Power Player Behind Orlando’s Climate Action
At 32, Chris Castro can hold up more accolades from his work fighting climate change than most people earn in a lifetime.
It’s hard to define a true beginning to Chris Castro’s story of environmental action. Now Director of Sustainability & Resilience at City of Orlando, he’s quite literally at the heart of the dragon, in one of the least environmentally proactive States in the Nation. But he keeps moving the needle forward.
Maybe it began in Miami. A second generation Cuban American, Castro worked on his stepdad’s exotic palm tree farm, nurturing plants. A creature of the outdoors, he learned to scuba dive and developed a passion for all things ocean. From there, he turned to surfing, an interest that would affect his choice in colleges. He chose University of Central Florida partially due to its proximity to one of his favorite surf spots in Florida.
Castro was by no means a surf bum, however, with a full ride scholarship to UCF, and almost immediately taking action towards climate justice upon his arrival.
Mentors and Momentum
Castro’s first environmentally-focused class at UCF just so happened to be with Dr. Penelope Canan, who was one of the top five scientific leaders running the Montreal protocol back in the 1980s, working towards regulation of ozone depleting substances.
Orlando continues to improve its carbon footprint in part due to the efforts of Chris Castro and his team, who have propelled the city forward on important environmental initiatives. In 2020, Orlando became the first LEED Gold city in the Southeast United States.
Once Castro had finished that course, he had the realization “It’s not enough for me to continue to study this, I have to take action.” He gathered a group of his friends to form a coalition focused on taking action. That initial stem has since grown into IDEAS For Us, a United Nations-recognized sustainable solutions organization that has initiated more than 200 projects in communities around the world.
One of Chris’s and IDEAS first actions, far before it became internationally recognized, was to get their university, UCF, to commit to carbon neutrality and lay out a plan for how they would achieve that goal.
IDEAS For Us was officially registered at UCF by 2008, less than a year after initially coming together. In 2010, IDEAS incorporated as a 501c3 non-profit, and in 2012 Castro took IDEAS to Rio +20. IDEAS became one of the 10 percent of organizations accepted out of 8,000 competitors, which is when it became an accredited NGO of the UN.
This gave Castro the opportunity to become one of two individuals from each nation selected to represent the United States at the youth UN. Since then, IDEAS has grown to what it is today, helping to promote sustainable projects big and small across the world.
From Employee to Innovator to Ambassador
Castro’s first job after graduating from UCF was working for Orange County, the county encompassing Orlando, working to deploy recovery act funding focused around increasing energy efficiency.
While still working at the county at night, he started his company Citizen Energy (CE), and convinced his boss at the Department of Energy to leave his secure position to come join and manage. Within a year the company began to become successful, and Castro planned to move to Washington D.C., where his company headquarters was located. Before leaving for Washington, however, he was contacted by the Mayor of Orlando about running a new city program.
The mayor, Buddy Dyer, pitched the City Energy Project, which had the goal of designing “a robust energy efficiency ecosystem” as Castro said. With Castro already running an energy efficiency company, he saw the opportunity to further expand his impact through the lens of policy with this position.
Castro decided to take a backseat in his new and successful company, to pursue this policy position with the mayor thinking he would only be there for the two years contracted.
Within a year, however Castro was promoted to a full-time city employee, and moved from just managing the energy sector to the entire sustainability program, which is Green Works Orlando. Castro has been working in this position with the city for over seven years. Within those seven years, he and his team “have helped to transform Orlando into one of the leading vanguard cities in the country to drive sustainability” he says.
Equity and Equality
Since Castro started at the city, he has been able to create an office of sustainability and resilience in the executive department of the city. “We also have a chapter that’s dedicated in our municipal code to sustainability that ties our office in perpetuity,” he says. This allows him to further grow his staff and increase the impact of Green Works Orlando.
“We have these seven pillars,” Castro explains. “Each of these pillars have goals and targets out to 2040 and 2050. These are strategies all co-created with our community, with the real focus being social equity, climate resilience, and smart infrastructure.”
Chris Castro has put Orlando’s use of water, energy, and resources front and center, despite resistance to almost every form of environmental progress at the state and utility level.
Green Works has begun to build resilience hubs, small groups of people and gear aimed at managing emergencies such as hurricanes—to provide power, telecommunication, and food distribution.
He and his team have also been doing a lot of work tying transportation to clean energy. “We’re one of the hot cities in the country for EVs right now,” he says, from EV busses to 600 EV charging stations. Also, he notes: “Orlando has signed a contract to build the first Vertaport for electric urban air mobility, a.k.a flying taxis. It’s real. It’s happening. And it will be open in 2024.”
We’ll have to see that one in action before we can affirm or deny it’s viability and repeatability.
Addressing Human Activities
Green Works is also doing a lot of work around local food systems with programs promoting front yard farming, backyard chickens, turning vacant lots into urban gardens, etc.
They have also taken major strides towards zero waste.
“We are the only city in the Southeast that has a food waste collection program for residential and commercial,” Castro says. “We offer free composters for every resident that wants one, and we have grease collection, E-waste, textile waste; we are doing a tremendous amount around zero waste.”
Green Works has also done a lot of work around urban forestry and other programs promoting diversity of the local ecology. They have even become a certified wildlife habitat community by NWF.
Due to all of Castro and his team's work, Orlando became the first LEED Gold city in the Southeast United States last year. “All and all, this is accumulating to Orlando being one of the most recognized leaders in sustainability today,” he boasts.
While continuing to work for the city of Orlando, Castro has another project on the side: Climate First Bank. An earlier experience with financing through First Green Bank led to that bank becoming one of IDEAS For Us’s first donors and a close collaborator. Castro and the bank’s founder, Ken LaRoe, worked closely for the years following with First Green Bank helping to fund numerous community-based projects through IDEAS.
That bank was sold, but LaRoe recently came to Castro asking him to be one of the first founding directors of a new bank, to “help him to structure a board with integrity, that had a focus on mission aligned banking and to actually create a bank that drove climate action, that financed solutions that address climate change, and advanced sustainability.”
According to Castro, “We are opening June 1, and are super excited. We will have several different loan products around rooftop solar for residential, electric vehicle charging stations, building retrofits for commercial and multifamily buildings. Special loan products for green buildings that achieve high levels of performance discounting the interest rate based on the level of performance you get.”
“The goal is to really look at the Drawdown book by Paul Hawken, and use Drawdown as a roadmap for investment,” he says. “Paul Hawken is a part of this bank in an advising capacity.”
“It’s a brick and mortar community bank, so we will have branches, and then it’s also a digital bank. It’s not just subject to the region or to the state, but people will be able to bank remotely,” Castro explains. “We joined a large network of ATMs and banks called the Presto Network, which allows you to go get money out without any fees at your local grocery store and other places.”
“Our bank will also have the opportunity to offset your carbon for every gallon of gasoline you purchase and eventually every kWh that you buy,” he adds, “so you will be able to offset your own travel and add up your carbon footprint, and fully offset it through the bank's certified carbon offsets.
“We are in the process of developing a tool that allows us to better understand how our purchasing aligns with our values,” he continues. “Part of this bank that we often talk about is we want to create a values-based bank where people’s values are aligned with where their bank’s money is held, and also the investments”.
Balancing Inertia with Transience
“I think one of the biggest challenges cities face is the inertia of the status quo,” Castro says. “There is so much behind these 150 years of doing things the wrong way, that to change things to do it the right way in such a short amount of time is just an inherent obstacle.”
One of the ways they have been able to get around that is by establishing a robust culture of collaboration and partnership in Orlando. “Now you change the money markets and the paradigm of how people are using their money. That was my big epiphany,” he notes. “My money is sitting in banks literally funding the next pipeline, which I’m here daily trying to combat and eliminate.”
“We feel we will be a national bank within the first ten years and go public,” he confides. “We hope to have branches all over the country that are deeply rooted in solving the climate crisis.”
Another challenge that Castro says Orlando is facing is its high influx of transient visitors: “We have hundreds of thousands of people coming to Orlando to play every day, on top of our local population. These are fantastic opportunities from a revenue standpoint, but there are also unintended consequences, such as the amount of water that we are using, the amount of energy we are using, and the amount of waste we are producing. Then these people get on a plane back home, thinking ‘Peace out, Orlando,’ and we have to deal with those unintended consequences. So, sustainability is really about how do we sustain that form of an economy without compromising public health, our quality of life, and, of course, the environmental resources we depend on?”
“I think we need to do a better job at taking inspiration from nature,” Castro says, wrapping up our talk. “I’m a huge fan of the concept of biomimicry, and I think that nature has truly solved a lot of these problems that we are trying to solve.”
One of the biggest takeaways for him is the concept of symbiosis and how it leads to stronger, more resilient ecosystems. “The more biologically diverse an ecosystem the stronger it is,” Castro says. “So how do we take that concept and apply it to this transformation in sustainability that we are living in? The same concept around partnerships and collaboration is how I view symbiosis in the real world.”
“Obviously I’m super passionate about it!” Castro concludes. “A lot of people tell me this is who I am, not what I do—and it’s so true. I live and breathe this stuff around the clock.”
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