Chronogram Interview — full text

All twelve “Future Forward” interviewees

In November 2020, Dalvin Aboagye from The River Newsroom reached out to me to ask for an interview for a piece he was working on.

“ It’s called ‘Future Forward,’ and it will highlight 12 leaders talking about what they envision in the next 10–15 years in their area of expertise here in the Hudson Valley — and how we get there. We’re going to have an amazing illustrator illustrate the 12 featurees and their vision, and we’re planning to publish it in the January print issue of Chronogram.”

The piece did indeed come out on January 1st, which has been immensely exciting and quite an honor. It can be read in full at the Chronogram website. With a dozen interviews to consolidate, it’s no surprise that only a couple of ideas from my conversation with Dalvin made it into the article. For those who are interested in going into greater detail on climate justice, broadening access to renewable energy, and my personal and professional background, I’m sharing my full responses to his questions here.

  1. How did you initially get involved in climate justice and environmentalism as a whole? You mentioned that you’ve lived in the Hudson Valley since 2018. Where were you before that and were you doing the same kind of work there that you are here?

When I was very little, my family lived on the Canadian border in northern Maine. I learned to cross-country ski as a five-year-old to get to kindergarten when it was too cold to for cars to start in the morning. I grew up in the White Mountains on the Maine-New Hampshire border, and went to Oberlin College in Ohio. I’ve done water remediation in the abandoned coal minelands of Appalachian Pennsylvania, water monitoring and Leave-No-Trace education in the Maine outdoors, “cool roofs” white roof coating in New York City, solar installing and climate organizing in New Hampshire, and renewable energy outreach and education here in Ulster County.

My family is racially mixed, and there were no other Black children in my northern Maine elementary school. I’ve spent most of my life learning and working in male- and white-dominated environments, as a racial and gender minority. I’ve faced setbacks from subtle discrimination to hostility to outright violence on the job as a visibly gender-nonconforming person, running the gamut from slurs and sexual comments to being passed over for promotions. I’ve learned to talk to all kinds of audiences, friendly and hostile, and I’ve learned to pick my battles. Having been on the receiving end of a lot of nonsense about who and what I am in my life, all I can say is: we don’t have time for this. I’m not working in climate because it’s my great joy in life; I do it because it is urgent and existential. Every time somebody gets caught up in debating my humanity, it means they aren’t hearing the message I’m trying to share with them, and that’s a waste of precious time.

Climate justice is about centering voices of people who aren’t investors and shareholders, who face the greatest risks by the threat of climate change and environmental degradation, for whom the prospect of erratic weather and rising seas is not a question of profits and losses but of life and death. Climate justice also means building equity into our movement, because it shouldn’t be necessary to leave your personhood behind for the sake of the work. I’ve done that math a lot in my life, and I’m less inclined to keep doing it as I approach my 40s. It’s been really refreshing and heartening to see a much younger generation of activists, in the Sunrise movement and beyond, insisting on a broad and inclusive coalition across racial and gender spectrums. Conservationism and environmentalism have long had issues with institutional white supremacy, and it’s well past time to pass the torch. There’s room for all kinds of people in the climate justice movement, and it needs us all working together to make the kind of swift and decisive change that’s needed.

2. How do you go about promoting renewable energy use in the HV and especially Kingston? How has the renewable energy scene out here changed these last few years?

Up until the pandemic hit, my most reliable way of getting folks interested in renewable energy was to meet up and talk with them about it! I like tabling at events, as well as organizing and hosting info sessions, talks, and film screenings. I much prefer small community events over large expos — you get fewer interactions, but they’re generally a lot more meaningful, in my experience. I am interested in complex problem-solving, so I love when someone approaches me with their version of, “I would really like to go solar, but….” There are affordable and accessible paths to renewable energy for very nearly everybody, if you know the right person to ask. Sometimes that person is me!

Since COVID, it’s been harder to reach folks who aren’t already “converted,” so to speak. I’m working on projects with the City of Kingston and Ulster County Climate Smart groups, Cornell Cooperative Extension, the New Paltz Climate Action Coalition, and Citizens for Local Power — these are all fantastic groups doing important and exciting work, but they can lack the more publicly interactive aspect of pre-pandemic organizing. These days I’m excited about work being done by groups like Nobody Leaves Mid-Hudson and the Kingston Land Trust — they are made up of folks devoted to causes I care about, and there’s a lot of room for cross-pollination under the climate justice umbrella. Immigration is a climate issue: crop failure, drought, and extreme weather are drivers of conflict and poverty, which directly push people to seek safe harbor elsewhere. KLT’s focus on access to greenspaces and to energy-efficient housing are economic justice solutions, but they are climate justice solutions as well.

The biggest changes I’ve seen in the years I’ve been working in the Hudson Valley are the huge expansion of access to renewable energy offered by community solar, and the passage of the Climate Leadership and Community Protection Act (also called the CLCPA or Climate Act). New York State has some of the most aggressive and practical climate policy in the nation — it’s really between us and California, and right now I’d say we’ve got that top spot. It makes it really exciting to be working on climate in this place and time, because what works here will likely be adopted in other states. We’re basically the tip of the spear.

3. Which is more important in your opinion: commercial solar projects (working with businesses and municipalities) or getting everyday folk onto solar (solar on homes and apartments and such)? In terms of pushing a place like Kingston and the greater HV closer to all renewable energy in a decade, what mix of solutions seem more plausible? I’m aware of different projects like the Cypress Creek project. Are they and other community panel solutions being sought after?

It is going to take all kinds of renewable energy adoption to meet state as well as international targets. Distributed generation is what you call an energy grid where the power sources are spread out, as at individual homes and businesses, rather than all generated at a central power plant, and there’s a lot of value in building distributed generation into the grid if we’re looking at a future of stronger, more powerful storms and less-predictable power outages. You do get a lot of bang for your buck with large-scale solar arrays, the kind that can cover multiple acres and generate whole towns’ worth of power. Both are necessary to transition us off fossil fuel usage, especially if folks shift away from gas cars and oil furnaces and towards electric transportation and heating. There are a lot of moving parts, but there are determined people working to keep them all moving.

I thing the solar option with the most revolutionary potential right now is community solar. Somebody builds a large centralized array of solar panels, in a field or on a big roof somewhere, and then individuals link their electric bill to a certain number of those solar panels. Whatever power the panels makes gets credited to their electric bill, and goes onto the grid on their behalf. It’s a way of having 100% local, renewable energy without installing anything on your house, so it’s great for renters or folks in forested areas, and it is usually about 10% cheaper than the default “dirty mix” of gas, nuclear, and hydro electricity from Central Hudson. As of now the biggest challenge for accessing it is that it sometimes requires a credit check, but other states have already removed that burden, and I’m confident that New York will follow suit. Community solar is just such a powerful tool for making sure every single building can be powered by renewable energy. It eliminates the burdens of homeownership and financial resources that have for so long classed people out of the renewable energy market. If renewable energy technology isn’t accessible to the poor, it’s not a just solution, so community solar really fills a necessary climate justice niche.

4. What do you envision for your field and work in the next 10 to 15 years here in the Hudson Valley? What are some goals you’d like to hit or trends you see forming? What are the steps that have to be taken to reach those goals?

I’ll confess that though I’m a dedicated solar evangelist, I’m not a policy wonk. Goals like “X gigawatts by Y year” — those sorts of things don’t stay in my head. But I do have a strong idea of some of the steps we’re going to need if we want to hit the incredibly ambitious goals of the CLCPA. First off, a lot of these heated NIMBY (“not in my backyard!”) attitudes are going to need to cool down. You’ll hear the same environmentalists advocating for broader adoption of solar energy being the first to stand up at a town meeting to oppose putting those solar panels anyplace they might need to look at them. The honest truth is that most people don’t get to decide whether they live beside energy infrastructure. If you live by a gas-fired power plant, your family is at elevated risk of asthma, heart attack, and premature death. If you live by a field of solar panels, your biggest risk is they might be shiny to look at first thing in the morning. Yet by and large it is the complaints of wealthy landowners who oppose the “eyesore” of rural solar energy that are heeded, while calls to shut down polluting energy such as the Danskammer or Cricket Valley gas plants are generally disregarded and ignored, to the detriment of the health of the low-income residents around them. This is a fundamental injustice as well as just being incredibly short-sighted and impractical. In general the solar companies in this region are acting in good faith when they build large arrays — if you’re considering getting your hackles up about the work they’re doing, might I suggest taking up knitting instead? We take for granted that we see telephone and power lines along our roadways — energy infrastructure is all around us and, once the novelty wears off, it is largely perceived as invisible. Scenic Hudson has a great resource on respectful siting of large-scale solar arrays — it’s critical to find places to put them that aren’t active farmland or forested areas, but beyond those restrictions, I find it hard to take very seriously the complaints of wealthy landowners up in arms about living near a solar array.

I’d like to see widespread adoption of solar arrays on the roofs of warehouses and commercial plazas — places with huge, flat surfaces that are rarely seen but easily accessible to the electric grid. I’m a huge fan of solar parking canopies, which shield you and your parked vehicle from the elements while also generating clean energy on already degraded land and reducing the urban heat island effect (where pavement absorbs heat all day in the sun and then releases it overnight, warming up the surrounding area). The Hudson Valley isn’t a great spot for siting large-scale wind projects, but I’m excited for the offshore wind power coming soon to the waters around New York City. I’m heartened by the assertiveness of racial justice organizing in Ulster County, centralized in Kingston but also throughout the surrounding area — advocating on behalf of Black folks and other people of color is necessary, powerful, foundational work, and all other justice-based campaigns are predicated on its success. Trying to talk about renewable energy and environmentalism in a vacuum is how we ended up with the white supremacist ethos of the mainstream environmental movement. The climate justice movement is definitionally centered around the lives and stories of people — vulnerable, yet still powerful, people — and only by striving for justice across people’s lives will we succeed.

Climate educator. Solar energy professional. Environmental fieldwork veteran. Mixed race and transgender.