Urban Innovator

Through her work in the buildings sector, Wendy Lee helps propel cities into a fairer and more energy-efficient future.

Wendy Lee, American Cities Climate Challenge policy advisor, NRDC

Credit: Courtesy of Wendy Lee

Wendy Lee is a former energy efficiency engineer and now a policy advisor working with the Bloomberg Philanthropies American Cities Climate Challenge (the Climate Challenge). A partnership between Bloomberg Philanthropies, NRDC, and other world-class experts from key organizations, the Climate Challenge aims to enhance the sustainability work already underway in 25 participating cities across the United States and to support mayors in their fight against climate change by empowering them to implement near-term climate goals. Lee focuses on energy efficiency and building decarbonization, working with local governments to implement initiatives especially on the citys’ own buildings. She brings prior experience as both a city advisor and manager from the City Energy Project, a joint initiative between NRDC and the Institute for Market Transformation. She is based in Richland, Washington.

Each city you work with has unique challenges and goals as they work to cut their municipal buildings’ carbon emissions. What are some of the strategies you can implement across the board?

As part of the Climate Challenge, we try to find strategies that don't require continual massive investments year to year and that manage energy in a cost-effective way for long-term gain. There are a number of ways that we tackle this. We work with cities to help them set up an energy management plan. And sometimes that looks like a sustainability policy. Then we help them find funding and a way to do energy audits to prioritize which buildings to spend money on and to do upgrades within their facilities—both on the capital end, with equipment, and also on software controls (primarily for heating and cooling systems), which is called recommissioning.

Who are your allies in this work?

We work with a lot of different departments, even those that historically didn't participate in energy efficiency. We’re trying to find people who can be energy champions. The best-case scenario is for a city to hire a dedicated full-time energy manager. Some of our cities are already doing that. One of the city’s energy managers in Charlotte, North Carolina, for example, has been recognized for generating significant public savings through efficiency initiatives at the Mint Museum, which is owned and operated by the city. And St. Petersburg, Florida, has a dedicated climate advisor, supported through the Climate Challenge, whose efforts helped encourage the city council to commit to a dedicated pool of money for energy efficiency projects.

We’re also looking for ways to engage folks who use city-owned buildings to learn about energy and to contribute their voices to how they want the building to be used. There is an opportunity to engage more of the community in how they want to use spaces like libraries and recreation centers—spaces which interface with the public. We need to build these relationships, especially for municipal facilities located in low-income areas and in communities of color, and we need to get innovative.

In cities across the nation, we are bearing witness to deeply entrenched racist policies that have affected every sector of public life. How do you work to help local governments evolve and make more equitable decisions in their building sectors?

Shifting our thinking to focus more on people in communities will help create equity. So I'm trying to talk to cities to see if there's a more thoughtful way to go about energy efficiency beyond "Where can we get the most cost benefit?” or “Which departments have the most money to work on energy efficiency?" We need to also pay attention to how integral a building is in people's lives. If we can start collecting more usage data and prioritizing our decisions based on community demand, that would help.

On the business side, cities have procurement processes that favor companies able to work at large scale, where they are upgrading an entire building portfolio rather than going in piecemeal, fixing one thing here, one thing there. Those energy-service performance contracts don't give small businesses a chance to come in and get paid for doing energy efficiency. But some cities, like St. Paul, Minnesota, and Austin, Texas, are starting to write different procurement lines and provide more support for the mom-and-pops and businesses owned by people of color, to lead them through the RFP [request for proposal] process that leads to successful contracts. We need to ensure that the bidding process is fair too.

In 2019, you wrote eloquently for LGBTQ+ World Pride Month about “shifting identity and belonging—values that cannot be measured.” How does your personal journey inform some of the choices you make as a policy advisor for helping cities move forward to embrace energy efficiency and equity?

With regard to the journey I took to embrace my sexuality and tell my friends and family that I am a lesbian—it was gut-wrenching and challenging, but it was worth it. With regard to my work life—I do think about the journey I went on, and some of the challenges with identity decisions are similar to what communities face, especially with clashes between the old and the new.

I really understand the resistance to change because I dealt with it internally—the desire for the comfort of something staying the same. I see that a lot with the way our cities are run. There are people who say, "Well, this is the way it's always worked." You can tell there's this fear of changing it up.

If you have a directive from the mayor that says, "We are now going to be 100 percent renewable or carbon-free by 2030" and "Hey, facilities department. You're in charge of figuring out how to do that," we can come in and say, "I'm here to help you do your job hitting these climate goals, which means using less energy and getting renewables online. Here's how we're going to do it together." We can empower them to create a better world.

As a female engineer within a traditionally male-dominated field, have you felt supported in your work and expertise?

As an engineer, I visited a lot of really rural areas in Utah to look at manufacturing plants and equipment. It was always these older white men running the same equipment for many decades—and they were always welcoming. I was someone young, someone new, and female. I know it's not necessarily everyone's experience being a minority in a predominantly male field, but I had a lot of fun doing it.

An official from Charlotte told me that she wanted me to meet some of their facility managers so they can see, essentially, that this is the new generation of engineers and energy folks. That was cool. I think most people are embracing the new wave of engineers and climate fighters.

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