Fundamentally Tackling Climate Change with World Wildlife Fund’s Keya Chatterjee

October 10, 2014

JOHN SHEGERIAN: Welcome back to Green is Good. We’re so honored to have with us this afternoon Keya Chatterjee. She’s from the World Wildlife Fund. She’s the Director of Renewable Energy and Footprint Outreach. Welcome to Green is Good, Keya. KEYA CHATTERJEE: Thank you so much for having me. JOHN SHEGERIAN: We’re so honored to have you today. Before we get talking about renewable energy and everything that’s happening at the World Wildlife Organization, we want you to first talk about the Keya Chatterjee story. You have a fascinating backstory and journey leading up to your position at World Wildlife Fund. Can you share that with our listeners first? KEYA CHATTERJEE: Sure. I started working on sustainability issues coming from a science background, which a lot of people actually do. I worked at NASA originally, and it was actually when I was working at NASA in 2002 when I started my shift to working much more specifically on climate change. It was because in 2002 I was looking at Arctic sea ice data that was taken from remote sensing, from satellites from space, and the sea ice data was alarming. It was far less sea ice than we were expecting to see. What’s even more alarming is that now, if you look at a chart that shows Arctic sea ice over time, you can’t even see that big decline in 2002 because it’s declined so much more since then that that point that shocks me into changing my career is actually just part of the noise in the chart now, because there’s been these huge other declines. I actually got kind of scared into getting more into conservation and advocacy from the science community, and I worked at USAID, the U.S. Agency for International Development as a climate change specialist for a little while, but jumped pretty quickly into advocacy when I realized how much needed to be done in such a short period of time. JOHN SHEGERIAN: Gotcha. Now you’re at the World Wildlife Fund. For our listeners out there that want to learn more about your great organization, they can go to www.worldwildlife.org. I’m on the site now. It is one of the most visually gorgeous sites I’ve ever been on in my life. It’s just a beautiful site. So, people, to support more of their great work, please just go to worldwildlife.org. Keya, talk a little bit about why the World Wildlife Organization and Fund is focusing, though, on renewable energy. Explain that nexus for us. KEYA CHATTERJEE: Fundamentally tackling climate change is all about transitioning to renewable energy and stopping deforestation. So, we’ve been working on renewable energy around the world for a long time because of our work on climate change. Now, of course, there’s also all of these direct impacts of fossil fuels on the places that we care a lot about, and so, for example, drilling in the Arctic. Well, that wouldn’t need to happen if we had solar panels on our home and electric cars plugged into the solar panels. So, part of what we want to do is make sure that we are not needing to drill in the oldest national park in Africa, Virunga National Park, in some of the most biodiverse places in the Arctic that we’re trying to preserve. We want to give people another option, and, in fact, to protect our planet, we have to take advantage of this other option, which is right in front of us right now. All the pieces are in place. It’s affordable, the technology is there, we just have to grasp it. JOHN SHEGERIAN: I love it. When I was reading about you before we ever did this show, Keya, I read one of your things that you said before historically. “We’re in control of our fate here.” So, you’re a true believer that the solutions are there if our listeners and all of us just work together to be part of the solution, we can make change here. KEYA CHATTERJEE: Absolutely, and we’re already seeing that this change is happening. So, a big part of our work in the Renewable It’s Doable campaign has been busting myths about solar, for example. We’re totally in control of our fate because we can choose to use these clean energy sources, and if people started to understand how much cheaper they were and how simple it is to use cleaner sources of energy, then more people do it. We see that time and time again, so there’s actually a part of our website at worldwildlife.org/solar where people can get a quote for solar themselves. We’ve also tried to work with large institutions to help them look at how they can help their own communities go solar, so we’re working right now with the city of Chicago, really amazing uptake. We started with a goal of having 750 people sign up to get solar on their homes. We busted through that, and so now we’ve reset another goal of 1,000 people. What we’ve seen time and time again, when people actually go and get a quote and realize how affordable it is, and think through, then, how unaffordable it is for us as a planet to deal with the consequences of dirty energy, people take that step. So, it’s really exciting to be able to put that information into people’s hands. JOHN SHEGERIAN: Keya, in terms of solar right now, the cost of solar has come down dramatically in the last five or six years. Our listenership is both national and international. In how many states can homeowners get solar for no money down now? KEYA CHATTERJEE: So, there are 16 states where you can get solar without putting any money down and have immediate savings thereafter. The reason that’s possible — it sounds so crazy to people — is because one, the cost of the actual panels themselves has come down dramatically, so 80% off in five years is a really big discount. So, I always say to people, if you walked into the Gap and a T-shirt you really wanted was 80% off, you’d probably buy it at that point, even if you were kind of on the fence before. The prices have come down a lot. The other reason that it’s possible is because the industry has just become more mature, and so they’re able to take advantage of the scale that they have. For examples, there are companies that will put solar on your roof for free. They’ll then take any federal incentives, any state incentives, since they own the panels, and they sell you the electricity, and because once the solar panels are there, the electricity is free. The sunbeams are coming down from the sun no matter what. No one can charge you for that, and so the electricity is free. So, they do charge you for the electricity when they own the panels, but they charge you less than you were paying your utility, and they’re getting that electricity for free, and they’re able to make a profit by squeezing out that initial cost that they’re saving by taking incentives, and then earning money from you as you pay your bill over time. So, it’s a really great business model for people who don’t have any upfront money to put down into solar. You still save money immediately, and you get to be a part of saving the planet. JOHN SHEGERIAN: Just like there’s still some climate deniers out there, and all the science, as we know, Keya, points to climate change is here and it’s actually accelerating faster than anyone predicted even as short as 10 years ago, there’s still some people that say solar is not good. When you’re talking to people or you’re working with people, how do you counteract that argument? KEYA CHATTERJEE: Well, I think that there are definitely vested interests out there who want us to believe that these technologies are not ripe and not ready, and I think that all it takes for people to understand that that’s not the case is to look around and see who’s using solar. The military is using solar in huge numbers. There are communities around this country that have enormous installations. There’s the community Lancaster, California, that has a Republican mayor, that is the solar capital of the U.S. They have solar on every home going in. This is not something that is limited to states that people perceive as sunny, either. The world’s capital for solar is Germany. Some of the leading states for solar in the U.S. are in New England. The Cincinnati Zoo has the largest solar parking facility, which is a great use for solar, of course, because nobody wants to sit in a hot car, and so it shades their cars and at the same time it makes all the electricity that the zoo needs. If you look around and see how many institutions and individuals, and even people you know, probably, have solar on their homes or are using it in some way, then you realize solar has gone way beyond the solar-powered calculator. It’s something that can power our homes and our businesses and our society now, obviously in combination with other renewable technologies like wind and geothermal. But the great thing about solar is it’s super tangible and something that individuals can do. JOHN SHEGERIAN: For our listeners out there that just joined us, we’re so honored to have with us today Keya Chatterjee. She’s the Director of Renewable Energy at the World Wildlife Fund. You can check out more of her great work and the World Wildlife’s great work at www.worldwildlife.org. Keya, you just spoke a little about other options, other than solar. Can you talk about some other renewables, and how are they getting socialized now and adopted by both businesses and people across America and across the world? KEYA CHATTERJEE: Sure. So, in 2010, we put out a report called the Energy Report, where we talked about 100% renewable energy future globally, and it was definitely cutting-edge at the time. People thought, “Is that really possible?” But in the last few years, we’ve seen such a dramatic uptake of renewable energy around the world, that more and more projects are merging, showing that this is indeed possible, not only in the U.S., but in countries all around the world. That’s partly because of the advances that have been made also in wind energy. The nice thing about solar and wind is that they work really well together. Solar is generating a lot of energy during the day. It’s usually windiest at night. A lot of the storage problems that you want, so of course, it’s sunny during the day, it’s very windy at night, you want to be able to store that electricity. One of the great things that’s happening right now is that the cost of storage of electricity is coming down, which means that you can have many, many more renewables. A lot of the reason that the cost of storage is coming down is, honestly, because of electric car batteries. There’s companies like Tesla that are making their patents available to everybody, so that everybody can be part of the clean energy revolution. The fact that they’re manufacturing all these car batteries is simply driving down the cost of batteries, and it’s one of these things that people don’t often think about, but storage is the key to getting to 100% renewable electricity. We’re just four or five years out from having storage at the scale that will allow us to get to that future that we want. JOHN SHEGERIAN: Wow. For our listeners out there that aren’t familiar with it, the World Wildlife Organization, can you share a little bit of some of the recent successes you’ve had with the Renewable It’s Doable campaign, so our listeners understand more of the great work you’re doing at World Wildlife? KEYA CHATTERJEE: Sure. All over the country, we have bus shelter ads and billboards that are all about just normal everyday people using solar. That was a big part of what we wanted to do. There’s actually one that has a picture of me in it, looking into my fridge, and it says, “The sun runs your fridge.” That’s a big part of what we’ve done. I mentioned Chicago; that’s one of our big successes where we have those bus shelter ads and billboards in Chicago, and they are the underpinnings of a program encouraging Chicagoans to explore solar for their homes, and the interest levels have just exceeded our wildest expectations in terms of individuals taking up solar, and it’s been through partnerships with cities like the city of Chicago, through institutions like the Catholic Church, that we’ve been able to have a lot of uptake of residential solar. We’ve also had a lot of big wins just working with cities as a whole on their renewable electricity. Community choice aggregation is this policy that allows cities to take control of their power sources, and even if the state or federal government isn’t acting on climate change, the city can say, “We want to act on climate change. We want renewable electricity.” And, so we’ve had cities like Cincinnati in Ohio, Cleveland, Ohio, we’ve had whole counties in California, Sonoma County, really take this up and say, “You know what? Our communities have a different set of priorities from the federal government, and we want renewable energy and we want it now,” and they’re able to use policies to get renewable electricity for their citizens once they vote for that. So, we’re seeing that starting to increase in New Jersey quite a bit, where there is a law that already allows it, and a law just actually passed the State Legislature in New York as well, allowing pilots for community aggregation in Westchester County. JOHN SHEGERIAN: That is so interesting, Keya, because it seems as though so many people are frustrated with the political gridlock that exists today in Washington, DC. The constant drumbeat and constant theme that I keep hearing over and over again is that all the actions are happening, all the great innovations and change, is really happening at a city or municipal level nowadays. When young millennials want to now become active in politics, they’re not dreaming anymore of Congress or Senate, as much as they’re dreaming about local politics or becoming a mayor of their local city or municipality. So this trend absolutely intersects with your community choice aggregation, and that you’re saying that the real action and activities is happening at a city and local level now with regards to the adoption of solar and other renewable energies. Is that something that you’re seeing as well with regards to the macro-gridlock that exists in DC, and the real activity and the real change happening on a city and local level? KEYA CHATTERJEE: Absolutely. I think that grassroots movements in general are gaining power right now, and so that includes grassroots mobilization, like the People’s Climate March that’s in New York City on September 21, and it also includes masses of cities moving together, and not always even realizing what each other are doing, but at the local level, realizing wow, we’re on the frontlines of dealing with climate change. We as communities have to face the impacts, whether it’s Sandy or Katrina or Derecho in DC, cities have to face those impacts. Mayors don’t have the luxury of being able to say, “The politics don’t make it OK for me to deal with this.” They have to deal with it, which means that they have the ability to take action, since they usually have much more political support for action. I also find that cities tend to be more innovative in tackling problems, and so that combination of really being on the frontlines and being more innovative has resulted in some incredible action at the local level all around this country. JOHN SHEGERIAN: You know, Keya, we’re down to the last couple of minutes or so, and before we give some more solutions for our listeners, I also want to say this. I know that you have children. You have one son, is that correct? KEYA CHATTERJEE: I do, yeah. JOHN SHEGERIAN: Right. And I’ve read about you that you, like all of us, we become newly inspired by our children and motivated. You said one of the reasons that you made a turn in your career and you’re so focused on renewables and joined the World Wildlife is because you want to leave a better planet than you found and you were given to your son, as you evolved as a professional and as also a mom. I know you write; you’re a regular contributor on mothering.com on climate change. Can you talk a little bit about climate change, motherhood, and what you write about on mothering.com? KEYA CHATTERJEE: Yeah. So, when I was pregnant with my son in 2010, I had this moment where I was reading a paper about sea level rise and ocean acidification and heat waves, and there were all these projections for 2050. It really affected me in a different way because these mid-century projections, as we usually say, were all of a sudden like, “Oh my God, I’m going to have a child that’s 40 when this stuff is unrolling,” and I just thought to myself that I made this choice to bring my son into the world, and it’s really incumbent on me to make sure that he is safe and protected. JOHN SHEGERIAN: I love it. KEYA CHATTERJEE: And, I think that as a parent, you are obviously protecting some of the most vulnerable people in society, and that’s really what inspires me to be out there marching, to be out there making changes in our home, and I wrote that book The Zero Footprint Baby and write on mothering.com as you mentioned. All of that is to reach out to other parents and help people tap into that source of inspiration that lets them get out and march, that lets them get out and vote on climate issues, that lets them really tap into that source of energy and inspiration. JOHN SHEGERIAN: Well, you are an inspiration, Keya, and we thank you for joining us today on Green is Good. For our listeners out there that want to learn more about Keya’s great work and the World Wildlife Fund, please go to www.worldwildlife.org. Thank you, Keya, for being an inspiring clean energy evangelist and renewing our faith in renewables. You are truly living proof that green is good.