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Scaling-up Sustainability in NYC School Buildings

MS in Sustainability Management student Joe Chavez
MS in Sustainability Management student Joe Chavez

Joe Chavez is the deputy director of optimization and energy manager for the New York City Department of Education’s Division of School Facilities. In a little over a year, he has managed to double enrollment and participation in the department’s Demand Response program. He is also working to implement the largest real-time energy metering project in the city, which will allow the department to monitor real-time electricity demand at nearly 300 facilities. He was attracted to the focus on economics and policy courses applied to the science and practice of sustainability that the Master of Science in Sustainability Management program provides.

1. What are the responsibilities associated with your position?
I am responsible for managing several high profile energy-related projects and programs in over 1,300 buildings in all five boroughs, which include schools and offices. I manage the city’s largest Demand Response portfolio, with an aggregate of 15MW enrolled and close to 300 facilities participating to curtail peak electrical demand during forecasted events of grid stress. Recently I have been working with the Department of Citywide Administrative Services Division of Energy Management to install rooftop solar PV on over 100 school buildings to help achieve the city’s goal of 100MW of solar on city-owned buildings by 2025.

2. What drew you to the Master of Science in Sustainability Management program?
What attracted me to Columbia’s sustainability management program was the focus on economics and policy courses applied to the science and practice of sustainability. I looked at other sustainability programs that were deeply rooted in engineering or architecture, but knew that I wanted to learn how to communicate the value of sustainable infrastructure and technology not in emotional or technical/scientific language, but in practical economic language, dollars and cents, smart investments that are also smart for the health of the planet and our well-being. I felt like the program would help me better understand the growing financial market of sustainability and how government policy at various levels can influence its development, while at the same time providing me new tools for measuring the efficacy and feasibility of sustainable systems, along with better methods for analysis and decision-making.

3. What inspired you to work in sustainability?
Growing up on a farm in New Mexico, I always had a deep connection to the environment and awareness of how human activity could impact such a fragile ecosystem, yet to the eye, the desert was always more vast and the mountains taller than anything man-made. It wasn’t until I moved to New York City that I realized how disconnected people could be from the source of their environmental resources, like water, energy and food. While leading a sustainability themed summer camp in Brownsville, Brooklyn, one summer, I took a group of children to a community garden where the gardeners allowed them to pick and eat cherry tomatoes and various herbs. I was forever transformed by that moment of seeing these kids’ eyes light up in such visceral reaction to their very first taste of fresh picked sweet and juicy cherry tomatoes. From that moment I knew my direction. It was something I realized I had taken for granted as a child and that was totally unknown to others. It gave me a deeper appreciation for the natural environment and an impetus to preserve it and connect people to it.

4. What has been your biggest challenge associated with sustainability in your current position?
From my current position I’ve learned that governments may be quick to jump at sustainability and lead with stated policies and intentions, but the biggest challenge is implementation—especially when working with antiquated systems, procedures and mindsets. Yet change does not come easy, and I knew that coming in. But for me, it’s the challenge that makes it interesting and rewarding.

5. What has been your biggest accomplishment associated with sustainability in your current position?
I doubled enrollment and participation in the Department of Education’s Demand Response program since starting a little over a year ago and am working to implement the largest real-time energy metering project in the city, which will allow the department to monitor real-time electricity demand at nearly 300 facilities. Real-time metering with automated alerts will be powerful tool for getting facility managers to reduce energy during peak demand events and monitor energy consumption throughout the year.

6. What class has been your favorite and why?
I really enjoyed Luke Falk’s Analysis for Energy Efficiency because I’m a total Excel nerd and love crunching numbers for analysis and decision-making. The whole semester was like solving interesting puzzles…

7. How do you intend to utilize your degree in furthering your career?
Good question. I’ve been thinking about this a lot lately as graduation approaches. I’d like to continue working on large-scale projects with organizations that have a direct impact on several hundreds or thousands of facilities. There’s an inherent tension between diversity and an increased economy of scale. It’s hard to find a single solution that will work effectively in every building, so I’m forced to find multiple solutions, which always keeps the work interesting and challenging. I’m learning something new every day.

8. What tips do you have for your fellow students who are looking for a job in sustainability?
Don’t be afraid to start small … or anywhere. There’s so much work that needs to be done, so so much, that if you see something that needs the sustainable touch, dive right in and get to work. And when you finish, don’t worry, there will be more work.

9. What do you think is the most beneficial aspect of the program with regard to your career?
The program provided me a network of passionate and talented individuals who are all in this together and excited to learn from one another and see each other succeed. We are creating this new field of study and practice, and our connections to this program and each other transfer directly to our careers and how we work together to find solutions to this global social-political-ecological challenge.

The M.S. in Sustainability Management, co-sponsored by the Earth Institute and Columbia’s School of Professional Studies, trains students to tackle complex and pressing environmental and managerial challenges. The program requires the successful completion of 36 credit points. Those credit points are divided among five comprehensive content areas: integrative sustainability management, economics and quantitative analysis, the physical dimensions of sustainability, the public policy environment of sustainability management, and general and financial management. Visit our website to learn more.

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Recent record-breaking heat waves have affected communities across the world. The Extreme Heat Workshop will bring together researchers and practitioners to advance the state of knowledge, identify community needs, and develop a framework for evaluating risks with a focus on climate justice. Register by June 15

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