Presidio MBA in Sustainable Solutions alum Elena Olmedo discusses building electrification, renewable energy, and working as a Building Electrification Advocate National Resource Defense Council (NRDC).
Thank you so much for talking with us, Elena! Until recently, you worked as a Climate Advisor for National Resource Defense Council. Can you explain what that position does and what your day-to-day responsibilities looked like?
As a climate advisor, you are tasked with advising and consulting city staff on their sustainability programs and policies. You can serve in many different capacities, and I found that I wore many different hats. Sometimes I worked on a policy that would impact future greenhouse gas emissions. At other times, I collaborated with staff to design a new sustainability program. Other times, I served as more of a liaison with our technical partners — professionals with subject matter expertise on a specific topic. My background is in building electrification and sustainable transportation, so I worked on policies and programs that helped reduce greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions in the building and transportation sectors, which are the two largest sectors of GHG emissions for a city.
In terms of day-to-day tasks, a lot of it centered on collaboration with other departments and city staff. I organized and facilitated meetings, collaborated with staff on Council memos, and helped staff prepare to go to council with different policies. I also assisted city staff with community engagement by working with local nonprofits on the policies that would impact their communities.
How did you end up at NRDC? Can you describe some of your academic and professional experiences that led you to them?
I started working at Quest, an engineering firm that does greenhouse gas inventories and energy efficiency for buildings. My first role involved quantifying greenhouse gas emissions for cities in the Bay Area. So I’d go in and collect data, estimate greenhouse gas emissions, and present my findings to city staff. Then they would design and develop a climate action plan to reduce their greenhouse gas emissions.
I also worked as a sustainability coordinator for another city and got my MBA from Presidio Graduate School. Those three things were the most critical pieces that helped me land a job with NRDC.
How did you discover Presidio, and what was the “aha” moment that made you realize this was the school for you?
I knew getting an MBA would be really beneficial, and I had been thinking about different programs but didn’t know exactly where I wanted to go with sustainability. I visited Presidio, took a tour, and sat in on one of the classes. I remember being really fascinated by the course topic and what the students were talking about; it just felt right.
How did your studies at Presidio prepare you for the role of an NRDC Climate Advisor?
The most significant skill set I got from Presidio was learning how to approach problems, which stemmed from all our different experiential learning projects. I worked with a few different companies and felt those were really beneficial experiences. Our teams collaborated in ways similar to how I collaborate with other staff in my position now. The different skill sets I learned there — like forecasting future sales and growth or developing a more sustainable plan for the organization — helped me in the climate advisor role. The scenarios and the people are different, but I face similar challenges and use my skills to problem-solve with others.
For example, you’ll have a city that wants to design an electric vehicle program to serve low-income residents better. You’ll have to figure out how to engage individuals from a certain community and design a program that fits their needs and interests. You may also face resistance from the community, and it is important to understand where they are coming from to arrive at a solution that matches the audience. It’s really all about problem-solving and looking at it from a lens of sustainability, people, and equity.
Can you tell me more about the work that you’re doing? What are your thoughts on the future of renewable energy systems? What are some of the biggest challenges we’re facing right now?
With respect to the technology, it’s really exciting what’s going on right now, especially in building electrification. There’s been so much advancement in the last five years. For example, the efficiency of heat pumps has improved while the cost has decreased rapidly. Heat pumps are now three to five times more efficient than their natural gas counterparts. This is so important because heat pumps run on electricity, which is a much cleaner energy source since we can get it from the sun or the wind. Switching to all-electric technologies can help us reduce our greenhouse gas emissions in ways we have been unable to do in the past 20 years.
As far as challenges and roadblocks, it is still not a widely adopted technology. There have been significant cost reductions, but it’s still not accessible for many. It’s an equity issue because a lot of low-income and historically marginalized communities don’t have access to these technologies or don’t own their homes. Partly it’s financial, but it’s also because people are renting, and their landlords don’t have any incentive to upgrade their buildings and transition to a different technology. So the biggest question is how do we equitably transition to building electrification in a way that benefits everyone, where the technology is accessible for everyone, and in a way that doesn’t negatively impact low-income communities?
What are some common misunderstandings about the work you’re doing or the work that the NRDC does that you encounter in the world?
These days, with social media, people want to have a 10-second clip to describe and understand something, and a lot of the policies we work on can be very technical; there’s a lot of jargon. It’s essential to make sure we’re translating these policies in a way that is accessible to most people, so there needs to be more investment in public and community education. Overall, NRDC does a great job at translating and simplifying policies, explaining what they mean, and their impact on people. But at the city level, this was one of the big challenges for us. Misinformation is a really big deal; cities don’t have the public relations staff that large corporations have to protect themselves from misinformation campaigns. If misinformation is spreading and people opposed to these policies are out there using fear to trigger people, there aren’t many resources to combat it, and you’re left trying to deal with that backlash.
How has NRDC changed since you started there? Have you seen any significant shifts in your area of expertise?
We’re much more focused on equity now. When I first started, our organization was very much focused on sustainability and how we can reduce greenhouse gas emissions as quickly as possible. Over the last two years, we’ve transitioned to focus and integrate equity into our sustainability policies and think more consciously about how those policies will impact low-income and historically marginalized communities. We have also dedicated more time and resources to engaging these communities and trying to co-create policies with them from the beginning.
What advice would you give to people who aspire to create sustainable change and do impactful work in an area like yours?
Building electrification is a really exciting field. I’m thrilled to be working in this space because there’s so much going on and so much that will happen in the future. We need people — architects, engineers, planners, building electrification experts, and MBA grads– to help us transition. Many cities across the country have adopted all-electric ordinances, such as reach codes, which means we can expect to see many more all-electric retrofits and new construction.
The other thing I would say is don’t underestimate the power of networking. It’s really important. When working with the city, it was critical to develop relationships with colleagues from other city departments because the best policies are designed in collaboration. You need other departments’ input to design holistic policies that benefit the community. It’s crucial to network and develop positive relationships with people from different backgrounds (i.e., planners, building department officials, and sustainability staff); that’s one thing that has contributed to my success.
What comes next for you? Where do you plan on directing your impact next?
You can probably tell I’m excited about building electrification! It’s just so critical to sustainability. As a country, we mainly use either electricity or natural gas for our energy use, and the emissions from using electricity are significantly less. You can practically get them to zero because we can generate them from solar and wind. Whereas with natural gas, the emissions are consistent and significantly higher.
I’m going to continue working in this space. I’m now working in a new role as a Building Electrification Advocate with NRDC. This new role will involve helping cities across the U.S. develop policies to promote building electrification. Long-term, I’m really interested in starting my own business and doing building electrification at the residential level.
Thanks to Elena Olmedo for sharing her journey as a Presidian changemaker! Contact us today if you’re interested in learning more about Presidio Graduate School and how our MBA, MPA, Dual Degree, and Certificate programs can help advance your career as a sustainability leader.