Podcast: New efforts to build sustainability at BART


Podcast: New efforts to build sustainability at BART

We’ve been hearing a lot about the many improvements that BART is investing in when it comes to its aging infrastructure, station upgrades and of course the Fleet of the Future. But there are also some exciting plans in the works when it comes to sustainability and BART’s impact on the environment. From solar panels to accommodating electric vehicles to focusing on new sources of renewable energy there is a lot going on. To learn more about these ambitious plans, we hear from Holly Gordon who is BART’s Sustainability Group Manager.

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Transcript below:

HOST: “We’ve been hearing a lot about the many improvements that BART is investing in when it comes to its aging infrastructure, station upgrades and of course the Fleet of the Future.  But there are also some exciting plans in the works when it comes to sustainability and BART’s impact on the environment.  Welcome to “Hidden Tracks: Stories from BART.”

This is an exciting time at BART when it comes to green initiatives.  From solar panels to accommodating electric vehicles to focusing on new sources of renewable energy there is a lot going on.

To learn more about these ambitious plans, I’m speaking with Holly Gordon who is BART’s Sustainability Group Manager.

Holly, first of all thanks for joining us for the podcast.”

GORDON: “Thank you, happy to be here.”

HOST: “Let’s talk about your job here at BART.  You’re kind of knew, you’ve only been here about a year, is that right?”

GORDON: “Yes, last January.”

HOST: “So tell us about your job and what you do here at BART.”

BART podcastGORDON: “So I run what we call the sustainability team here at BART that also includes the evergreen division.  So we’re responsible for our electricity supply and also trying to make BART and really the Bay Area’s transit system more green.  We are looking at moving to a more robust renewable energy portfolio.  We’re also building solar projects at a couple of our stations.  We’re looking at supporting California’s policy on electric vehicles so we’re adding electrical vehicle charging stations at our Warm Springs Station as a pilot.  We’re looking at energy storage also at reducing our water use, recycling all things like that.”

HOST: “I mean you have your hands in all sorts of projects.  One of the things I was interested in learning about, one of the first initiatives you were involved with was getting new LED lights installed at the Montgomery Station in San Francisco.  That sounds like a pretty simple thing to do, but apparently it was a process, tell us about that.”

GORDON: “Yes, well we had some trouble with the lighting at Montgomery before I started and I got pulled into a project with the district architect’s office, the maintenance folks as well as folks from my team and the planning team and we stood on the platform and had a conversation about what kind of lights we wanted.  I thought this would be a fairly simple process and we did wind up with wonderful lights that we’re all very happy with.  But finding the sort of venn diagram of lights that are easily maintained that also look nice and are aesthetically pleasing from the district architect’s perspective and also energy efficient from my perspective was not as simple as I had expected so it took us some time to get there.  But the lights have been chosen, installed and we’re very happy with them.”

HOST: “Of course power is a really big deal at BART.  I mean we need the electricity and we’re a huge consumer of that electricity.  Let’s talk about that.  Talk about the scope of how much power we consume and how what does it cost the agency?”

GORDON: “So we consume about 400,000 megawatt hours of electricity per year, which is similar to about what the city of Alameda consumes if you want to think about it in terms of the size of the city.  And it costs the agency in the low $40 million range, about $41 to $43 million a year just to purchase our electricity.  So that cost can be broken down a couple of ways.  It’s primarily the energy itself so buying the actual electricity and then also paying for the electricity to be transmitted and distributed so really delivered to the BART system.”

HOST: “Now there’s a new effort to make sure more of BART’s power comes from clean and renewable sources.  As I understand you’re hoping to have BART get 50 percent of its power from renewable sources by 20-30 and 90 percent by 20-40.  Tell us about that effort.”

GORDON: “Sure.  So right now BART gets about 2% of its electricity from renewable sources, which is on-site solar, some off-site solar and some small hydroelectric power.  So that’s a fairly small percent of our portfolio.  About 90% of our portfolio comes from low carbon or zero carbon, primarily large hydroelectric power.  We’d really like to transition to more renewable power when those low and zero carbon contracts expire at the end of 2018.  So we’re looking to do an RFP, an all renewable energy RFP sometime in early May to procure some renewable energy for 2019 and beyond.   We are very interested in moving towards what the state requirements are for the utilities right now, which is 50% by 2030 and there is also a bill out there that Senator DeLeon just released a couple of weeks ago which actually looks at 100% by 2045.  Of course that bill has not passed yet, but we do anticipate that it will in the future.”

HOST: “Those sound like some pretty ambitious targets.  What are some of the challenges involved with meeting those goals and what’s your sense from the Board in terms of their interest in this?”

GORDON: “Well I think the challenges are making sure that there are actual projects out there that fit into the RFP that are cost effective for us not just in terms of what the cost is right now but also locking in a cost into the future.  We anticipate that these projects will be long term contracts probably somewhere in the 20 year range.  And it really depends on what bids come in through the RFP process so we really won’t know exactly what we’re looking for until that happens.  So we did take this as an info item to the Board Thursday, March 9th just to have a discussions and we’ll bring it back to the Board in April.  I think there was a really robust discussion.  There were a lot of questions and comments from the public about whether we should be more aggressive in moving toward 100% renewables or 100% zero carbons in a shorter time frame and we will go back to the Board in April and have further discussion with them about that.”

HOST: “Now I know for the eBART extension in Contra Costa County they’re using diesel units there.  How does that fit into the plan?”

GORDON: “Sure, so as I mentioned I think when I kicked off my presentation at the Board meeting this is just for our electricity.  So when we talk about 90% or 50% or 100% that would be of our electricity portfolio and eBART is not run on electricity so that diesel unit would be separate.  eBART is not online yet.  We don’t anticipate it to be online until sometime in 2018 so that would be something to take into consideration then but it would not be part of our electricity portfolio.”

HOST: “Speaking with Holly Gordon who is BART’s sustainability group manager. A part of that mix of clean energy is solar power.  Work is underway now to bring solar panels to the parking lots at the Lafayette and Antioch Stations, there are already panels in Warm Springs.  How much power can BART get from these solar installations?”

GORDON: “That’s a good question.  BART does own a lot of parking lot space or a lot of real estate particularly in our suburban stations and we did look at those stations, this was actually before my time, to determine where to put these projects.  A lot goes into working with these projects so it’s not just space in the parking lot but are there power lines overhead, are there trees overhead, are you going to have shading on the panels, how much of the electricity infrastructure are you going to have to upgrade at some of these old stations?  Places like Lafayette you have to connect into the electricity room and making sure that that structure is upgraded and can handle the panels coming in.  We also consider our transit oriented developments or we’re going to put in more housing right next to these stations in the future and if that’s the case then we don’t want to put solar in those places either because buildings may go there or because solar might get shaded by them.  So there’s a lot of consideration that we have to think about when we determine where we put these solar projects.”

HOST: “And in line with that, as you look forward do you anticipate that there’s going to be a focus on maybe getting more solar panels at additional stations?”

GORDON: “Yes I do think that we are looking to put more solar at some of our stations.  We’ll take a step back once Lafayette is finished and once Antioch is finished and sort of see what that process was like for my team, for maintenance and engineering how much work that was to get those projects done and then think about what makes sense going forward.  In parallel, during this RFP for wholesale renewables and determine what makes the most sense for the district.  Right now we’re looking at potentially putting solar panels on top of the new Hayward Maintenance Complex.  They’ll be four buildings there and they’ll all be new buildings over the next I would say five years I think they’ll be built. So at least on a couple of those and maybe all of them.”

HOST: “And we mentioned Warm Springs earlier, a pilot program is being launched there to accommodate electric vehicles.   Certainly makes sense since Tesla is right next door, seems to fit in.  Tell us about the pilot program.”

GORDON: “Sure.  We got a grant from the Bay Area Air Quality Management District to pay for about half of that project.  We are putting in 42 electric vehicle charging stations right now at Warm Springs.  They’ll be level two stations.  It is a pilot project.  We’re interested in collecting data from our patrons:  how many people are actually using these stations, what types of cars are parking there, how long are they charging them for and just the level of interest that we’re getting and how we feel our patrons are responding.  From there we’ll collect that data, we’ll probably be surveying down there.  We’re very interested in hearing from patrons who park at Warm Springs about what they think of the EV parking, what questions they have and feedback they have so we can really get a sense of how things are going down there.  And from there we’ll head back to the Board and determine whether they’re going to put them at other stations.”

HOST: “I would think that has to be one of the fun things for your job is that there are all these pilot programs going on and all these new initiatives.  It’s a chance to really learn and really focus on BART helping the environment and that really is a priority here isn’t it?”

GORDON: “Yes, this is really why I took the job.  My background is I’ve been an environmental lawyer with also an energy background.  I’ve worked in solar policy and regulatory work and this job really combines all of those things and allows me to work on some legal issues, policy issues, to get involved in what’s happening at the state level with electric vehicles and renewable energy but also do some operational work and project manager and oversee construction of these projects which is really exciting.”

HOST: “Now BART does have a sustainability policy but as I understand it hasn’t been updated in a while.  Where do we stand on that?”

GORDON: “That’s correct. We do have a sustainability policy that I believe is on our website dating back to about 2003.  We have drafted a new sustainability policy that we brought to a subcommittee of the Board last summer and we’ll be bringing that back to the Board at some point probably this spring or summer as well to update that.  We’re looking forward to getting that updated and putting it on the website as well.”

HOST: “So what is that?  What does it mean, is it an action plan basically?”

GORDON: “It’s actually quite short.  The sustainability policy will be probably about two pages and it’s just very high level: what are our goals, targets, aspirational goals and what is BART focused on?  It’s not an action plan per se.  We are doing a sustainability action plan.  That’s a 10 year look out for the district looking at projects that are currently under construction, projects that are currently in the works and then future projects that the district may do depending on feasibility, resources and things like that.   So that 10 year action plan we’re working on that right now.  We expect to have it done some time this summer.”

HOST: “Speaking in general terms.  You’ve been here about a year now, you’ve had a chance to get a lay of the land at BART.  How much room for growth is there for this agency when it comes to its environmental footprint.”

GORDON: “I think there’s an enormous amount of room for growth.   There’s so much excitement here at the agency about sustainability issues, about clean energy issues, not just because we’re in the Bay Area but it’s just there’s progressive-minded people who work here and they really want to make a difference and put a stake in the ground for transit agencies.”

HOST: “And as you know, little things can mean a lot when it comes to having an impact on the environment.  I know one of the things that BART’s doing right now is a waste audit and again it comes down to simple things like recycling.  What’s being looked at there and what could it lead to?”

GORDON: “Sure so we are in the middle of a waste audit right now.  We’re looking at six of our stations just a variety of underground, downtown, suburban stations, ones where we’ve struggled with recycling, ones where we’ve gone well with recycling.  And so we’re looking at all of those stations and doing an audit not just of how much recycling is happening but the entire stream.  From the patron putting something in the trash to the system service worker cleaning out the station and putting that trash out to be collected.  So we want to understand how that process works and then decide from there about what we’re going to do next for our stations to try and increase the recycling that’s happening at our stations.”

HOST: “And that’s a big deal, we’re talking about a transit agency that carries some 430,000 people on a typical weekday.  That’s a lot of folks and that leads to a lot of trash.”

GORDON: “It absolutely does and one of the challenges is that we’re in four counties and multiple cities and each city has their own type of recycling program.  They have different waste haulers that come through, San Francisco versus Oakland versus Walnut Creek versus Berkeley, so it can be a little bit challenging.  We’re trying to find some consistency and uniformity so that we can have a more robust recycling program.”

HOST: “Holly Gordon, BART’s sustainability group manager, thanks so much for joining us.”

GORDON: “Thank you, appreciate it.”

HOST: “And thank you for listening.  Remember you can find ‘Hidden Tracks: Stories from BART’ on SoundCloud, iTunes, Google Play, Stitcher and at our new home for the series BART.gov/podcasts.”