration by chris flecker

These interviews are edited down from transcripts of longer conversations that took place between vonKaenel and each Greenwise committee leader.
In keeping with the theme of this issue, vonKaenel asked the mayor what his “superpower” would be. Kevin Johnson’s answer? “The ability to create tall buildings filled with new jobs in a single bound.”
Jeff vonKaenel is the president, CEO and majority owner of the News & Review newspapers in Sacramento, Chico and Reno.

Over the last four years, I have focused much of my personal time and the newspaper’s resources on trying to answer a simple question: What can we do to increase the odds that our great, great grandchildren will live on a habitable planet? I was therefore delighted when Mayor Kevin Johnson told me a few months ago that he was going to launch a Greenwise Sacramento initiative, a communitywide, yearlong effort to make Sacramento the greenest region in the country. Today I’d like to introduce you to the five local people—all pre-eminent in their fields—whom the mayor has chosen to lead us in this effort.

The path to get there

John DiStasio, general manager and CEO, SMUD Greenwise team leader: Energy

This seems like a critical time when it comes to energy, with a change in policy at the federal level and a whole different set of priorities. There are lots of variables, like the economy, but where do you see things going on the energy issue?

I’ve been doing this for 28 years, and, to me, this is the most transformative time I’ve ever seen. Energy is changing. I was around when we had the oil embargo in the late ’70s, and there was a pretty good push and a lot of good environmental things got done then, but this is different. This has components of the environment and of global climate change, which is a huge thing hanging over all of us.

… As much as people say they’ve seen a lot of change, I see a lot more in the future. I just think things are going to move more exponentially than they have in the past.

Where do you see energy use going in the next 10 years?

Well, I think California’s energy usage, because of our energy standards, has been pretty flat [despite population growth]. But that success story is not really going to be enough to get us to where we need to go relative to emissions reductions. I think the smart grid will actually enable more visibility around energy use. Right now people get feedback on their energy use after the fact, once a month. Smart grid will enable people to get that hourly, and that will really arm people with the information and ideas about what their best opportunities are to either shift or reduce energy use.

For Sacramento, how much do you think the focus should be on technological advances and things that are more internal, like with SMUD, and how much will need to involve acts of participation by businesses and individuals?

Well, SMUD certainly can’t do all of it. But SMUD can provide incentives. The nature of the relationship is that we try to acquire the most environmentally friendly power supply, and we try to educate consumers and provide incentives for them to do energy efficiency. But the thing that’s been lacking in that relationship that I think is going to come from smart grid is giving customers something closer to real-time information, and then ultimately control where somebody can say, “OK, now I see what my energy usage looks like on a more regular basis. If I have the ability to set or modify how my appliances or energy-using devices work, when they work, how much they use, what they’re set at, and if I can optimize that through the Web or the phone or something else.” Our belief is that people will do that, and that’s when you’ll really see energy use have the potential to come down. The energy transaction will be more transparent. So I do think that the technology platform—which everybody’s calling the smart grid—is the big enabler. And if it’s done right, and we plan to do it right, I think it can be a game changer.

At SN&R, we just went through the process of converting an old supermarket into a green building. It was great having an information source like SMUD that we could trust, because we weren’t just talking to a vendor.

And that is a unique position that SMUD is in, because we are owned by the community. Our interests are absolutely aligned with the community owners and, because we’re not for profit, our whole purpose for our being here is to be good stewards of an asset that the community has asked us to take care of on their behalf. So that’s a really nice place to be.

Let’s talk about the goal of moving Sacramento toward becoming a center for green technology. What is SMUD’s role in this endeavor?

What superpower would John DiStasio chose to further his sustainability goals? “Mine would be the ability to see the future and the path to get there.”

Photo By Don Button

These are issues we’ve been thinking about and working on for 25 years—we’ve done fuel cells, we’ve done solar, we’ve done some combined heat and power, we’ve done geothermal, we’ve done wind, through both our [research and development] and in practice. So we’re a very good resource for the community. …

I would argue to have a diverse economy, you have to have diverse systems that are there, so if you just pick one technology, like solar, and say this is what our community is going to brand itself with, I think that would be a huge mistake. I think it would be better to have a lot of vibrant types of energy-sector ideas, the convergence of transportation, electrification and energy electricity and the convergence of gas and water, and looking at all those in combination. But I think it has to start with adopting a goal. One of the things that helped to align us at SMUD two years ago when I became general manager was that we, in conjunction with the board, adopted the carbon-emission-reduction goals in [Assembly Bill 32] for our own organization.

We’re just starting to coalesce around the idea that we’ve got to come up with a couple of good goals for the region. [U.S. Rep. Doris] Matsui has said it, the mayor has said it. And to me, the goals will provide the alignment of thinking. The Sacramento community already has a pretty good seed of green tech, clean-tech businesses, but one of the things we have to help do here—and we’re committed to doing this, not as SMUD but as a regional stakeholder—is to create a market here, because that’s what gets the economy to go. So that means an alignment of policy, an alignment of dollars, an alignment of activity around these end goals that help create the market here that will help take the 13,000 green jobs we have now and make that 50,000 or 100,000, to where you really have a credible cluster, a large piece of your economy is coming from it.

The mayor is having city staff read the Van Jones book The Green Collar Economy, and there’s a huge emphasis in there on social justice and building up green jobs and helping the least among us. Talk to me about where SMUD fits into this.

That’s probably not a place where SMUD fits in. To be honest with you, we’re more about energy policy than social policy, and I understand there’s a nexus, I understand our board is mindful, through our own policies, that we don’t want to do anything, through the conduct of our business, that creates disparities in the benefits that people will get from SMUD. …When I think about green jobs, there’s certainly going to be some green jobs that are going to be presented through the transformation away from fossil fuels. I think once you get the technologies of the smart grid in and you create this transparency, there will be innovations much like when the iPhone got invented—it became a platform for developers to enable all types of applications that Apple didn’t think of; it just created the environment for that to happen. I look at smart grid the same way. The smart grid is going to enable innovation, new products, new businesses, and those will be green jobs, but we don’t know what they are today.

SN&R has 350,000 readers a month who are going to be disproportionately environmentally sensitive and worried about global warming—what should they be doing to make a difference?

Well, first, people should become aware of their own contribution and energy habits. And I am not making an appeal to people that they need to sacrifice. But the starting point is understanding your usage patterns and what you are really contributing, what your own carbon footprint is. Then look at the things you do, the things you buy and the way you live and say, “Are there opportunities for me to reduce it?” Secondly, I think, do the easy stuff first. I mean CFL bulbs, LED [lights]—they are pretty inexpensive and big energy savers. And look at the basic things—if you do have air conditioning, changing your filters regularly. … And then I would also say that if people could just be aware in our region, in the summer, 4 to 7 p.m. is the problem, and so any energy use that can be moved outside of those hours, whether businesses start earlier and end earlier—that really just has a benefit that aggregates out and helps the whole community reduce its carbon footprint.

If you had a superpower, what would it be?

Mine would be the ability to see the future and the path to get there. I don’t know if that’s a superpower, but it would be very useful in this endeavor.

[page]Things that don’t go away

When asked what superpower he’d like on this project, Bill Walden said: “I want speed—I’m a business guy; time is money. And I want to see this thing happen quickly.”

Photo By Don Button

Bill Walden, president, Technikon
Greenwise team leader: Waste & Recycling

Tell me about your goals on the mayor’s leadership team.

Of all of the issues that the mayor has put together on this whole Greenwise initiative—the waste-to-energy is probably the most politically sensitive out of the whole bunch. You’re dealing in terms of large volumes of things that don’t go away.

So you’re focused on reducing the carbon footprint, increasing recycling, increasing landfill diversion, developing waste infrastructure, outreach to the public?

Right, I think we’ve got a couple of people … [on the committee asking] if we should focus so heavily on waste energy or if we should we focus more on simply not creating as much waste in the first place. What I want to create with this committee is a dialogue. We’ve got people on it from the waste community, like from [the Sacramento County Department of] Waste Management [and Recycling], and of course they don’t want to see waste reduced because it’s less revenue for them. But we do need to address the efficient processing of materials vs. not producing them in the first place.

So the big win is …

Don’t create it in the first place. We can reduce the waste. I’m a businessperson, I’m not an advocate for one or the other, but I think it makes business sense to look at not creating the waste and the volume and technically dealing with what’s left, so I agree that there should be a push to do that.

Should we have some sort of goal—like Sacramento being the place where the least waste is created, or where recycling is taken up to a much higher level?

What I think would distinguish Sacramento from every place in the country is to tie that with the technical development for the most efficient process technically to get rid of the rest of it, so that you now have a group that’s moving toward creating jobs related to things that you can’t rid of any other way, but reducing stuff going into the landfill in the first place. There’s a huge amount of this stuff.

Our readers can probably make the biggest difference on the waste-reduction side—everything from not using plastic bags to composting stuff more correctly to going to certain restaurants that are generating less waste. How can Greenwise play a role in helping to move us to that position?

I think this committee is really the one that is going to have to set up the structure and the expectations for the consumer awareness, the participation at the consumer level. There’s a lot of business people that think that is totally cracked, but I think … one of the things we have here is a mayor that’s committed, he’s charismatic, he can help put together something that does push that envelope, that pushes the technical envelope in both job creation and efficiency.

… Not just here, but all over the country, people are looking at the numbers at how much money they can make on turning waste into electricity. And we keep telling them waste has to be sorted better, it has to be less of certain kinds of things than it is today. … I think doing a better job of limiting what goes in, so you have a more consistent stream going into the energy-production sector, will both reduce the amount of total waste and optimize the technologies that are there, so you won’t have to have this complex air scrubbing and processing in order to make energy. And you’re certainly not going to throw it into an incinerator, which is what they did before so they could throw everything in it. If through the mayor’s initiative we can both reduce the amount of waste and end up with a more homogenous mixture of what’s left over at the end, that would be big for Sacramento.

What you’re saying is really key. It needs to be so directed.

The thing we deal with here is innovative systems. And the thing that most of the technologists miss is that their system, their technology is no better than the weakest link in the complete string of technologies that have to be put together. What they forget is that the waste piece is probably the most critical part of an integrated system. …What we’re going to do is come up with a blueprint for the most optimum system which starts with the consumer and ends up with something: electricity or additional products which are cheaper to make than electricity.

If you had a personal superpower, what would that be to help on this project?

Like a king? I would want to compress the timeline for what we’re doing.

You want “super speed”?

Yes, I want speed—I’m a business guy; time is money. And I want to see this thing happen quickly. We have to get a plan into place; we can’t study the heck out of it forever. We have to create examples that come off of a model while realizing that the model is going to be imperfect to start with. I’ve worked for the military too long, and I certainly believe in the “ready, fire, aim” principle, and we’re better off acting quickly, creating a model, getting it done quickly, and then we can perfect the model as we go.

Steven Currall chose a classic superpower to aid him in the effort to make the clean-technology push: “I have seen a lot of different models. … I think mine would be seeing, vision.”

Photo By Don Button

An ecosystem of activity

Steven Currall, dean, Graduate School of Management, UC Davis
Greenwise team leader: Green & Clean Technology

If things work out and the Sacramento region becomes one of the leading clean-technology centers in the country, how would you visualize that?

We would have a mature ecosystem of activity—vibrant technology startups, clean-technology startups. We’d have lots of companies being spun out of UC Davis and other colleges in the region. We’d have the university playing its role by developing technology, you’d have the UC Davis Graduate School of Management producing business graduates with significant business skills and knowledge of various clean technologies, wind, solar, so on. We’d have an eager, more vibrant venture-funding community, so [venture capitalists] would look at their region as sort of a fishing pond, if you will, for new investment opportunities. And we’d have this ecosystem where all of those elements—all working in a kind of uncoordinated or bottom-up way—mutually reinforce each other without anyone really controlling it. It’s not a top-down thing like government. Government can create good conditions where things can grow, but it is sort of a gardener. It can plant the seeds, but it can’t be the plants themselves.

How would you evaluate Sacramento’s regional ecosystem as compared to others?

I think we’ve got a lot of momentum here. I don’t think there are any dominant clean-technology hubs yet in the United States. So I think we’re in the race, and as competitive as really any other region in the country.

What are the strongest factors we have going for us?

One is UC Davis’ big footprint for sustainability and on environmental issues—you can’t have the ecosystem without a great research university—it doesn’t happen. So that’s a strength. We have a very savvy public-policy community in Sacramento, obviously because of the state government, and there is, as you well know, a lot of regulatory issues that will affect which of these technologies get to market, and that’s more the case for clean tech than it was for information technology. We’re having some success with relocations, companies from outside of California or outside the United States wanting to have a presence in Sacramento, so I’ve been hearing about those developments; it’s been very encouraging. And we’ve been creating a sizable number of jobs: I’ve seen some figures that show the percentage of job growth in clean tech has been very strong in Sacramento, relative to other parts in the state of California. So these are all encouraging.

So what, then, are our weakest links?

One of the big challenges is the funding community. The world’s greatest concentration of innovation funding is in Silicon Valley, the San Francisco Bay Area. The question is, can we get them to make investments here? We want jobs here. We’re happy for the folks in the Bay Area to come up and fund these companies, but we really would like the jobs to stay here. So one of the big questions is, can we get more traction with the various sources of funding for clean-tech venture capital, state, federal funding, things like that.

In terms of clean-technology research, how would you say we’re doing? Further advanced than the Bay Area? Behind the Bay Area?

I claim that UC Davis has a larger research footprint in clean tech than UC Berkeley or Stanford. We once went head to head in competition with those schools to get state funding for the energy-efficiency center, and we won that competition. So that was a great victory for UC Davis. So we’ve got some substantial resources here, and we’re competitive with any university in the world in clean tech and sustainability.

The mayor expressed this kind of incredible goal—to have a blueprint of what to do in all these areas by January.

I am with him all the way. There are a lot of people working on it. A detailed operational plan? Maybe not. But I think January’s fine for a blueprint.

One of the things that John DiStasio from SMUD talked about was the need to make people aware that the solutions are connected.

Sure, that’s always true. One of the most developed ecosystems is Silicon Valley. And one of the hallmarks of Silicon Valley is the permeability of boundaries across organizations, and a lot of that is in terms of people. People tend to change jobs quite a bit—they jump from one firm to another. Some people have said that’s not a good thing, but I think it’s actually a good thing for the ecosystem, because you get people jumping those boundaries and they’re taking their knowledge and moving it around, and that’s a good thing in general. So the more we have that kind of permeability, I think the better and more functioning our ecosystem will be.

So, if we gave you a superpower in putting you in charge of the clean-technology push, what would that power be?

Well, I think mine would be seeing, vision. Because I’ve lived in London, Houston, Philadelphia, New York, Chicago, and I have seen lots of different models and seen the national and international picture, so I think that’s probably my greatest asset—seeing a variety of other models nationally and globally and using that to inform what I do. I’m very committed to the region and delighted to be living and working here, but I’m new here, and my hope is that I bring something fresh, something new in my perspective.


Alicia Guerra’s superpower? “Balance. I think we’re at a crossroads for the Sacramento region and for California. To become sustainable, we need to think how nature, water, land are all integrated. … So I see balance.”

Photo By Don Button

A regional approach on water

Alicia Guerra, land-use attorney, Briscoe, Ivester & Bazel
Greenwise team leader: Water & Nature

We’ve got a national reputation with water that isn’t very good. It has to do with how much water we use on a per capita basis [two to three times more than other California cities] and the quality of water we’re putting back into the Delta. What’s your view on the current situation?

In terms of where the Sacramento region is with its own water use, there are three aspects of it we’re going to explore in our “core team.” One is related to water usage and conservation from a quality supply-and-demand perspective. Second, from a water-quality perspective, is related to storm quality and wastewater treatment quality issues. Then the third aspect is flood control. On the flood control stage, I think the Sacramento region is actually setting the stage for many innovative concepts in terms of set-back levees and providing for eco-restoration in conjunction with flood protection. But you still have that perspective out there that the city of Sacramento, the county of Sacramento, allows development in flood plains. So that is an issue that we’re going to start looking at in terms of the information that’s out there and what’s being done.

… With respect to water quality, I think there are great programs that are out there. It’s about education and informing residents and businesses and about adopting river-friendly landscaping guidelines as kind of a model. That’s something that our core team is going to be exploring: different ways to integrate that into the public-sector planning projects as well as the private sector and residential areas. To better integrate low-impact development strategies for trying to maintain and improve water quality. Part of it is seeing what can we do better than what the regulations already require at a local, state and federal level.

On the water-supply side of things … the Sacramento River and American River are right here in this jurisdiction allowing for availability of water, unlike in the Bay Area and Southern California, where water has to be transported. Maybe this is why the Sacramento region gets a bad rap. In the Bay Area, people are sensitive to having to do water conservation on pretty much a regular basis. I mean, that is something you just do. I think part of this … is instilling conservation in our vocabulary as just a matter of course. You know, just turn off the faucets.

Maybe you can explain the Byzantine situation we have where there are so many water districts in our region, all of which basically share the same water resources and financial decisions. They don’t seem capable of having a coordinated response on water issues.

I think you really do need more of a regional approach to it. One of the things I’m hoping our core team will be able to do is figure out: OK, what’s the next step to making this a regional solution? … How do we create a joint-powers authority structured to deal with all of these multiple water districts in a way that enables each of the jurisdictions to still be represented by that regional water authority? And I just don’t know. I haven’t had the conversation yet with my core team members that are involved in those efforts to figure out what the next step is.

I get the sense that one of the fundamental problems is that the water districts have legal rights to significantly more water than we actually have. So you’ve got this Alice in Wonderland full-employment act for attorneys because, if there are more rights than there is water, it’s going to create this natural kind of conflict.

Yeah, that’s the problem with the water litigation that’s out there now. You have to use it or lose it. That does not encourage water conservation. It encourages the reverse of it, and I represent people out there who are like, “Wow, I guess I just need to water my parking lot, because I can’t lose this water.” Otherwise, then you either have litigation from somebody who wants your water or litigation from people who don’t want you to have your water. So it is an issue. And somehow we have to make it so water conservation is part of what that water right is.

If we gave you any superpower, what would you choose? Tremendous vision? To lift mountains with a single finger? I mean, what would you like?

Balance. I think we’re at a crossroads for the Sacramento region and for California. To become sustainable, we need to think how nature, water, land are all integrated. And then we need to learn how to use the resources we have in a better way that furthers those resources, that provides for the recovery of those resources. So, ultimately, I would like to see an initiative that’s balanced and recognizes the needs of the population, the community, the need for jobs. [An initiative] recognizing that if we preserve water, if we conserve water, we also preserve habitat and natural resources. So I see balance. I would like to have balance in this. So is it moving mountains? I hope not.

Mike McKeever’s superpower would enable him to engage the citizenry: “You’re always trying to figure out how to do something that lasts, that will build on itself. And the citizen engagement and knowledge is the way you do that.”

Photo By Don Button

First we form the buildings

Mike McKeever, executive director, Sacramento Area Council of Governments
Greenwise team leader: Urban Design & Green Building

Let’s start by discussing the mayor’s Greenwise initiative and the role of your committee. Why are green buildings so important to a sustainable future?

Well, we don’t have much in the way of tangible progress to report yet. My take is that the mayor believes really strongly in this initiative. I think he has a very strong sense that there is an opportunity for added value if we pull together all the pieces, agree on one agenda and get under one tent.

As for green buildings, it is core; that’s my belief. As you look at where the world is going in terms of the availability of energy, the cost of energy, the side effects of conventional fossil-fuel use, it’s just unimaginable to me that there are going to be any settlement patterns anywhere in the world in the future that are going to be successful, that are not sustainable, green, whatever moniker you want to hang on that. The notion that anyone is going to be able to live as inefficiently as we’ve lived during our lifetimes is a nonstarter. It’s really a question of how much pain we’re going to go through to get there, and can we only minimize that pain by being aggressive and proactive about it. By doing this, we may actually make life better than it is now.

I think Winston Churchill once said something like, “First we form the buildings and then they form us.”

I think the reason I am hopeful that the transition will be fast rather than slow has more to do with the benefits to people’s daily lives rather than scientific or policy wonkish stuff, like we can reduce global warming by X percent or congestion by Y percent. When people see benefits to their daily lives, it doesn’t really matter whether they’re a conservative or a liberal, or an old person or a young person. Virtually everybody likes the idea of having a lot of different housing choices, the choice to get out of their car for some of their trips, the notion that they might be able to walk to a corner store or the farmers’ market down the road or the school concert down the road. … People just respond to that on an emotional level; that’s just a better way of living and they feel that way whether they live in Oak Park or downtown Sacramento or all points in between. That’s where I think the emotional connection to “green” is.

Policy people like me, and other public-serving bureaucrats, have a responsibility to be as aggressive as we can about helping make that transition quickly rather than slowly. And I think the mayor’s Greenwise initiative is in that vein. He senses a need, he senses an opportunity, and I think he’s tried to lead and push.

We recently took an old supermarket and converted it over to a green building. What stunned me about the process was, first, how much SMUD knew, and secondly, how little the development community knew. The lack of a local ecosystem encouraging this—it shocked me, frankly.

We are on the same wavelength. You have to have the vision right, and I think even though in this region and city we may not have formally adopted a green vision as broadly encompassing as the five teams that are part of Greenwise [will recommend], I think that what we’re going to find through this effort is that there’s a lot of fairly easy consensus at that visionary level about which direction we ought to be going in. I think we will find a lot of the existing efforts are already underway at that visionary level. My guess is where the action is needed—and what I think you’re talking about—is at the implementation level. How are we going to involve the majority of the builders, designers, engineers … and build the support systems? How are we doing with the codes? That’s the kind of stuff citizens just find boring—they expect their public agencies to be doing it.

I was told that the easy stuff—like replace your washing machine, getting a better refrigerator—has already been done. The next level of innovation has to come in whole-building design.

And I would say even whole neighborhood design, because some of this really requires neighborhood-scale planning, the right collection of buildings.

Where are the green jobs going to be in our region? And who will get these jobs?

I think instead of thinking about this as green-collar jobs or green energy or whatever, I think this just has to become more holistic than that. It has to be just the way we are going to be in the future, in all ways. It can’t be a segment or a sector, like there’s green-collar jobs and there’s blue-collar jobs. You see what I mean? It has to be it’s an overall commitment that this is how we build our buildings in our neighborhoods. We don’t waste anything. That’s where I think we have to get, and that’s where the people and the neighborhoods, the cities and the regions will succeed in the future, the ones that figure out how to embrace that and figure out how to just make that the way they are. We’re a long ways from that.

One of the things I’ve asked everyone is if they had a superpower, what would it be?

My personal superpower? You’re always trying figure out how to do something that lasts, that will build on itself, and the citizen engagement and knowledge is the way you do that. I’m a big believer in this. So that’s kind of a boring answer, but that’s my answer. The more citizens are involved and the more they understand about how all of these things interconnect, the different disciplines and the long-range impacts vs. the short range, the better. An educated citizenry is a powerful force.