Faculty Friday: Benjamin Sovacool

Faculty Friday is a series highlighting members of the Initiative on Cities (IOC) Faculty Advisory Board, by exploring their work on campus and in the city. This week, we are highlighting Benjamin Sovacool, Director of the Boston University Institute for Global Sustainability (IGS) and Professor in the Department of Earth & Environment.

Benjamin Sovacool, Director of the Institute of Global Sustainability and Professor in the Department of Earth & Environment

By Jaclyn Berman

Jaclyn Berman: Could you name and explain a city or region in the world that you think provides a good example of an efficient large-scale energy infrastructure?

Benjamin Sovacool: The first way to answer this is that there is no such thing as environmentally free or safe sources of energy, every source of energy has some sort of negative impact. Electric vehicles need roads and materials for their batteries, wind farms kill birds and occupy land. Coal fire power has mountain top valleys to a coal mine, and coal waste and acid rain. There’s no such thing as a risk free source of energy, so it’s always about different risks. Every energy project out there has a whole host of benefits but also some costs. I will say though that I am very much impressed by the Computing and Data Science building. It’s a good example of where we could’ve just as easily connected it to the gas grid, or built it to be fossil fueled, but instead BU leadership was willing to pay more to make the building very sustainable, from its design, to its heating and energy system. It’s not connected to the gas grid, 80% is geothermal heat and 20% is solar energy, and that’s major. I don’t know of any other big building in Boston or anywhere that is completely fossil fuel free. I think the CDS building is a good example right here at our campus. 

What public policy can Boston adopt to create a more efficient energy infrastructure like this one?

There are a lot of small scale, grassroots, decentralized, bottom up things we can do, like urban gardens, better bicycling infrastructure, better systems of food sharing, all of those could make huge inputs into our carbon footprint. Generally around the world, carbon footprints are not dominated by energy, but rather most of our carbon footprint comes first from transportation, and the second thing they come from is food. It might be shocking, but there are even some universities now in Europe that have banned faculty from taking short haul flights, you have to use the train or cycle or more efficient transport. That is a good example of a behavioral change rather than a technological change.

If I had to choose a big scale energy project that Boston could do I think the best solution would be building integrated solar energy. Technical term is BIPV, Building Integrated Photovoltaics, which just means solar panels on houses. What’s neat is it creates all of the roof space that you see, all of the parking structures that don’t currently have awnings or ceiling or roofs, so all of it becomes a potential energy source. If BU were to invest in such a big scale project, it could have hundreds of megawatts of potential and probably cut energy needs significantly. A secondary benefit is that when you put these solar panels on the roofs it does better shading rather than having sunlight beating down on the roof, which helps to cool the building.

What policies are most difficult for cities to pass or execute successfully?

At the top of the list of difficult policies is the idea of a carbon tax. It’s politically dangerous here in the US to even utter those words, even though many European cities have carbon taxes, credits, and trading. A second thing that’s really difficult for cities to do is heating because of the heating grids. Here in Boston, most buildings are heated by natural gas which is provided on the national grid. Unless you have the ability to invest [in heating grids], like BU did with the Jenga building with huge and expensive equipment, you don’t really have another option. It doesn’t make sense to get your own heating system because it is very expensive. Policies that can help decarbonize and get Boston residents off the gas grid include things like banning new gas boilers, mandating new heat pumps, solar thermal heating systems, or putting the carbon tax on gas to make it more expensive.

How should people contribute as citizens or inhabitants to the city that they live in?

The traditional answer is what can everyone do as consumers to make more sustainable decisions this could be eating less meat, driving less, choosing not to use air travel, making a community garden for your crops, and a whole bunch of other decisions that you can make here to lower your carbon footprint. But, that doesn’t also connect to things like democracy and voting which is the second thing that we can do. Many Bostonians should be and could be more engaged in energy discussions where we are talking to our local congress people and senators at the state and federal level about climate issues that matter to us. I think that’s a second type of change that’s not behavioral change, but political action. 

The final thing, which is most controversial, is that we can protest, using what’s called direct action techniques, like boycotts, sit-ins, and marches, hopefully peacefully. People can get engaged, create community groups, protest, make your voice heard, and even consider acts of disruption. I’m not advocating this, but as an example, in London there was a group of students who really opposed how the government cut energy efficiency spending. There was the disaster of the Grenfell Towers where Grenfell caught fire, people were trapped inside, and they died. Energy efficiency cladding was one of the culprits to the fire, because it wasn’t properly installed. So the government promised at the time major renovations in efficiency for all these other buildings and they never delivered it. People wrote letters didn’t have an impact. They protested outside of parliament didn’t have an impact. Then they got serious and they blocked traffic on the interstate that got people’s attention, because they caused eight hour traffic jams, and they were jailed repeatedly for it. As a result of all that disruption, the government started to take energy efficiency more seriously. Those types of direct action techniques that shake the system up, are just as legitimate as behavioral change and policy activism. 

Do you have any ideas or suggestions of how a city like Boston could promote such community engagement or direct action techniques?

One of the interesting things that you can do, which is very rare, is to have referendums where Boston can say that it is considering this very important issue, and they are having this special election or referendum. Countries have done this about nuclear power, and cities like New Orleans did it after Katrina. When cities face a crisis, in order to build back they can do a referendum to help guide input. It’s direct democracy, because it involves soliciting every voter’s view on the issue and then deciding on the vote and the city or the state could do that.

The other thing I quite like are citizens assemblies. These are very neat and they are exactly how they sound: you create an assembly of citizens, and have discussions between the citizens and the experts. These assemblies educate the citizens about energy climate, and then allow experts and policymakers to listen to the citizens themselves and hear their lived experiences, their needs, and their challenges. At the end of the process, you work with policymakers to address these challenges. They are a very citizen-involved form of planning and policymaking and they are often done in different cities. 

What is one change you wish to see in Boston?

Why don’t we see more building integrated solar energy in the city? I’m walking down Commonwealth Ave., and I don’t see a single solar panel. We have feed-in tariffs and other mechanisms, but they tend to benefit homeowners – they don’t benefit students, they don’t benefit low-income people, and they don’t benefit the people who can’t afford to install those systems. An initiative to deploy solar energy citywide at low or no cost would be amazing. Granted, I’m not sure how you fund it, but it would at least start to make the city more resilient and also get us off of gas, which is a fossil fuel, so apart from investing in and protecting the T, and expanding green space, I think that there’s a lot of potential for building integrated solar energy.

What is one or more aspects of Boston that you hope never change?

The T, and I know it sounds banal to some, and I know some of my colleagues prefer not to take the T, because it takes a long time or they don’t feel safe, but for the most part I think the T works wonderfully well and Boston is so lucky that they have it already. If you were to build a new transit system in most cities now it would cost billions of dollars it’s insanely expensive because there’s so much disruption and technology. We are really blessed to have a fairly efficient and well-run mass transit system that is good for the climate.

I also quite like the City’s green spaces and I hope those never change. I don’t want to see Boston Common or the Public Garden demolished, and there’s all these other parks throughout Brookline and Chelsea and other places. Those are the emerald necklace, those are gems built in our nature. For aesthetics they look pretty, and also for carbon storage they store carbon in a lot of these natural spaces.

Finally, the reason I like Boston as a whole, I really do think it is a city that’s known for taking equity seriously. Mayor Wu talks about it and is trying to do things like rent stabilization, lower cost of living expenses, and tackle homelessness. I’m proud of that, and really like how this city doesn’t take equity as an afterthought it seems to be very much mainstreamed into their objectives and goals.