EDITOR'S NOTE: Since this interview was recorded, Chris Castro has accepted a position with the Department of Energy. At the time of publication, his new job title was chief of staff for DOE's Office of State and Community Energy Programs.
Direct Current - An Energy.gov Podcast presents People Powered, a series that brings you real stories of the folks getting their paychecks in the clean energy sector. There are millions of good-paying jobs in energy, and you’ll get a chance to meet some of the people who have jumped into these fast-growing careers.
Meet Chris Castro
A career-long environmental advocate and self-proclaimed "eco-entrepreneur, Chris Castro is the former director of sustainability and resilience for the city of Orlando. Castro described his role as an “in-house consultant” that helped push the city towards a more environmentally sustainable future. During his time with the city, Castro kept social inclusivity, equity, and economic growth at the forefront of his work, including efforts like installing rooftop solar, air filtration upgrades, EV charging stations, and community gardens in disadvantaged neighborhoods.
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MATT DOZIER: Quick editor’s note before we get started: Since we did this interview, my guest in this episode got a new job... here at the Department of Energy. What can I say? It’s an exciting place to work? Anyway, we still wanted you to hear Chris’s story, just keep in mind that he no longer works for the City of Orlando and is now here at DOE with the new Office of State and Community Energy Programs, a new effort funded by the Bipartisan Infrastructure Law. Speaking of which, if *you’re* interested in coming to work at DOE, filling out an application for the Clean Energy Corps is a good place to start. You can find that at energy.gov/jobs. OK, here we go!
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CHRIS CASTRO: You know, the work that we do... we have a limited amount of time on this planet, and if all of us can really focus our efforts on things that drive purpose and meaning, I think we can have a tremendous positive impact in the world.
CHRIS CASTRO: If you're talking about job security, this is certainly an industry where we need all hands on deck and will need so for the foreseeable future.
MATT DOZIER: Sustainability is a big issue for cities across America. More and more, local governments are asking, how can we plan for the future? How do we make the best use of our resources? How do we protect our neighbors in the face of natural disasters? And how can we work to stave off the worst effects of climate change? Some cities have taken a proactive approach to solving these problems — cities like Orlando, Florida, which has an office dedicated to sustainability and resilience. My guest today, Chris Castro, is the director of that office. And he’s involved with some really exciting projects that are transforming Orlando’s energy, transportation, and communities for the better. You’re listening to Direct Current’s “People Powered” series, I’m your host, Matt Dozier. Stick around!
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CHRIS CASTRO: My name is Chris Castro. I'm here in Orlando, Florida, and I'm the director of sustainability and resilience here at the city of Orlando.
MATT DOZIER: Tell us a little bit about yourself, what kind of neighborhood you live in, family, where you're from originally, all that?
CHRIS CASTRO: Yeah, I'm a second generation Cuban American. I was born and raised in Miami, Florida, actually uniquely on a palm tree farm that my parents owned and really fell in love with the outdoors and with nature when they started taking us down to the Florida Keys and out to the beach to go surfing on an annual basis.
And it really just became something that I wanted to contribute to in a positive way. I ended up coming up to Orlando on a Fulbright scholarship to study at the University of Central Florida, where I focused my studies on environmental science and policy with a focus on clean energy and sustainability in this transition towards a zero-carbon future. I am a proud dad with a four-year-old daughter named Coraline, living here in Orlando and one of our great neighborhoods known as Audubon Park.
MATT DOZIER: How do you explain your job to a kid, a family member, somebody who doesn't know anything about that title?
CHRIS CASTRO: I'm the director of sustainability and resilience here at the City of Orlando. And essentially my role is helping to act as kind of an in-house consultant for the city and in supporting our various departments and our divisions, our city staff, and even the greater community, our various agencies and businesses and partners in transitioning towards a future that's more environmentally friendly, more socially equitable and inclusive, and positioning Orlando to take advantage of the clean energy economy that we know is starting to thrive here across the country.
MATT DOZIER: What does a typical day look like for you on the job?
CHRIS CASTRO: Well, the beauty about this role is that every single day is kind of a unique challenge and opportunity for us. I can sometimes start out the day thinking about analyzing new rooftop solar projects for the city on our own critical facilities, and then pivot over to thinking about how do we expand more electric vehicle charging stations throughout the community and supporting our own city fleet? Then to thinking about how to enable policies and building codes to drive more energy efficiency and more building retrofits.
So really, across the board, I get to work with an incredible team here at the city that are basically in-house consultants or specialists that know deep knowledge in sustainability and in clean energy. And we help handhold our departments and our partners throughout the community through this process of moving towards a zero-carbon future.
MATT DOZIER: Is there anything in particular you've been, like, really excited about lately in the stuff you've been working on?
CHRIS CASTRO: Everything's really exciting, but I think one of the projects that I'm looking forward to is what's called resilience hubs. So across the city, the city has 20 senior and neighborhood centers, and they're situated primarily in black and Hispanic and low-income households, communities where those centers provide kind of these wraparound services.
We have after school care, we have computer labs. They even acted as kind of schools during the shutdown and ballfields and a whole bunch of other amenities. And what we're starting to think about is how can we convert these neighborhood centers into these resilience hubs so that the next time Florida gets hit with another hurricane and let's say our grid goes down, we have an ability for us to support our residents, an equitable, resilient recovery. And so we're thinking about is we're adding now equipment that will allow the building to disconnect from the utility grid.
We're adding rooftop solar and battery storage. We're enhancing the air filtration at these sites. We're adding food, water, ice and other storage for other materials and resources to distribute. We're adding community gardens and EV charging stations and ultimately trying to make sure that these centers become places where we can provide mutual aid and resource distribution in times of some type of extreme shock, like a hurricane.
MATT DOZIER: So these will go from being places where people gather and recreate and, you know, hold events and that sort of thing to places where they can come in times of real dire need.
CHRIS CASTRO: That's correct. Yep. And be able to bounce forward and get their families back on their feet and hopefully back up and running.
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RACHAEL NEALER: Hi Direct Current listeners! I’m Dr. Rachael Nealer, the Deputy Director for the new DOE/DOT joint office of Energy and Transportation. Let me tell you why we’re all charged up about our new office and solidifying our DOT/DOE partnership. We’re working to electrify transportation through a national convenient, reliable, and equitable electric vehicle charging network that creates jobs and access to EVs for ALL. For Americans in every pocket of the country, from rural towns to big cities, our new joint office is ready to make it easier than ever to make the transition to EVs. Next stop in our work includes supporting the Federal Transit Administration’s Low-No Emissions Program and the Environmental Protection Agencies Clean School Bus Program, together investing over $10 billion in clean mobility technologies! Watch us in action at energy.gov/BIL. Now, back to the show.
MATT DOZIER: How does one become a director of sustainability? How did you find your way into this line of work?
CHRIS CASTRO: Yeah, that's an interesting question and it comes at various different pathways. I know some of my peers are engineers, and they went through the pathway of understanding kind of the engineering side of house. I was focused on policy and the science side of things. So interdisciplinary studies, really understanding the economics, the social aspects as well as the hard sciences around sustainability. And so I think the beauty about this, these roles, is that there are several pathways to get into the field of sustainability.
There is no one unique degree that you have to be seeking or experience that you have to have. It's very much open-ended, and the idea is that you want to have a good understanding of systems thinking and a good understanding of the various aspects that contribute to some of the challenges that we're facing, whether it's around air pollution and carbon emissions, whether it's around equity and some of the disproportionate impacts being faced by communities of color, whether it's about the changes in our energy system or transportation systems that are moving towards cleaner sources. So it really takes somebody who's interdisciplinary in their knowledge and in their thinking of this space.
You know, I started at the University of Central Florida, and I got really passionate as a student organizer, starting to put pressure on my president at the university president at the time to commit to carbon neutrality. And following that exercise, I started to get really interested in advanced biofuels and how we can use algae as an example, as a source of energy that could replace traditional diesel and gasoline. And so I did my undergraduate research study on carbon capture and growth, taking flue gas emissions from power plants and cement factories and paper mills, and trying to clean those emissions by growing the next generation of fuels.
And that actually led me to getting a two-year work study at the U.S. Department of Energy in the area of the Energy Efficiency and Renewable Energy Office. So while I was a student, I got to really understand at the national level what DOE was doing in our federal national laboratories like NREL and Sandia and BETO and these different labs that were actually researching different algae strands to do the same thing, to convert those into fuel properties that would allow us to eliminate diesel. And that that experience really got me completely sold on the fact that the rest of my life, the rest of my career will be focused on making this transition towards a 100% clean and renewable energy future for all.
MATT DOZIER: Do other cities have similar roles to yours or similar kind of offices that that have basically career opportunities for somebody who's interested in a similarly sustainable career path?
CHRIS CASTRO: 100%, I'd say, you know, look to local government as one of the options for your career. It's not something that I considered when I was going through my studies or even when I graduated, but it landed in my lap and it was an opportunity for me to help shape the clean energy strategy for Orlando.
And to me, that was an opportunity of a lifetime. There's a huge network of cities and counties across the country that are now prioritizing sustainability and resilience and have created offices to advance the same work. And so we're part of a group called the Urban Sustainability Directors Network, USD for short, which is this network made up of our peers that are working on advancing clean energy strategies in our communities around America.
MATT DOZIER: What do you like most about your job?
CHRIS CASTRO: I love that I get to work with an incredible and diverse group of people every single day. I work very closely with our facilities, energy manager and our engineers on specifically the details of installing rooftop solar on our fire stations or our emergency operations center. I then get to work very closely with our legislative director on state and federal policy. And then I get to work with our elected leaders and engage them and briefing them about various policies and programs that we're trying to enable to accelerate towards more zero carbon technologies. So for me, it's the diversity of the people who I get to work with and the diversity of the types of projects I get to work on that keep me excited and they keep me focused on advancing this effort in Orlando and beyond.
MATT DOZIER: Obviously, you are keenly aware and focused on the impact that the work your office is doing to improve the lives of the people of Orlando. What how does it make you feel when you see those impacts, you know, coming to fruition, whether it's, you know, installing solar panels or, you know, building out these resilience hubs in a way that actually makes a tangible impact on people's lives.
CHRIS CASTRO: Well, you know, for me and when I look at my career as I move forward, making a positive impact in other people's lives or a positive impact on the planet is what drives me every single day. There's been opportunities to get paid more or opportunities to get better benefits over here. And ultimately, the reason why I've stayed in my role is because the work that we're doing has very tangible impacts on people, especially those that are least fortunate in addressing things like energy burden or transportation issues, or even food insecurity, developing these resilience hubs and knowing that these neighborhood centers are going to be providing resources and mutual aid to those that need it most in these times. To me, that gives me purpose and meaning, and I think that's one of the most important things for all of us to think about the work that we do. We have a limited amount of time on this planet, and if all of us can really focus our efforts on things that drive purpose and meaning, I think we can have a tremendous positive impact in the world. And so it comes down to passion, to patience and to persistence in the work that I do every day to accelerate this effort.
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HOLLY CARR: At DOE, we help you build your clean energy future – literally and figuratively. I’m Holly Carr, Director of the Solar Decathlon program at DOE. We’re celebrating 20 years of Solar Decathlon with two new workforce development programs. Solar Decathlon Professionals will train practicing architects and engineers to design zero energy buildings, and Solar Decathlon Pathways will connect high school students with Solar Decathlon alumni to highlight clean energy careers. Plug in at solar decathlon dot gov.
MATT DOZIER: For others who are interested in pursuing a similar career path, first do you see this as a lifelong career? And can you talk a little bit about the career path and the benefits, stability, that sort of thing, in this line of work?
CHRIS CASTRO: There's no doubt that the transition to a clean and renewable energy future is the greatest economic and job creation opportunity of the 21st century. It's our ability to build wealth for our families is really rooted in this opportunity for us to make this pivot towards clean energy. So yeah, there's a tremendous amount of, I think, benefits that come from that.
These jobs in the clean energy economy are often high-wage, great benefits, and ultimately, there's stability because this is something that's quickly evolving on a daily basis. Right? And so if one position doesn't seem like a good fit, maybe it's focused on retrofitting buildings, there are tremendous other opportunities, whether it's in solar or wind or electric vehicles or in in energy storage and other really emerging technologies that that are providing a pathway for high-wage, high-wealth job opportunities. And the beautiful thing about it is that there seems to be a keen intention on being diverse and trying to bring in communities of color into the picture to ensure that all people have the same opportunities of benefiting from this revolution that we're that we're undergoing. So I do think that if you're thinking about a career path, think about sustainability and clean energy because it's something that we're going to need to work on literally for decades to come. And so if you're talking about job security, this is certainly an industry where we need all hands on deck and will need so for the foreseeable future.
MATT DOZIER: Any advice for somebody who is potentially seeking that type of career, whether it's, you know, in the kind of role that you play, or something that is, like you said, more part of the broader clean energy economy advice you could offer for them.
CHRIS CASTRO: Yeah, I think that there's a tremendous amount of ways to plug into sustainability and clean energy. First of all, I often tell people that you should look in your own communities to think about what professional organizations and associations you want to start to get involved in everything from ASHRAE to USGBC to the Urban Land Institute to local Sierra Clubs of the world. These are fantastic organizations that help you find your tribe. They help you find other individuals that are that are similarly interested in this movement and allow you to make some connections that you may or may not have been able to do so on your own.
So find those local organizations and volunteer your time. The vast majority of the work that I've done to get to this role has been not paid. It's been completely donating my time, volunteering my time to get the experience that's needed to set myself apart from somebody else who just has another degree. And so outside of that, outside of my own work, I'm very active in the nonprofit community, have created a number of nonprofit organizations myself. And my whole purpose is to try to get people to get hands on experiences in sustainability so that they can tangibly see and feel and participate in making a positive difference.
And what I've seen is once you get hands on, all of a sudden this paradigm shift takes over and you realize the importance of needing to make this pivot, this this complete transition in our own daily lives, but also in our own career paths.
MATT DOZIER: Last question. What has this job meant for you and for your life and your family?
CHRIS CASTRO: This job, as I mentioned before, gives me purpose and meaning. I have a four-year-old daughter, and I've been in this movement for about 15 years working diligently. But it wasn't until she was born when this became very visceral, when it became very tangible, that the work that I was doing was going to be laying the foundation for what she's going to pick up and continue to chart forward as she grows. And I think it's just made me realize that every single person plays a role in advancing a better future.
And it made me realize that I don't have to be somebody who has a Ph.D. or decades of experience to make an impact in the world, that ultimately, as long as you're passionate, you're patient, and you're persistent to achieve your goal, that all of us can make an impact. And I'm hopeful that other people are realizing that now is the time to get involved.
Now is the time. If there was ever a moment for us all to question how we can contribute to a future that drives clean energy and climate action. And so hopefully this story can shed some light and inspiration to others wanting to get in the field.
MATT DOZIER: Chris Castro with the city of Orlando, thank you so much for your time.
CHRIS CASTRO: A pleasure. Thanks.
MATT DOZIER: That’s all for this episode of Direct Current. Thank you to my guest, Chris Castro. You can find out more about the latest developments in Orlando’s sustainability efforts in our show notes. Those are at energy.gov/podcast. Thanks to Holly Carr and Dr. Rachael Nealer for lending their voices, and to AnneMarie Horowitz, Michael Stewart, and our intern, Isabelle Hamilton, for their assistance on this episode. Subscribe to Direct Current on Apple Podcasts, or wherever you get your podcasts, to hear more episodes in our People Powered series. Direct Current is produced by me, Matt Dozier. Sarah Harman creates original artwork for all of our episodes. This is a production of the U.S. Department of Energy and published from our nation’s capital in Washington, D.C. Thanks for listening!
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