Positioning the Pacific Northwest to Lead in Sustainability
by Nikki McCoy
In the future our freezers may have the capability to skip a cycle, not enough to affect food, but enough collectively to save significant amounts of energy. Railways may be able to transport millions of people using 100 percent wind power, and electric cars may be the only type of vehicle on the road, with minutes-long charging stations replacing gas pumps.
Rhys Roth ’87, MES ’90 believes in these changes and believes the Northwest can help lead the way, making substantial impact on infrastructure crisis—and ultimately, on climate change.
The region can achieve these ambitious goals, Roth said, through infrastructure and investment strategies.
”Quality infrastructure is essential to the economic vitality and quality of life of our communities, but our energy, water, transportation, and waste management systems are aging,” explained Roth, who founded the Center for Sustainable Infrastructure (CSI) on Evergreen’s Olympia campus in 2013. “Billions of dollars will be required to refurbish and modernize our infrastructure, but replicating ‘business as usual’ infrastructure strategies will lock in unnecessarily wasteful, expensive, polluting, and vulnerable systems for decades to come.“
Integrating the Slices of the Sustainability Pie
The question Roth wants everyone to ponder: How do we get much smarter about investing this money?
Roth has his answers mapped out in his latest publications, Infrastructure Crisis, Sustainable Solutions: Rethinking our Investment Strategies (2014) and Rewiring the Northwest’s Energy Infrastructure (2016).
The new report is the first in the CSI’s “Five Big Goals for 2040” research series, which challenges thought leaders and innovative practitioners to achieve a transformative infrastructure vision in the Pacific Northwest by the year 2040.
“In the Northwest we have world-class planning and investment strategies around the electricity system, so when we think about energy and moving toward sustainable energy, a lot of the focus is on electricity,” Roth explained. “This report really broadens that—it says electricity is one piece, transportation is another major piece, and the heating and cooling piece is an unheralded, invisible, 40-plus percent of the energy pie. So when we talk about sustainable energy, low-carbon energy, and addressing climate change, we’ve got to take that in. This first Big Goal really looks at an integrated picture of all those parts.”
Roth interviewed dozens of innovators in the region, analyzed current systems, and tracked the latest trends and technologies to compile his reports. Although there is always a learning curve for new technologies and advancements, Roth proposes a plan that essentially bridges the current method of energy silos and creates a more integrated, sophisticated, sustained, and smart system.
“The bottom line,” said Roth, “and I’ve really dug into this—is it’s pretty clear that in the Northwest we can build an extraordinary, sustainable, resilient system. It’s technically feasible—even though it’s going to be a more complex system, it’s technically manageable. And it won’t cost any more than the status quo path we’re on.”
But change is hard, he added.
Some of the complexities involve the methods by which energy is transferred. Already a decade deep in research, development, and deployment are smart grids. According to the Department of Energy, a smart grid “generally refers to a class of technology people are using to bring utility electricity-delivery systems into the 21st century, using computer-based remote control and automation.”
Each device on a smart grid network can be given sensors to gather data, plus two-way digital communication between the device in the field and the utility’s network operations center. For instance, solar-powered trash compactors that text when they’re full, reducing cost for unnecessary pickup.
Roth believes as new technologies for these systems emerge, decision makers need a moment to step back and evaluate.
“The point of the Five Big Goals is to get a picture of how these systems are going to work 25 years out. So then we can screen our investments this year, and next year and next year. These are long-lived investments—they are decadal, so it’s really important to think about it,” he asserted.
Implementing Change Close to Home
In Olympia, leaders are taking steps toward infrastructure change. The city’s Public Works Department is institutionalizing the Envision™ sustainable infrastructure rating system and recently trained 60 staff members—engineers, operations supervisors, planners, and inspectors.
Now that the city has converted all of its street lights to LED, Olympia will save more than $230,000 a year, as well as saving on maintenance costs. The Public Works Department has also brought in six electric cars as part of its fleet, and is a regional pioneer of every-other-week garbage pick up, organics collection, and recycling pick up, as well as one-side-of-the-street collection, which dramatically reduces miles driven and fuel consumed by hauling trucks.
“Infrastructure decisions are so impactful on the shaping of communities,” says Rich Hoey, public works director for the City of Olympia. “Given such challenges as aging infrastructure, shrinking budgets, and a significantly changing climate, we have to start thinking differently about how we plan and construct the infrastructure of our communities. We simply can’t afford the way we’ve always done things.”
Hoey is also a member of the CSI counsel of advisors. “We must design more integrated and resilient systems that address more than one problem at a time, are more affordable, and help communities become more livable and adaptable,” he said. “The Center for Sustainable Infrastructure is a hub of innovation that will help guide our way. What better place than in the Pacific Northwest?”
“Rhys is a visionary with a track record of innovative, impactful partnerships,” he added. “He’s a positive, holistic thinker who is a natural leader for a hub of innovation. His energy is infectious.”
Creating a Shared Vision
At The Evergreen State College, the CSI acts as clearinghouse for best sustainable practices and as an advising center for agencies, utilities, and tribes managing infrastructure. In addition, the center gives graduate students from the college’s Master of Public Administration and Master of Environmental Studies (MES) programs opportunities to research, analyze, and design infrastructure project proposals.
As Roth works with students, perhaps he sometimes sees himself reflected back to the spring of ’83 when he first walked onto Red Square.
“I have these shining, golden, glimmering images of hanging out on Red Square in the sun that spring with all these amazingly interesting people,” he recalled. “My entire Evergreen experience was transformative and I really felt like I’d found a place that fed my soul, so I was very motivated and excited.”
Roth went on to graduate studies in the MES program and focused his master’s thesis on the greenhouse effect. “I was embracing the Evergreen interdisciplinary way, researching the highest level of science at a time when scientists from different fields were just beginning this sort of renaissance around collaboration. And I felt so moved by it that I thought, ‘I don’t care if I don’t make any money, I’ve just got to dedicate my life to this huge challenge.’”
He then began contract work for the Energy Outreach Center and on the side started a nonprofit to work on atmosphere issues—first called No Sweat, then Atmosphere Alliance. As that project evolved, it merged to create Climate Solutions, an organization that led growth and activity for more than 15 years and acted as a precursor for the CSI. “We did a lot of innovative, interesting things,” said Roth. “The most fun for me was around bridging the cultural and political divides. I brought together business people— agriculture, urban, and environmental people—and developed a shared vision around the idea that the Northwest can be a pioneer of the low-carbon economy so that we can prosper and bring economic development, and at the same time help solve this big climate crisis.”
With the next of the Five Big Goals on the horizon and the next phase of Roth’s life work now positioned on campus, Evergreen and the Northwest are ripe for revolutionary changes. “Change is hard, but Evergreen is willing,” said Roth. “It’s kind of in our DNA to challenge the status quo and say ‘just because we’ve done it this way for a long time doesn’t mean we have to keep doing it if it doesn’t make sense.’ And we can work through change and handle change; we develop those skills to help people through that process. That’s what you get here at Evergreen.”
For more information on Roth’s reports or CSI, visit the Center for Sustainable Infrastructure.