Five of Texas’s cities demonstrate a strengthening commitment to sustainability in the nation’s largest red state.
WRITTEN BY Kiley Jacques

Cover: The LEED Platinum TreeHouse Memorial City, in Houston, Texas, achieved a score of 95 points—the highest credit point total in Texas and the second highest in the U.S. for projects certified under the Building Design and Construction rating system. It was also certified LEED Platinum for Interior Design and Construction. Above: Austin’s City Hall, designed by Antoine Predock, reflects its natural surroundings, the four-story 118,000-sq-ft structure incorporates local limestone, a cascading waterfall, and nonsymmetrical shapes, all of which reflect the waterways and canyons of Austin’s surroundings.

Unbeknownst to many, Texas is leading the charge in the nation’s green building movement. In fact, the U.S. Green Building Council (USGBC) named Texas one of the Top 10 Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design (LEED) States for 2016—recognizing its strides in sustainable design, construction, and transformation.


The impetus for making those strides is layered, and includes a strong economic component. According to USGBC’s 2015 Green Building Economic Impact Study, LEED construction is expected to support 244,000 jobs in Texas and impact the state’s Gross Domestic Product by $21.39 billion by 2018. But there are other factors driving the movement, too.


Sustainability advocates, research institutes, academics, and architects in Austin, Houston, San Antonio, Lubbock, and Dallas are banding together in diverse unions to work with city officials to build “green” into the infrastructure (and mentalities) of their urban communities—an approach that makes both business and social good sense.


Awake in Austin

Perched on the banks of the Colorado River, the City of Austin is brimming with natural beauty, and its dynamic trails and parks system allows residents to experience it up close. Much of the population appreciates the importance of preserving natural resources. That, coupled with it being home to the University of Texas—a major research institution—as well as many high-tech companies, make it one of the state’s most progressive cities. “We have a very well-informed citizenry about environmental issues, and we tend to be on the cutting edge of technology,” says Austin Chief Sustainability Officer Lucia Athens. “We were one of the early cities to come up with strict development standards to protect water quality.” She notes, too, that the city has looked for a long time at how to best leverage green development.


Top: Austin’s chief sustainability officer Lucia Athens.  Bottom: Gavin Dillingham, Ph.D., is program director for clean energy policy at HARC.

Top: Austin’s chief sustainability officer Lucia Athens.
Bottom: Gavin Dillingham, Ph.D., is program director for clean energy policy at HARC.

Athens manages the Climate Protection Program and related actions to reduce Austin’s carbon footprint and make it more resilient to the effects of climate change. The program outlines hundreds of actions designed to meet department goals, which include the implementation of 28 green building plans. “Most of our footprint, like other major metropolitan cities, is energy use—primarily by buildings. We have been a leader in municipal actions since 2007, when the City Council first adopted a climate protection resolution,” says Athens, adding that they continue to update their goals. (They have seen a 58 percent reduction of greenhouse gas emissions since making the resolution.)


Austin’s climate resiliency programming is gaining traction. The Office of Sustainability has been leading an effort with multiple city departments and public agencies to look at means of preparing for events like Hurricane Harvey. Given the large numbers of “climate refugees” the City takes in during such natural disasters, one idea is to integrate a rooftop solar program into emergency evacuation facilities, so that backup power will be available when and where it’s needed most.


The integration of renewable sources of energy is a hot-button topic in much of Texas, but Austin fully embraces the tactic. In August 2017, the City’s utility provider, Austin Energy, announced the acquisition of an additional 200 megawatts of wind power through a power purchase agreement. They also recently adopted a goal to be 65 percent renewable by 2027. (They are at roughly 35 percent now.) “We have been making significant strides to green our energy production portfolio, including [major] investments in wind and solar,” says Athens, noting their robust incentive program for rooftop solar. Additionally, they aim to generate carbon-neutral power by 2030 and are looking for net-zero carbon emissions by 2050.


In terms of green building, the City has a LEED certification capital project policy, which designates LEED Silver as the standard. It also has a green building program of its own, Austin Energy Green Building, as well as LEED. “It was the first green building rating program in the world that we know of,” notes Athens. It continues today in addition to LEED, so both types of certification are found throughout the city. To date, over 14,000 single-family homes have been certified under the Austin Energy Green Building program.


Austin Energy Green Building is currently capturing 25 percent of the market for new permits for single-family homes; 23,000 multi-family buildings capture 35 percent of that market for new construction; and 25 million square feet of commercial projects have been rated, capturing 60 percent of that market.


“I really see green building as part of our resiliency strategy,” says Athens. “The more we can have buildings that are increasingly self-sufficient—moving toward net-zero energy, net-zero water, and growing food, that is all a part of how we are approaching resilience.”


Above and beyond a focus on buildings, Austin is also addressing the need for economic resilience.
More than 200 members strong, Austin Green Business Leaders is comprised of businesses that support sustainability—on multiple fronts, including its profitability. “That group is a robust peer network of companies sharing strategies. A lot of them are involved because they recognize it will make their business stronger—it can help their bottom line, and there is a marketing cache that goes along with it,” explains Lucia.

Houston Mayor Sylvester Turner helped lead a coalition of mayors across the United States in calling for climate action after the EPA’s decision to repeal the Clean Power Plan.

Hope for Houston

Ravaged by Hurricane Harvey, Houston has received unprecedented national attention as of late. The flooding and damage from the storm made painfully clear the need for a sound resiliency plan. To the City’s credit, it has been working toward creating one. In fact, Mayor Sylvester Turner co-chaired the Mayors National Climate Action Agenda, an association of U.S. mayors with the stated goal of reducing greenhouse gas emissions. Founded in 2014, it was an effort to organize cities in advance of the signing of the 2015 Paris Agreement. Collectively, 379 “Climate Mayors,” representing 67.8 million Americans, committed to upholding the Paris goals.


Despite being a major city in a fossil-fueled state, Houston is the nation’s largest municipal user of green power—nearly 100 percent of the city government’s energy comes from renewable sources. This achievement is a direct result of the City’s 2008 Emissions Reduction Plan. Though Texas has long been a leader in wind power, it has been slow to adopt solar. But Houston is ahead on that front. In April 2017, it announced plans for a 50MW solar plant, based 600 miles away, with 203,840 solar panels covering more than 360 acres.


Gavin Dillingham, Ph.D., is program director for Clean Energy Policy at HARC, a nonprofit research hub providing independent analysis on energy, air, and water issues. HARC seeks solutions to the environmental, social, and economic challenges facing the greater Houston-Galveston metropolitan area and the Texas Gulf Coast. Dillingham leads research and program efforts to improve climate resilience of electric power infrastructure and the built environment.


“One of the things the City likes to do is lead by example by mandating within the [local government] community to demonstrate how something works internally and [we] hope that the example will be pushed out into the public [sphere],” says Dillingham, noting the drive behind the City’s 2004 Green Building Resolution, which required all new City buildings and renovations to achieve LEED Silver or higher. “That built capacity among the architectural and engineering community, which helped later when it came to cost analysis for similar projects.”
Dillingham explains that the plan for city operations was completed a few years ago but was never officially published. Ultimately, HARC will collaborate with the City of Houston to develop a community-wide Sustainability Action Plan. They aim to introduce a climate resilience or adaptation component, and plans are in the works to hold discussions with community leaders around resilience planning. “There may be a greater opportunity now [since Hurricane Harvey], to make some incremental changes in how we approach resilience and sustainability in our region,” says Dillingham.

Houston is the nation’s largest municipal user of green power—nearly 100 percent of the city government’s energy comes from renewable sources.

Krystel Castillo, Ph.D., Sc.D., is the founder of the Texas Sustainable Energy Research Institute (TSERI) at the  University of Texas at San Antonio (UTSA).

Krystel Castillo, Ph.D., Sc.D., is the founder of the Texas Sustainable Energy Research Institute (TSERI) at the University of Texas at San Antonio (UTSA).

The new plan will enable Houston to implement cost-effective strategies for energy efficiency, renewable energy, water conservation, infrastructure development, and other operations; the goal being a city that functions in a sustainable manner by using resources wisely and improving operational resiliency. Dillingham points to the impetus for the plan: “We could not say that it was a Climate Action Plan because of the nonbelievers of climate change; it had to be a Sustainability Action Plan with minimal discussion of what the carbon impact would be, and more [of a focus on] improving energy savings, which translated into cost savings. It had to show an economic argument.”


Dillingham describes a general resistance to planning for sustainability: “We are very much a red state in that regard. We do not like to be told how to do business, or to have heavy-handed mandates on land use. The Houston region continues to expand because there are few geographical barriers. We don’t have mountains or major rivers so there is nothing constraining growth and continual expansion.” That being said, Dillingham is beginning to see some changes in the city planning guidelines and the types of projects developers are building. His experience suggests that, relative to 10 or 15 years ago, there is less resistance to working toward a more sustainable and resilient community; he attributes that yielding to more positive attitudes toward sustainability—driven by improved project economics, reduction in technology-related costs, improved understanding of the long-term cost/benefit analysis of green building, and a more diverse population that has experienced the benefits in other locations. “We are seeing a behavioral and attitude change that I think is largely due to a shift in the demographics—to the betterment of the city. Even after Hurricane Harvey ravaged the city, there is hope that things can change toward a more resilient approach to development and land use but there is nothing definite.”


Strategizing in San Antonio

Krystel Castillo, Ph.D., Sc.D., founder of the Texas Sustainable Energy Research Institute (TSERI) at the University of Texas at San Antonio (UTSA), has a vision for a new energy future—one born of a partnership with San Antonio’s greater community. The hope is to turn the City into a major contributor to a 21st-century global energy economy by integrating scientific discovery, engineering innovation, and policy-making strategies. (Strides toward that end are evidenced by the University of Texas System’s commitment to achieving, whenever possible, LEED certification for all of its campuses’ buildings.)


TSERI looks for opportunities to apply technology to improve the reliability and environmental stewardship of City systems while reducing costs. It also promotes equitable socioeconomic development on a regional, national, and global scale. “Our impact will drive San Antonio’s economic future, coalesce our intellectual capital, serve as a magnet for future leaders, and help secure a foundation for enhanced prosperity for south Texas and the Alamo region for decades to come,” explains Dr. Castillo.


The Institute works collaboratively with government, academic, industry, and national laboratory partners on clean energy and sustainability research. Vital to their work, for example, is their partnership with the City of Antonio and CPS Energy, the nation’s largest municipally owned energy company. “This strategic alliance—established in 2010—provides the opportunity for students to engage in experiential learning and for faculty members to tackle real-life projects with societal impact, as well as to contribute cutting-edge solutions to the most pressing challenges in sustainable energy and sustainability,” notes Dr. Castillo.


Currently, UTSA, CPS Energy, and the City are developing a Climate Action and Adaptation Plan for San Antonio, the goal of which is to reduce greenhouse gas emissions. Benchmarks and time frames are being determined, as are plans for implementation. Also in the works is the creation of a new energy management system that integrates control of battery energy storage and solar-powered buildings. Other ideas in the making include: harvesting energy from roadways; developing a smart grid security system; and applying computational methods to improve solar forecasting.


TSERI is committed to preparing students for leadership roles in new energy and sustainability planning and policy—the foundation for economic growth and job creation. “The new energy economy requires professionals with an interdisciplinary background,” says Castillo. “Our vision is to develop citizen leaders capable of shaping the new energy future.”

Dr. Katharine Hayhoe is a climate scientist based at Texas Tech University. Photo: Ashley Rodgers

Dallas’s George W. Bush Presidential Center was the first presidential library and museum to achieve LEED Platinum.

Dallas’s George W. Bush Presidential Center was the first presidential library and museum to achieve LEED Platinum.

Lessons from Lubbock

Katharine Hayhoe, Ph.D., is contagiously spirited when discussing her work on climate change and resilience planning.


As a climate scientist based at Texas Tech University, she focuses on developing and applying high-resolution climate projections to evaluate the future impacts of climate change on human life and the natural environment.
“My research examines trends in extreme weather events that have been seen already, and demonstrates what we can expect for [future] impact on temperature, precipitation, and evaporation—[and how that will] change our water supply, infrastructure, and public health,” she explains.


Dr. Hayhoe says that since 1980, the state has had more billion-dollar climate and weather disasters than any other in the country. In other words, Texas is naturally more at risk because of its extreme—and diverse—weather patterns; it gets everything from droughts to blizzards.


“Let’s connect the dots here,” says Dr. Hayhoe. “Why do we care about changing climate? We care because [a changing climate] takes the risks that we already face today and it exacerbates them.”


Furthermore, Texas traditionally has been a place where people disproportionally reject the reality of climate change. Yet over the last 10 years, there has been a tremendous shift in thinking. What was once seen as a “natural cycle” is now understood by nearly all to be something more; Hayhoe points to a poll taken a few years ago indicating that only 3 in 10 people didn’t think climate was changing. “If you can build resilience to a changing climate in Texas,” she says, “I think you can build it anywhere.”


In the face of climate change, Hayhoe advocates for adaptation and preparation. But her research shows that the faster the rate of climate change, the greater the risk; and the greater the risk, the less likely attempts to adapt will be successful. She believes the solution lies with alternative energy sources to mitigate carbon emissions associated with conventional fossil fuel.


Texas is the No. 1 producer of wind energy in the nation, with over 25,000 jobs in that industry. Wind power accounted for 12.6 percent of the electricity generated in Texas in the 12 months ending in October 2016. Cities like Georgetown and Fort Hood are now investing in renewables. “Texas is simultaneously one of the most at-risk states in terms of a changing climate, but it also has the greatest potential to mitigate these risks through reducing [dependency] on fossil fuel,” explains Hayhoe.


Ironically, Texas is also the No. 1 producer of carbon pollution in the country. “Texas is a big part of the problem,” notes Hayhoe. “But energy is energy. And Texans understand energy.” Though Texas has been slow to adopt solar power, the state has the potential to lead the nation there, too. She sees solar as a huge untapped resource. “Climate change isn’t just a great economic challenge; it represents a great economic opportunity. There’s a growing commitment to investing in our future—a future that just so happens to be building a more resilient [state] and a new clean energy economy at the same time.” As an example, she points to the Defense Department’s new solar farm at Fort Hood, which, along with an off-site wind farm, will generate enough electricity to power half the base—it will also save the army (and taxpayers) $168 million for the lifetime of the contract.


Dr. Hayhoe doesn’t much care how people drum up the desire to plan for climate change—whether it is a wish to support a cleaner planet or to save money—just as long as we are all in agreement that something needs to happen. “The point is to agree on solutions, no matter how you arrive there.”

Seven acres of prairie and nine acres of native lawns, in addition to the 250-gallon cistern, resulted in a 73 percent reduction in water use in the landscape.

Digging in Dallas

Dallas’s George W. Bush Presidential Center was the first presidential library and museum to achieve LEED Platinum. The decision to go for Platinum was an ambitious goal, but former President Bush and Mrs. Bush were determined to achieve it.


“It wasn’t the easiest thing to design a museum to meet all of the standards that were set,” notes Herb Sweeney, associate principal with Michael Van Valkenburgh Associates, Inc., the landscape architecture firm responsible for the project’s 15-acre park.


“They were interested in how they could lead by example with this building and the landscape.”


The Bushes are well known for their love of the Texas landscape and for their efforts to support environmental stewardship and conservation—that was the inspiration for the aesthetic and functionality of the landscape. “It was based on an understanding of their interests and objectives that we proposed what was a very atypical design for this presidential landscape,” says Sweeney.


The decision to plant seven acres of prairie and nine acres of native lawns, in addition to the 250-gallon cistern, resulted in a 73 percent reduction in water use in the landscape. Perhaps even more remarkable is the fact that the native lawn seed mix, Habiturf, was not commercially available at the time; it was developed in collaboration with the Ladybird Johnson Wildlife Center. It has been so successful that it is now available in the retail marketplace. “The Center’s landscape has become a showcase for this product,” notes Sweeney, adding that is exciting to introduce the public to a sustainable alternative to conventional turf—especially in a drought-susceptible region.


In fact, that susceptibility was another design-driving factor. “One of the biggest challenges Dallas faces that makes LEED and sustainable strategies more interesting to the city is the fact that they are hard hit with issues of water conservation,” explains Sweeney. Minimal average rainfall, in addition to the city’s traditionally high water usage, are prompting careful consideration of how to utilize water efficiently. “It is a city that has overused water, and in recent years has realized it is a significant issue . . . they experience a lot of water bans. It was one of the things that [determined] many of the design decisions for this project.”


The George W. Bush Presidential Center is the first presidential library to achieve LEED Platinum under LEED for Building Design and Construction: New Construction and Major Renovations v2009.

Interestingly, finding native plants proved difficult, as they are not typically grown by the Texas nursery industry. They sourced trees from far and wide, including from ranch owners’ private properties. But again, that is changing: “One of the things we have seen since the project was completed is that some of the nurseries—where we were unable to find native materials—are now growing them,” notes Sweeney. “We’ve seen a shift in the commercial practices of some of these nurseries to meet the demand that we introduced with this project. It’s very rewarding to see that. This project is helping people open their eyes.”


Sweeney attributes the completion of several LEED-certified public buildings in recent years to the City’s growing recognition of the value inherent in sustainable design. He also understands performance and operating costs to be motivating factors. But perhaps the biggest driver, he says, is public appeal. “One of the great motivators in the industry right now is public perception—companies and institutions use social media and other formats to their sustainable objectives.”