Orlando City Sustainability Director

By Eric Wright

Cities, both large and small, are no longer viewed as urban deserts or where sustainability ends and concrete sprawl begins. Instead, they are seen as the hubs of some of the most innovative sustainable solutions and where new ideas are beta tested. It is much like the viability of public electricity and telephones being demonstrated in cities at the beginning of the last century, before spreading into rural areas. Central Florida and particularly Orlando has been a leader in this effort, with Mayor Buddy Dyer setting the goal for Orlando to be one of America’s most sustainable cities. Leading this effort is Chris Castro, the city’s sustainability director, who is also described as an eco-entrepreneur, an urban farmer and an evangelist for smart cities.

EW: Where did your interest in sustainability begin?

CC: Growing up, my parents operated a palm tree farm, so I was raised close to nature and the soil. Plus, I love to surf, so there is that lifelong connection to the ocean. In fact, I chose UCF partly because of its proximity to the coast.

In 2006 President Hitt signed the President’s Climate Commitment along with 800 other colleges and universities across the country. His goal was to be carbon neutral and a sustainable campus by 2050. That changed the trajectory of my life and I decided to major in environmental studies with a minor in energy and sustainability; it has a science and policy track and I chose to do both.

I joined the sustainability counsel and was one of 10 students selected to build a plan to achieve Dr. Hitt’s goal. The counsel was divided into three committees: students, academics and operational personnel. Around that same time, I launched a non-profit that I’m still a part of called IDEAS For Us. It works to engage students in high schools and colleges to find solutions to environmental challenges and has grown globally operating in 24 countries. That gave me 10 years of immersion in all aspects of ecology, energy, water, food, waste, transportation, you name it.

EW: Tell me about the entrepreneurial aspects of your career?

CC: I started an energy consulting firm called Citizen Energy. It was moved to Washington, D.C. in 2012 and primarily focuses on energy efficiency in buildings. It is still operating, but I am no longer a managing partner. When I was planning my transition to D.C., I got a call about the opportunity here with the city.

Orlando had just received a grant, one of 10 cities selected to participate in the City Energy Project, a national initiative to create healthier and more prosperous American cities by improving energy efficiency, particularly in large buildings. Some of the other cities included were Atlanta, Boston, Chicago, Houston and Los Angeles. Working in partnership, the project and the city support innovative, practical solutions that cut energy waste, boost the local economy, reduce pollution and keep Orlando as a leading city. I was asked to apply and was selected to be the program manager in the Green Works office to run the energy and green building component of the project.

As we worked that plan, in June of last year I transitioned to became the director of sustainability for the city, to oversee all the Green Works projects.

EW: Mayor Dyer’s goal is for Orlando to be one of the most sustainable cities in America. How did that start and how has it evolved?

CC: The Mayor’s goals are social, environmental and economic, and that all three work harmoniously and holistically to make Orlando a world class city. This is the triple bottom line: people, planet and profit.

The Mayor’s goal is to make Orlando a 21st century city. To be a place that attracts talent, where people not only want to come to visit, but want to come to live and work. I understand it started when Mayor Dyer was in a mayoral conference in Chicago and then Mayor Daley asked different mayors to share about their sustainability programs. Well, he came back and charged the staff to assemble a team to develop and define what the city wanted to be in terms of sustainability. That became the Green Works initiative; but it was more than city staff — an entire task force of business, non-profit executives, community leaders and staff was brought together.

EW: What were the outcomes?

CC: We’ve developed a municipal plan which focused on the personnel and resources of the city government, and a community action plan, with goals out to 2030 and 2040 respectively. For instance, we want to convert 100 percent of our city fleet vehicles to alternative energy by 2030. Both plans have seven themes or emphasis: green buildings, local food systems, livability, solid waste, transportation, water and the green economy.

We then developed goals within each sector along with best practice strategies and tactics, which the task force developed. In addition, we work with other major cities, in peer-to-peer meetings to share best practices and borrow ideas to improve our plan. We are part of the Urban Sustainability Directors Network, which is a social media portal for people in my position, and I talk and share with others daily.

EW: If there was a target you wanted to hit, a city you wanted to emulate, where would that be?

CC: It would be hard to identify one city, rather, there are a group of cities that are doing exceptionally well in particular areas. Portland (Oregon) has done great work in multi-modal transit; 50 percent of their residents use multi-modal transportation to commute. Austin has incredible advances in waste management and recycling. Atlanta leads in the Better Buildings Challenge. New York is doing amazing things in tree canopy and Boston in renewable energy.

EW: Where does Orlando lead?

CC: We have been very aggressive in turning our city-owned buildings into being exceptionally energy efficient, while increasing occupant comfort. We made a $17.5 million green bond to invest in 55 of the most energy intensive buildings in the city, like the Amway Center. There are companies that will finance these improvements, but they take a large portion of the savings. We created our own energy services company, and took the bond to invest in our own buildings. Just last year, by investing half that amount we saved $1.4 million; by the end of this year we will have deployed the full $17.5 million and will release $2.5 million per year in savings.

Now we will take a portion of those savings to pay the bond debt and the rest is to be allocated to make other buildings more sustainable. This is a nationally recognized model for municipalities to invest in their buildings while reducing the tax burden of operations and making the buildings more comfortable.

EW: Other initiatives?

CC: One of the most exciting is the PACE (Property Assessed Clean Energy) which is a means of financing energy efficiency upgrades or renewable energy installations for residential, commercial and industrial property owners. Basically, it is a loan that is assessed on the tax roll that is used to make upgrades. Many times these are offset over time through energy savings. This program was approved by the Florida legislature.

What is exciting is this is stimulating a growing green economy here in Central Florida that didn’t exist a few years ago.