Welcome back to The Planet You Save May Be Your Own, a weekly newsletter on local & state climate action.
If you’ve been read this newsletter for a while, you’ll notice how often I return to subjects that could be understood as “infrastructure”: the electrical grid, the heating system inside your house, the companies that make up the vast pipeline network for transporting fossil fuels around the country. Climate change — and the fossil fuels driving it — are embedded in almost every kind of infrastructure we have. It’s always infrastructure week around here.
In her new book, How Infrastructure Works: Inside the Systems That Shape Our World, Deb Chachra, a professor of engineering at Olin College and a fellow newsletter writer, argues that infrastructure is also the way we get out of this mess. For Chachra, the reality of being able to transition to renewable energy offers the opportunity for a huge shift in how we think about energy, infrastructure, and expand who it benefits.
How Infrastructure Works is not a technical report or a how-to. She means works in the sense of how and why we have developed networks of infrastructure — sometimes giant and planet-spanning and sometimes very local. There’s a ton of interesting ideas in the book, but I wanted to talk to her about how renewables can be part of an experiment in building energy infrastructure that plays to the unique strengths of our own communities.
“I feel like we get a lot of, the point of responding to climate change is to keep bad things from happening, and nowhere near enough of, the point of responding to climate change is to actually build a better world, and a new set of possibilities,” Chachra says. That attitude infuses the book. I’ve read a lot of documents about various energy innovations, but I’ve never read someone who could write so rapturously about pumped hydro storage.
Chachra’s interest in infrastructure was sparked by the “charismatic megastructures” — large, visible places of a wider infrastructural world — in her life: the nuclear generation plant in her hometown of Toronto or the Zakim Bridge in Boston. That interest has been sustained by investigating and thinking about the social and civil side of how and where infrastructure is built. One of themes of the book is that infrastructure systems at every scale represent our ability to care for one another.
This shows up in collective systems where everyone’s experience is actually improved by universal access, Chachra says.
“My access to having running water not only makes my life easier, it makes every life easier around me in the same way,” she says. “But it also makes my life better because it means the people around me are less likely to get sick.” And a larger level, she says, these systems can’t be built or continue to function without care in the physical world, she says. “That’s the part that’s a little bit less appreciated.”
Part of Chachra’s book is noticing — and making explicit — the many infrastructure systems that she uses every day, so I asked where readers of this newsletter should begin if they want to better understand their own local infrastructures.
Identifying where your water comes from is a good start, she said, although it’s highly dependent on where you are. In the northeast, a reservoir or water treatment plant is probably not very far away or easy to identify, while California, you could spend an “entire lifetime” understanding the wider water infrastructure.
Electricity is another key infrastructure system — you likely know who your utility is, but do you know where they source their power? And what kind of organization is it? Electricity co-ops (which tend be in rural areas) have a strong set of incentives to move away from fossil fuels, Chachra notes, because while there will be capital costs to build out new renewables, doing so removes the need to continuously pay for fossil fuels, and lowers the price of electricity. That’s not the same calculation for an investor-owner utility.
Understanding how a utility operates and how your community interacts with it can open up some new possibilities. Chachra lives in an apartment in Cambridge, MA, so putting solar panels on her buildings’ roof isn’t her decision. But the city of Cambridge offers a way for residents to negotiate with the utility company through a community program on their sources of electricity generation. Cambridge already knows who everyone pays their electricity bill to, she explains. “So you don't have to negotiate with Eversource to get into renewables. Just tell us and we will talk to them. And we will do it collectively.”
(Cambridge’s program is based on something called renewable energy credits, so while there’s no way to attribute the specific electrons that turn on lights in Chachra’s home to renewable energy, the generation costs are paying for a renewable energy source somewhere else — in this case at least within New England’s larger grid).
In her book, Chachra cites Mariame Kaba’s idea of the ability to act on multiple levels and scales: the short, medium and long term and at the individual, institutional and societal level. In her own life, despite not being able to do the “mid-range thing” of putting her she can take action on an individual level — a single induction burner to reduce her gas use — and on a societal level - taking part in Cambridge’s collective investment in renewables.
“I find that incredibly powerful, that you can act on different time scales and different size scales,” Chachra says. “But some of those boxes are harder to fill in than others, so pulling it up into ‘I can’t do this but I can do that’ — I feel really empowered.”
One of the themes of the book is that renewable energy’s strengths will be different based on the particular environmental and social elements of each community. So I asked Chachra about innovative projects specific to the places she’s familiar with.
She immediately mentioned HEET (I have lost count of how many times people have mentioned HEET to me during writing this newsletter, but for good reason), and their pilot of two neighborhood-level networked geothermal energy systems.
As Chachra points out, these are a collaboration between HEET, a nonprofit that originally formed to call attention to methane leaks from local pipelines in the Boston area, and the gas utility in the area (also Eversource).
Running geothermal powered (as opposed to electric) heat pumps for heating and cooling is challenging at the household level, Chachra says, but there's efficiencies at the neighborhood scale. At the same time, cities in Massachusetts pushing for decarbonization. That’s an existential threat for Eversource as the monopoly utility gas company. So they can make a choice, through these geothermal projects, Chachra says, to become a home heating company — “which people are going to need forever, “ and take advantage of their existing expertise in piping and municipal right of way.
“It’s a perfect example of this combination of what is locally available, but then working with the people who have local expertise. “ she says. “There’s a reason we want to do it as a society and a reason why they would want to do it as a corporation.”
She also introduced me to a project in Toronto, where buildings in the downtown core are cooled via cold water piped in from Lake Ontario. “It takes much less electricity to circulate cold water than it does to cool buildings using electricity,” she explains. The location of Toronto near the lake and the depth and coldness of Lake Ontario makes it a cooling solution for the city — but it’s not replicable for all coastal cities
“It’s a more intelligent use of the resources that are present where you are, instead of: we're just going to throw fossil fuel powered electricity at it.”
While cities and towns don’t exercise total control over their energy systems, they do have choices to make — so I asked Chachra how she thinks communities should consider the choices — and opportunities provided by the transition away from fossil fuels.
She mentioned an idea in her book that renewable energy offers more than just a way to switch out fossil fuels. In the book she writes:
We’re accustomed to thinking about making the transition away from fossil fuels to renewable sources as one that we are doing under duress, making a sacrifice to stave off disaster. But that’s not what we’re doing. What we’re doing is leveling up…. For all of human history, we’ve been living like energy is scarce and matter is infinite, when it fact the opposite is true; We need to learn to live like we have access to unlimited energy, but with the deep understanding that the atoms we have to work with are part of a closed system.
Communities can internalize this idea of the potential of energy abundance, Chachra says. When it comes to their own practical decision making, she has a set of guidelines for making decisions on energy infrastructure: First, choosing renewable over fossil fuels. Secondly, choosing public or consumer-owned options, over privately or investor-owned, to avoid the incentives of sticking with fossil fuels. Finally, she suggests smaller, decentralized sources of power that are relatively reversible.
“When choosing between these systems, there’s no one way into it,” she says. “Decentralization and reversibility instead of going hard on one thing actually has the advantage of getting to do several things and decide the appropriate thing for the community.”
“We’re in the early days of these systems, it doesn’t make sense to say we’re going to build out the giant centralized version of this yet because we’re still learning what works best,” she says. “So making things reversible, making things smaller scale, making things decentralized seems like the way we want to go, at least for a while.”
Thanks to Deb for her time and writing a really intriguing book. There’s a lot more of these ideas in there, especially on climate change and infrastructure in the latter half of the book.
I’ll leave you all with a book recommendation of her own, one she calls a “how-to” companion to her “why-to” book: Saul Griffith’s Electrify.
A gas-powered leaf blower is almost certainly the most pound-for-pound polluting thing you own and some cities are looking to ban them (Washington Post)
Election 2023: Texas passes ballot energy measure for low interest loans for new electricity generation… for basically only gas plants (Texas Tribune)
Election 2023: A ballot measure push to take over Maine’s utilities fails dramatically after proponents are outspent 40 to 1 and former backers oppose it(Maine Morning Star)
Election 2023: Supporters of Virginia’s climate policies breath a sigh of relief (E&E News)
As federal infrastructure funds start to flow, a new scorecard highlights which state transportation departments are making the planet a priority with the funds — and which ones aren’t. (Bloomberg)
We need more stupid walks for our stupid mental health: Americans are walking 36% less since Covid but cycling has soared (CityLab)
Michigan is about to have a bunch of new climate policies (Bridge Michigan)
To fight climate change and housing shortage, Austin becomes the largest U.S. city to drop parking-spot requirements (Texas Tribune)
Kauai became a clean energy leader. Its secret? A publicly owned grid (Canary Media)
How labor rights and infrastructure improvements may limit a silent killer: A new study questions whether the U.S. government is doing enough to protect Black people from extreme heat. (Capital B)