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This Latinx leader is working to electrify buildings in US cities

Canary talks to Cristina Garcia of the Building Electrification Institute.
By Maria Virginia Olano

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Cristina Garcia is assistant director of the Building Electrification Institute, an organization working with cities across North America to accelerate the electrification of buildings and their transition away from fossil fuels and toward clean energy. She is focused on inclusive labor and workforce policies to enable an equitable transition.

A first-generation New York City native, Garcia is also the founder of the Latinxs in Sustainability group within the nonprofit Latino Verde.

We caught up with Garcia to discuss how cities are electrifying new and existing buildings and why it is crucial to do so equitably. The conversation has been edited for brevity and clarity.

Maria Virginia Olano: Tell me about yourself. What does your current role with the Building Electrification Institute entail, and how did you get into this line of work?

Cristina Garcia: I am from New York City, born and raised. My parents are Colombian. I have a pretty typical first-generation story — my sister and I were the first in the family to go to college. I have a master’s degree in environmental engineering, and I knew early on that I wanted to work on something related to climate change. In New York City, almost 70% of greenhouse gases come from buildings, and I wanted to use my engineering degree to help address that challenge locally through building electrification. I worked at the mayor’s office leading electrification and workforce development initiatives, and that became a real passion of mine.

In 2019 I joined the Building Electrification Institute. We work with 12 cities around the country and advise them on policy strategies to help accelerate the transition away from fossil fuels in buildings and new construction. I am still focused mostly on workforce development and diversity, making sure that the jobs that are created in this transition are accessible to all.

Olano: For those who may not know, what does building electrification” mean?

Garcia: It means the replacement of systems within homes and buildings that currently use fossil fuels with systems that use electricity as their source of fuel. It is important that we maintain ways to heat our homes, keep the lights on and be able to cook, but we can do those things with electricity rather than by burning fossil fuels. As the electricity grid gets cleaner, those systems will contribute less and less greenhouse-gas emissions.

Olano: How do you ensure people can pay for these changes and still afford their electric bills?

Garcia: People want to avoid increasing their costs if they can help it, and that’s completely fair, especially considering that we have overlapping crises in our cities when it comes to affordability and housing. What we need to do is figure out a combination of rate design, smart controls, weatherization and distributed energy like solar so that the economics of electrification can improve. We need a holistic and creative approach that brings together all of these solutions so that it’s feasible. A lot of people can afford to pay for the electrification of their homes, but there needs to be help available for those who can’t. Cities, states and the federal government should subsidize electrification for lower-income residents. It is critical that as we move to these cleaner systems, we don’t leave low-income people behind, especially because long-term electrification can actually lead to lowered costs and more accessible heating and cooling.

Olano: New York City passed a gas ban for all new buildings, and many cities and states are considering similar legislation. How important is this in the overall effort to electrify buildings? 

Garcia: I think the cities leading with new construction are on the right path. It is a logical place to start for a couple of reasons. There’s enough research out there showing that for new construction, electrification costs are comparable or cheaper — so this really should be a no-brainer. We also don’t want people building with gas because that’s going to lock them into that fuel for the next 30 years or so, or else it will require invasive retrofits. The ideal is to start off with no gas at all. Electrification in new construction also provides an opportunity to start training the workforce. It slowly gets people working on these types of installations and preparing them for what we hope will be a lot more work in the near future.

But of course, existing buildings also have to be electrified. We worked with the city of San Jose in California to put together a plan for building electrification within existing buildings. San Jose really demonstrated leadership by co-creating this plan with two communities within the city that represent huge portions of its population: Latinx and Vietnamese communities. We want solutions that are truly based on community needs, and that means having them at the table from the very beginning of the planning. We are hoping to support more cities through this process of engagement and co-creation with residents because a just transition is our priority, and so is making sure no one is left behind.

Olano: You bring up something that is also top of mind when we talk about building electrification: the creation of local jobs. There are also initiatives in different cities to ensure that these contracts can in fact go to local, small or minority-owned contractors. Is that something you have worked on?

Garcia: Yes, in New York City, we are supporting the mayor’s office on a pilot project that they started a couple of months ago, which works with minority-owned contractors in Staten Island. The purpose of the program is to spread awareness about electrification and heat pumps to both consumers and decision-makers since there is still a lot of hesitancy and lack of awareness of what these systems can do — and also, more importantly, to help contractors navigate these new projects and make sure they are equipped to participate. For a lot of them, this is a brand-new business.

Olano: You founded Latinxs in Sustainability, introducing hundreds of young people to climate-forward careers. Can you tell me about that and what drove you to get involved in mentorship in your community? 

Garcia: I was going to a lot of networking events when I first started my career, and I realized that the sustainability industry in New York City was predominantly white, which was shocking for me in a place as diverse as New York. I was able to connect with the Society of Hispanic Professional Engineers, which is great and brings Latinx people together, but it still did not focus on sustainability specifically. So I decided to create Latinxs in Sustainability in 2017, originally with the purpose of bringing together the few Latinos in the space to provide community and networking opportunities. But then the mission and goals quickly changed to bringing awareness as to why there are barriers to entry for Latinos and why we continue to be excluded from a lot of spaces. Mentorship and exposure have been a big piece of it, so that hopefully younger people just starting their career have more resources and can see themselves in these spaces where we really need them to be.

The climate crisis is the biggest challenge of our time, so we need as many people involved and engaged as possible, especially those of us who have historically been excluded. 

Maria Virginia Olano is editorial producer at Canary Media.