A conversation with the City of Boston’s Chief of Environment, Energy, and Open Space
Austin Blackmon is the City of Boston’s Chief of Environment, Energy, and Open Space, and oversees the Inspectional Services Department, the Environment Department, the Parks and Recreation Department, and the Office of Energy Policy and Programs. Blackmon served as the Interim Head of Project Finance for TerraVerde Renewable Partners, a clean energy consulting firm that advises schools, municipalities and companies on solar power, energy storage and alternative fuel projects. Previously, Blackmon worked for C12 Energy, which produces low-carbon energy through technical application of carbon dioxide sequestration. He has also consulted with U.S. Renewables Group, where he evaluated potential investments in waste recovery solutions by developing and presenting investment theses. Blackmon has also previously worked in Energy Investment Banking for Wells Fargo Securities, and advised organizational strategy with consulting firm Booz Allen Hamilton. Blackmon is a graduate of Harvard College and received his M.B.A. from Harvard Business School, where he led the Harvard Council of Student Sustainability Leaders.
Austin will facilitate a table conversation at EcoLogic’s 2015 fall benefit, “Turning the Tables: Nurturing Resilience” on October 1. At his table, he will be leading a discussion under the theme of “Greenovate Boston: Engaging all Bostonians in Meeting Climate and Sustainability Goals.” Get a sneak preview of what he will be talking about at dinner in this interview!
Tell us a bit about your professional background and your experience in regard to “Greenovating” Boston?
Prior to moving to Boston, I advised on a number of large-scale energy efficiency, solar projects, and sustainable focused investment opportunities. Most recently as the Interim Head of Project Finance at TerraVerde, the largest part of my job was to make sure the projects made financial sense for our clients, including municipalities and school districts. This experience brought me to Boston, eager to apply my knowledge to a City that was already leading on climate and sustainability actions.
Earlier this year, Mayor Walsh released the updated “Greenovate Climate Action Plan” — a strong, innovative plan that has nearly 100 climate action strategies to help reduce the City’s greenhouse gas emissions 25 percent by 2020 and 80 percent by 2050 and prepare for the unavoidable impacts of climate change. One of the first things I did when I started with the City was challenge my team to make a prioritized list of those strategies. I asked them to look beyond what’s financially viable and what’s going to have the most impact, but also at what’s going to lead by example. Leading by example is something Mayor Walsh and I feel is very important to show our residents and businesses that we as a city are taking the lead and they have a model to follow.
What led you to develop such a passion for engaging Boston in meeting sustainability
I first became interested in these issues when I was interning for then-Senator Barack Obama on Capitol Hill. Towards the close of my internship, the Senator gave all the interns advice in terms of what we were going to do moving forward with our lives. He said, “If you really want to feel successful in your life, take a path where you’re going to have the most amount of impact as quickly as possible. And if you want to make an impact on your nation and on the world, you should look at three areas — education, energy, and security.”
I really took that advice to heart. My focus on energy throughout my career, before as a consultant and now as a government executive, continues to drive my passion for engaging Boston in meeting our sustainability goals. Not only am I able to have an impact doing what I’m passionate about, but I’m able to give back to a community that I love and have lived in now for more than a decade.
What are some of your current projects that will help Greenovate Boston?
We’re working on a lot of really exciting projects to help “Greenovate” Boston but some highlights include our work with Renew Boston Trust, which allows the City to provide energy performance contracting. If we’re able to retrofit our municipal buildings stock, the energy savings that are realized by those retrofits will help finance those improvements.
Another exciting project is increasing the amount of distributed generation that the City is in control of so we’ve studied all 321 of our municipal buildings for solar potential and are starting to move forward on a more structural basis. Doing so will all us to determine which roofs will be best accustomed to having more solar capacity.
There’s also a city-wide energy study to identify locations where we can do district energy and micro-grids to leverage the efficiency gains that you can get from combining heat and power. We have a pilot project that we’re hoping to push forward in the next few months in the Marine Industrial Park as well.
These are just a few examples but there’s certainly quite a bit more we’ve already done and are continuing to do. The road ahead is going to be focused not just on the city but how we engage our community around this. That means building on our Greenovate Boston program, which recently relaunched a website to help inform and engage all Bostonians on climate actions that we can all take on a daily basis.
What do you think you can learn from discussing this topic at our October 1 event?
EcoLogic Development Fund’s work empowers rural and indigenous people to restore and protect tropical ecosystems in Central America and Mexico. The work they do to ensure that climate action means economic development, social equity, public safety, and community engagement is exactly on point with what we want to achieve in Boston. Coming to events like this one and discussing how you can make a difference is an exciting learning opportunity, and I’m very grateful that I get to facilitate a discussion. I’m really hoping attendees will open up on the subject of “Greenovate” and how they see it impacting their daily lives.
What is the number one thing you would like the people sitting at your table to walk away with at the end of the night?
Boston has been making solid progress through our Greenovate Boston Climate Action Plan. We’ve already seen reductions in greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions by 17 percent so we’re well on our way and on track for meeting our climate and sustainability goals. But the biggest challenge is talking about the environment in more universal language.
Most of the people reading this or attending the EcoLogic Fall Benefit on October 1 likely already take public transportation and recycle. We need to reach the people outside of our own circles to have the necessary impact. The Mayor and I have made it a priority to bolster our efforts in community engagement to make sure we’re reaching people who haven’t heard the Greenovate message or might not understand how they can save money on their energy bills or utility bills by taking sustainability actions.
In your opinion, how do you think EcoLogic can make a difference in the world?
EcoLogic is already making a difference advancing the fight against climate change in developing and often underrepresented communities. This is especially important now — three months out from the international negotiations on climate change in Paris — when the international community needs to come together on that front. Collaboration is key — we need to share best practices, discuss objectives, and work together if we want to be successful. I think most importantly however, the international community and Boston included, can learn a lot from how EcoLogic approaches the message of climate action with communities most at need of reaching.