Kendra Abkowitz green issue 2022

Spearheading Nashville’s sustainability efforts takes more than simply slapping solar panels on roofs and installing electric vehicle charging ports. It takes expertise, long-term planning and extensive collaboration. Here in Nashville, that role belongs to Kendra Abkowitz, who recently sat down with the Scene to discuss some of Metro Nashville’s sustainability initiatives.

Abkowitz started working as Metro’s chief sustainability and resilience officer in October, a role previously filled by Mary Beth Ikard. Abkowitz grew up in Nashville and got her start in the sustainability realm through an internship that turned into a job at Vanderbilt University. She obtained a Ph.D. in environmental management and policy at Vandy, and spent six years working at the Tennessee Department of Environment and Conservation.

“I’ve been able to see a lot of growth and change in the city,” says Abkowitz. “And as you can imagine, that directly ties back to environmental stewardship, sustainability and how do you continue economic growth and development in a city over time, in a way that meets the needs of all people?”

There are several projects in the works to make Nashville a greener city, like assessing which Metro buildings are best suited for solar power or how to reduce the environmental impacts of the city’s transportation fleets. Though the recently passed Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act will help fund projects like these, Nashville hasn’t received that money yet as federal agencies work through the logistics of dispersing it. Abkowitz is also working on ways to protect Nashville’s tree canopy, manage floods and stormwater, replace street lights with LED bulbs and, yes, address the city’s trash problem. (Nashville’s main trash pickup contractor, Red River, filed for bankruptcy in October and has struggled to keep up with its assigned routes — leaving the city and other contractors to pick up the slack.)

“It is a really important topic and something we need to consider,” says Abkowitz. “Not only do we need to look at, operationally, how we manage the waste and collect it across the city, we need to think about reducing that volume.”

A major endeavor in the works is a partnership with the Tennessee Valley Authority, Nashville Electric Service and Vanderbilt to create 100 megawatts of utility-scale solar power — according to Metro, that’s “the clean-electricity equivalent of carbon emissions from powering over 11,000 homes, or removing more than 14,000 cars from the road, every year.” A part of TVA’s Green Invest Program, the project will harness power from solar panels in Tullahoma and bring Metro closer to its code mandate of achieving 35 percent renewable energy by 2025. Nashville is the first municipality to pursue this project with the TVA.

Abkowitz says the project is behind schedule, but “we’re hopeful that in 2024, that utility scale solar project will be operational.” A draft of the project’s impact is scheduled to be released by the TVA on April 22. Once the draft is out, there will be a 45-day period for public comment and a public meeting with the TVA, which is scheduled for May 23.

An endeavor like this is no small task — it includes a federally required environmental review process, public comment, construction and implementation. Plus, TVA and NES are among the largest utility providers in the nation.

NES recently named Teresa Broyles-Aplin as its next CEO. “Teresa … was vocal about her vision to further sustainability and resilience across the community,” says Abkowitz. “She has … ideas that she shared with us about how NES as well as other local power companies can develop a more healthy working relationship with TVA and also advocate collectively for some of the carbon reductions that need to happen. So we were grateful to hear that.”

Abkowitz’s job is intrinsically linked to the environment and its intersection with society.

“Everything we do operates at that intersection,” says Abkowitz. “Oftentimes, when I’m looking at environmental issues, I’m frequently thinking about, ‘OK, well, how is my project supporting efforts to improve public health? How is my work supporting opportunities to perhaps generate local economic … or workforce development? How does my work intersect with housing and long-term land development and land-use issues?’ ”

Examples of this in action are resilience hubs, a concept Abkowitz is exploring with her colleagues in Metro. Resilience hubs operate like community centers that are equipped to “flex” when needed — that might look like a recovery center after a natural disaster or a vaccination site during a pandemic. “Whatever is happening in that space aligns with what the community identifies as its needs,” says Abkowitz. While these spaces already exist in different capacities, Metro is piloting a program to create a more intentional focus on equipping these hubs.

Sustainability is more than planting trees and building solar panels; it must also consider those who have been disproportionately affected by environmental disasters — primarily people of color — and those who could be positively or negatively affected by sustainability initiatives. Abkowitz is conscious of this in her work, and community feedback can also help align equity and sustainability. One way to do this is through Metro’s Climate Action Plan Survey, which Abkowitz says will close in mid-May.

“It takes a village,” she says. “We’re all in this together, right? We hear that thrown out there, but if we are really to take action to address climate … and environmental issues in our community, it’s going to take all of us working together. Metro government can’t do it alone — we need nonprofits, residents, businesses [and] major institutions throughout the community to do that with us.

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