If your immediate surroundings aren't deteriorating right in front of your eyes, remaining aware of how much stress each and every one of us puts on the environment can be a challenge. In this way, Donald Trump's election opened Americans' eyes to the fact that the nation's untouched landscapes and vital natural resources must be protected. But among those who make it their job to defend the environment on a daily basis, this sense of urgency has always existed. And no one knows that better than Kate Zerrenner, the leader of the Environmental Defense Fund's Energy-Water Initiatives in Texas. To bring about change in her state, she's taken an approach that proves environmentalism doesn't need to be a partisan issue — and so far, it's working spectacularly.
Zerrenner tells Bustle that since the November 2016 presidential election, one thing in particular has made the fight ahead seem more manageable. "For better or worse, it now means that our environmental colleagues in other states are now going to see what we’ve been dealing with Texas for many years," she explains. "So, we’re kind of used to this fight."
Zerrenner's expertise lies in the use of water for energy production, a concept also known as energy-water nexus. In addition to promoting energy efficiency and climate change solutions, she also collaborates with legislative sponsors to influence the political process. And that's how months — and even years — of research culminate in tangible policy decisions that bring Texas a step closer to becoming a more environmentally friendly state.
Even prior to the much-anticipated presidential election, Zerrenner had her eyes set on one thing: the 2017 legislative period in Texas. "We have to get a lot done in those five months," Zerrenner says. "It is Texas, so we don’t have a super progressive agenda." But, she assures, Texas is moving in the right direction, even if it's taking small steps to get there.
The Lone Star State's legislature meets for no more than 140 days every other year, leaving the EDF only a small window of time to directly affect state policy. During the last legislative session in 2015, Zerrenner helped to create a bill mandating that the General Land Office (GLO) and Texas Water Development Board study how wind and solar energy can be used to power the desalination of water. Otherwise known as Senate Bill 991, the piece of legislation was sponsored by both a Republican and Democratic legislator.
"We sort of make the economic argument for a lot of environmental movements and the economics are moving us toward clean energy," Zerrenner explains. Since Senate Bill 991 successfully passed, she is now following through by pushing for a new bill that would require the GLO to put its research project to use and power desalination through renewable energy means, all while keeping costs down.
It's no coincidence that desalination is one of the focus points of Texas' 2017 legislative session. Since the state is nearly 10 percent desert and particularly prone to drought, ensuring there is enough drinking water to satisfy the state's growing population is a serious concern. Although desalinating brackish groundwater and seawater is possible at this point in time, it hasn't reached peak efficiency and is incredibly expensive. As Texas' 2017 State Water Plan lays out, building new desalination plants to expand the amount of drinking water will require "significant investment in infrastructure."
"A lot of times people tease me about being an environmentalist in Texas, but that’s why I do it ..."
Prior to the new year, Zerrenner visited Israel to find a solution. Upon returning, she wrote an article for the EDF on her findings, called "Lowering Desalination’s Energy Footprint: Lessons from Israel." In it, she explained that desalination plants are expected to make up nearly 3 percent of Texas' recommended water management strategies by 2070. Even though it doesn't sound like an overwhelmingly large portion, she wrote, it still takes a toll on the earth.
When it comes to desal, Texas leaders need to understand that using low-water energy sources like solar and wind is important, energy efficiency is critical, and having smart energy policy that supports a more flexible grid – like Israel’s variable pricing – rounds it out. Texas could take a lesson from Israel on desalination.
And because the bills promoting desalination efficiency are bipartisan in nature, there's a good chance Texas will take yet another step forward. It may have a Republican governor, a Republican-led House, and a Republican-led Senate, but Zerrenner is up for the challenge. And she has a moving response for those who doubt her efforts in the red state.
"A lot of times people tease me about being an environmentalist in Texas, but that’s why I do it, because I have a young child and she breathes this air and swims in the water," she says. "I want to make sure that’s available to her and that it’s clean... "
And given how far Texas has come in the clean energy industry, Zerrenner's hopes may be fulfilled. For example, Texas' solar industry is absolutely booming. "I mean, there was virtually no solar industry," Zerrenner says. "It was a niche thing then and now it’s taken off because the economics have just changed completely." The Dallas News reported in March 2017 that the state actually doubled its solar capacity in 2016. On top of that, solar-related jobs jumped by a third. Now, Texas ranks number six in the Top 10 Solar States due to the amount of solar electric capacity it installed in 2016 alone. In fact, Zerrenner is currently working with the Texas Army National Guard to promote solar installations and energy efficiency upgrades at its facilities.
And when it comes to wind energy capacity, Texas even outperforms California — and every other state in the country. In 2016, Texas produced enough wind energy to power 5.7 million homes in Texas, according to Tom Kiernan, who runs the American Wind Energy Association.
But the renewable energy horizon doesn't end there for Zerrenner. She may be focusing on making desalination more efficient and installing more solar panels, but she also mentions exploring the prospect of harvesting geothermal energy to Bustle. "So, what about training people who have put in a lifetime or several generations of their families working in the coal industry and retrain them to work in geothermal, which is not a huge transition?" she asks.
At a time when the Environmental Protection Agency and the Office of Science face potentially devastating budget cuts, it's people like Zerrenner who remind you that nothing is hopeless. If she can help convince Texas to continue adopting renewable energy plans, then Americans from around the nation can chip in to do their part too.
"If I get up and fight and do what I need to do every day, and get up and defend the planet and my daughter’s future, because I have to … then I don’t feel helpless anymore," Zerrenner says.
If you're interested in geniuses like Zerrenner and science that changes the world, you might also want to check out the global event series Genius, which premieres Tuesday, April 25, at 9/8c on National Geographic.