Like many of us who support and volunteer for Moms Clean Air Force, Cheryl Roberto is first and foremost a mother concerned about her kids. Cheryl also leads the the Environmental Defense Fund‘s national Clean Energy Program. And you know what that mom+smarts+passion combo means – IMPACT! Which is why I’m delighted to share my recent interview with Cheryl with you. I have a feeling you’ll learn as much about our energy system as I did. And watch out! Being inspired by Cheryl may drive you to make your IMPACT on clean energy.
MCAF: Cheryl, can you tell us a little about yourself and how you became interested in energy?
Cheryl Roberto: I grew up in Ohio, where I got an undergraduate degree in political science from Kent State and then went to law school at Ohio State. Right after law school, I went to work in the Ohio Attorney General’s Office as an assistant attorney general. I was always drawn to consumer protection and environmental protection so that’s where I focused.
In the late 80s, I started doing environmental litigation. I represented the Ohio EPA and then worked in the field as an environmental attorney through the late 90s, almost to 2000. I started out working in all areas of environmental protection: clean air, clean water, hazardous waste. Eventually, I focused more on water and issues like storm water pollution, drinking water, and helping municipalities become sustainable. I really wanted to help my community manage our water to protect the environment, human health and quality of life. I ended up running the public utilities department for Columbus, Ohio, the 15th largest city in the nation, which impacted over a million people in the region.
By that point, I had become a mom and found myself really busy. My twins, a boy and a girl, were in middle school, and I wanted more control over my time (sound familiar, MCAF supporters?). I wondered, what else can I do with my passion to protect the environment and our health that would give me a job that would get me home more and not keep me out at night? What skills do I have to offer? What is the biggest problem I can offer my skills to help? I settled on fighting climate change!
In Ohio, the biggest challenge to curbing climate change is coal-fired electricity generating power plants. I wondered where I could make the biggest difference. And I realized it was at the commission that regulates utilities. I decided to try to get an appointment as a public utilities commissioner. If I could get there, maybe I could help move our reliance away from coal-fired plants and into energy efficiency and renewables.
That was in 2008. I was appointed to a five-year term by the governor and confirmed by the Ohio Senate. When my term expired, I wanted to keep working on these issues. I realized that EDF is passionate about the same things I was. I got excited about their new initiative to transform energy sector and drive the transition to renewable energy. And here I am!
Is it difficult to be a sort of agitator, working on the outside to change the system, rather than as a commissioner, where you were working on the inside?
There are different ways to influence public policy, and they all have merit. Being a commissioner is great! You’re one of five in Ohio, and the role is about reviewing applications from the utilities, working to find consensus, and taking very incremental steps. I enjoyed that very much. But EDF offers a different way to engage. Now I take my experience as a commissioner and share the tools I developed there with commissioners in all 50 states and DC. It works because I have insights based on my experience and know what tools and information would have helped me when I had their job.
What are some of the barriers we face as a nation in transitioning away from coal and towards solar and wind and other clean fuels?
Right now, utilities are paid for how much they invest. If they build more plants, install more wires or meters, that’s how they increase their revenue. What if, instead, we pay them for results? For successfully insuring that we all have the energy we need. Maybe that means helping us find a way to use less of it, use cleaner energy, not overload the system. That would help us meet our needs, but right now, utilities are not paid to do that. I’d like to see us change the incentives so utilities will help us meet our needs and still be able to stay in business.
One valuable service utilities provide is infrastructure. Even if we have solar collectors on our roof, most of us still need to tap into the power grid at some point. EDF is promoting recognition that rooftop solar is still not disconnected from the grid. That said, we’re moving to a two-way system, where the utility may provide us power, but consumers may add power back into the grid, too. The more we can accelerate the adoption of this two-way relationship, the quicker we’ll reduce our reliance on coal and hopefully, improve air quality and help slow climate change.
As consumers, how can we do our part, even if we can’t put solar collectors on our roof?
- First, shift demand. Most utilities build larger plants than they need in order to meet what’s called “peak” demand – demand from the most consumers at any given time. For example, in the summer, peak demand often occurs in the evenings, when people get home from work and crank up the air conditioning.
- As consumers, we can help reduce electricity during peak demand times by, for example, running washing machines and dishwashers during off-peak times, say after 10 p.m. at night, or when we head off for work in the morning. Obviously, simple things most MCAF supporters are already doing, like using energy-efficient appliances and light bulbs and turning off lights and electronics when you’re not using them, also help a lot!
- Buy renewable energy. Many utilities now offer ways to purchase energy from wind farms or neighborhood solar systems. Even if you can’t put solar on your own roof, you may be able to switch to a clean energy provider. You’ll still get billed by your utility, since the clean energy provider will be using their system to get your energy to you. And that’s fine. But shifting your spending to cleaner energy is important because it demonstrates to the utility that their customers want better, safer power.
- Use technology! New “demand response systems” can tell refrigerators when to defrost; they can tell air conditioners when to cycle on and off. Some utilities will actually pay you or give you a discount on your utility bill if you let them install a monitor on your electrical system to help them manage peak demand without impacting your overall comfort. Devices like the Nest learning thermostat or other programmable thermostats offer terrific ways to reduce electricity demand, as well.
- Experiment with different pricing structures. It’s more expensive, and often dirtier, to produce energy during peak demand. But usually, consumers are charged an average price. As a result, most of us don’t have any incentive to use less energy when it is in greatest demand. What if our bills made it clear that we can save money by using less energy during those peak hours? I bet many of us would be motivated to use energy more economically.
Have you personally been impacted by air pollution? Or do you have children who have suffered from the impacts of dirty air? Do you have any other personal connection to the issue?
Both my kids have asthma. They’re almost 22 and in college now. But in high school, they were long distance runners. I was always worried when they were training in August. Air pollution warnings were prevalent and my kids were out running in it. It was terrible. It still is terrible for anyone who suffers from any kind of respiratory illness.
Overall, is our air better or worse these days?
I was born in the sixties. There’s no doubt the air is better than when I was growing up. But is it good enough yet? No.
The good news is, we know more about what’s good for us than ever before. We’re going to see mercury squeezed out of the pollution stream, which is a huge victory. Our air is getting cleaner and cleaner, and going in the right direction.
What would you say is the top challenge our nation faces as it grapples with how to improve air quality?
The fundamental challenge is to make sure we all have the energy we want and need in the most sustainable way possible. The work that MCAF does in motivating us all to be aware of what we can do as individuals is incredibly important. Clean energy will only take off if people say they want it. We need to understand that we have clean alternatives, and that the more we choose those alternatives, the more common they’ll become.
The news about climate change is pretty depressing. Sometimes, it seems we’re all working so hard, yet things are getting worse. Are you optimistic about our ability to reverse the trends in CO2 build-up?
I’m actually very optimistic! There are so many solutions being put into place, and more to be discovered. Working together, we can accelerate the direction that we’re already taking. The transformation is going to happen. We just need to make it happen faster.
Thank you, Cheryl!