Karen Rainbolt MS ’09 never thought of herself as an environmental activist. But when the mayor of her home city of Gaithersburg, Md., told her that a municipal declaration to adopt environmental standards outlined in the Kyoto protocols would be an issue “too political” to touch, she was spurred to action.
“I thought about that, and wrote back to him saying that it is a human, social, economic and community issue—so how could it not be a political issue?” she said.
Karen was initially inspired by a Newsweek article on Seattle mayor Greg Nickels’ response to the U.S. rejection of the Kyoto Protocol in 2001. Concerned by impacts of climate change in his city, Nickels declared Seattle would aim to meet Kyoto environmental standards and challenged other U.S. mayors to follow his lead. His initiative morphed into the U.S. Mayors Climate Protection Agreement, which now includes 1060 mayors nationwide.
Karen thought Gaithersburg ought to be on the list.
“So I showed the mayor a map of cities that had adopted the agreement—they were all over the place, in red states and blue states. It was a true non-partisan issue.”
She won the argument.
Her reward was an invitation to join an advisory committee to set up new building codes using “green building” principles. She helped Gaithersburg adopt sustainable practices in new commercial and residential projects. When other Montgomery County towns balked at adopting similar codes, Karen pointed out that Gaithersburg already had them, and it hadn’t slowed housing development—they just made new development more sustainable.
She and her allies won their point. In 2006, the county passed a bill establishing energy efficiency and environmental design requirements for buildings over 10,000 square feet.
A graduate of Green Mountain College’s environmental studies program, Karen has made a practice of seeking the place where sustainability and profit intersect.
Karen works as editor of Foghorn, the magazine of the Passenger Vessel Association (PVA) which includes large ferry companies, small cruise excursion vessels, inland river paddle wheelers — just about anything that floats and carries passenger traffic on American waterways.
Her GMC master’s thesis project with advisor Ron Steffens eventually developed into PVA’s Green WATERS program, which helps vessel operators cut costs while reducing their environmental footprint. (WATERS, launched in 2009, is the acronym for We Are Taking Environmental Responsibility/Stewardship).
“One of the first things I introduced was getting operators to reduce idle time of engines, reduce their speed slightly, or make small route changes to take advantage of favorable winds and currents and cut down on fuel use,” Karen said.
Green WATERS also includes protocols for onboard recycling, and using environmentally friendly chemicals for cleaning boats.
Karen is gratified that so many vessel owners have bought into the program, not just because of cost savings like lower fuel costs, but from a general recognition that a dirty environment means less business. Today, there are 32 vessel companies participating in the program, with more than 200 vessels in the PVA Green Fleet carrying over 53 million passengers annually.
“I now want to work with naval engineers and architects as well as shipbuilders, vessel owners, and others to create new vessels (rather than retrofit existing vessels) that are specifically designed to be as environmentally responsible as possible,” Karen says.
One PVA member in the San Francisco Bay area is doing a study to determine the viability of using hydrogen fuel cells for his fleet, which might lead to the first emission-free fleet in the U.S. Last year the Green WATERS Conference featured a discussion about the use of a large, fixed “wing” to utilize wind power in the San Francisco Bay area, rather than diesel fuel.
It’s clear that change is on the way for how society transports people on sea as well as land.
“It’s an exciting time because renewables are suddenly part of the discussion in fueling fleets of the future,” Karen said.