Margaret Cherne-Hendrick, an energy expert at the nonprofit sustainability advocate Fresh Energy, is working on an issue that stretches back to the very first question human beings ever asked: how do we keep warm in the winter? How do we last through the tough times with the resources we’ve got?
Her new answer to this age-old question is to use a technology we have, electricity, in a better way, warming our homes with renewable power and smart electric appliances that don’t let energy go to waste. Yet she faces challenges our cave-dwelling ancestors could never imagine. To help us all keep warm in a better way, she must overcome divided politics and the ticking clock of the climate crisis.
“Across the Midwest we have some pretty unique challenges, which I also would call opportunities, compared to the coasts,” she says. “We have this super cold climate, which is wonderful, and we also have, pretty often, purple state politics. It’s a great opportunity to demonstrate exactly how to do this type of transformation.”
If you can keep Minnesota warm without harming the planet, you can do it anywhere. But to do that, you need to convince people that climate change, and the solutions to it, aren’t something that’s just happening out there, at the poles or on the high seas. Changing our home planet means changing the way we think about our homes.
The name for this idea, “beneficial electrification” isn’t exactly an earworm, but the transformation it calls for is profound. Right now, fossil fuels power our home in ways subtle and obvious. In Minnesota, about half of the power on the grid comes from coal and natural gas. Inside our homes, we use more even more fossil fuels, to light our stoves heat our water, and power our boilers. Under “beneficial electrification,” all of that would switch over to electric power.
“We see that this type of fuel sourcing has a pretty large climate impact,” Cherne-Hendrick says. “We’re working with the understanding that the IPCC, that science tells us we need to be carbon neutral across our economy by midcentury. That means that is going to require a pretty large transformation in how we heat our homes, and that’s the largest use of energy inside, is heating in our buildings.”
This, like most deep change, is complicated by numerous factors. If everyone switches to electric appliances too fast, and the energy grid doesn’t keep pace with its transition to renewables, that means greater use of fossil fuel sources, since more people will be using dirty electricity. If people don’t use the right electric appliances, they’re stuck with expensive, inefficient technology.
Luckily, people like Cherne-Hendrick are chipping away at these difficulties. Fresh Energy helped urge Minnesota Governor Tim Walz to make landmark sustainability commitments like announcing Clean Car standards and a carbon-free electricity promise. Thanks to advances in appliance technology, smart heaters and stoves are out there that are just as good as the fossil fuel alternatives, and Fresh Energy guides people on which ones to get.
The greater challenge, though, is cutting through fossil fuel industry propaganda and political chest-thumping to understand the nature of the problem in the first place, something Cherne-Hendrick saw first hand at the start of her career, amid America’s natural gas awakening of the early 2000s.
In the 2000s and early 2010s, there was a broadly held idea that natural gas was the “clean-burning” next step forward for the country and the climate. The use of hydraulic fracturing, better (and more infamously) known as “fracking,” to free up the U.S.’s huge reserves of untapped natural gas, was taking off. Cherne-Hendrick, a lifelong scientist, was at Boston University working on her Ph.D. in geography at the time, and she wanted proof to back up all the puffery.
“They’re saying it’s super clean burning, it’s natural, it’s our solution to get us off coal,” Cherne-Hendrick says. “It’s really cheap, and here I was sort of pulling back the veil and saying oh my gosh no.”
She and a team of researchers had a hunch things were more complicated than that. So, like a team of scientific bounty hunters, they went looking for “fugitive emissions,” hidden geysers of methane, a greenhouse gas more potent than carbon dioxide, that were steadily leaking into the atmosphere from shoddy gas infrastructure. To see the unseen and count the uncounted, they had to customize a special instrument to measure the problem, a car-mounted spectrometer. Their results shocked them, and dimmed the halo around natural gas.
“If we take into account these fugitive emissions from leaks, especially from urban environments, what’s the total carbon footprint of these fuels?” she says. “Are they really as clean as we think they are? The answer is no.”
Turns out there were methane fissures in overlooked places. The gas was leaking from underground sources, but only surfacing at odd chinks in the urban environment, through manhole covers and cracks in the sidewalk. Taking all those hidden emissions together, it turned out natural gas was no cleaner than any other conventional fuel in Boston, and was potentially worse. These findings helped inform the city’s eventual carbon neutrality plan, and bills at the state legislature.
Asking hard questions about how the popular conversation intersects with science and established wisdom is a through-line in Cherne-Hendrick’s career. She started off as a biologist, studying the Yellow Monkeyflower. Scientists love this flower because it’s highly adaptable. Put it somewhere with different sunlight conditions, different soil—the Monkeyflower finds a way to persevere.
Cherne-Hendrick went to the University of Montana working on a master’s in biology and ecology, and she had the seeming dream-gig of observing this miraculous little flower in Yellowstone National Park. But she started to wonder, way out there amid the bison and geysers, was she doing enough to fight for the planet’s adaptability?
“People were definitely talking about climate change,” Cherne-Hendrick says of the time period, around 2009. “But I was in such a niche program that I found myself more and more interested in studying the impacts that were more associated with climate change than I was necessarily the plants and the nitty gritty, parsing the gene changes on a day-to-day basis.”
Still, she struggled with her next move. Good science was the key to understanding climate solutions before they went out to the masses, but the masses might never be swayed by the granular, bit-by-bit work of good science.
“I really felt this tension that the work that I was doing in Montana was not the vehicle to make that sort of impactful change, that I needed to sort of reset and move to a different model that would allow me to be more policy-relevant,” she says. “It's a fine line in academia. You want to be able to do data-driven, hypothesis-driven science, and you want it to be policy-relevant, but you also don’t want to be seen as an advocate, and therefore have bias.”
She’s been working on this balance ever since. She had to find a way to thread the needle, to make change without compromising on the science or the public activism. To do that, she’d have to move beyond the ivory tower, beyond Yellowstone, beyond hunting through the dark recesses of urban infrastructure for fugitive emissions. She’d have to take everything she learned there about understanding the true nature of energy, heat, and home, and bring it to the politicians and to the masses, while making sure all that science-and-climate talk didn’t scare away skeptics or laymen.
The key to cutting through the clutter, it turned out, was acting a bit like the Monkeyflower herself. To teach the world how to adapt our energy, she had to adapt how she talked about the world. In the Midwest, sometimes that means talking about climate change without actually saying “climate change.” It’s the ultimate intersectional issue, so no matter the audience, someone’s bound to have a connection.
“In the midwest, it’s so important to recognize that climate is not necessarily the motivating factor for people when we’re making public policy,” she says.
Instead, she’s found that talking about improving the economy, creating new jobs, upping public safety—all things that beneficial electrification would help inspire—makes even some skeptical politicians take notice.
“It’s all inextricably linked,” she says. “You can’t disentangle climate from any of the driving forces that anyone up at the capital is working on these days, whether they want to admit it or not.”
At the same time, it’s not just smooth talk that will change the conversation. It’s also going to take real listening. Fresh Energy is working on a Midwestern Building Decarbonization Coalition, to include a wide range of voices in this conversation through community listening sessions and events. The most vulnerable communities, the ones living in neighborhoods with old infrastructure, or landlords who can’t or won’t bother updating their facilities, are the ones who will suffer the worst effects of bad energy sources, like high bills and indoor air pollution from gas stoves without proper ventilation, as well as generally suffer more through climate change.
“This work is being done in pockets around the midwest, but is not being done in a way that we have those pockets of advocates communicating with each other,” she says. “We’re starting to do listening sessions to build out the coalition now to be inclusive of a whole different suite of stakeholders and advocates across the midwest to try to understand how to address this problem and take into account community-level feedback to drive our tactics and strategies.”
Still, there are days when all the talking and listening in the world doesn’t yield results. The Minnesota legislature is divided, and Cherne-Hendrick says this makes the sweeping reform Fresh Energy thinks is necessary hard to carry out.
Changing the way all of us think about our homes was never going to be easy. Cherne-Hendrick says you have to just keep going, take your wins when you can get them, and focus on building a movement on a solid foundation of science and community.
“It’s about building relationships and it’s about building trust. The most successful policies are those that are built with a really big tent of stakeholders, where you can have disparate interests that come together for a common cause,” she says. “How you broker that common cause, you know the devil is always in the details, but you have to find a way to stay positive, and remember exactly why you’re doing the work.”
For Cherne-Hendrick, she likes to remember her childhood in the Pacific Northwest and the crystalline waters of Lake Waldo she’d visit with her family on annual canoe trips. She keeps a framed map, with xs marking where they sat around the fire for the night in her living room to remind her.
Once you find that motivation, whether its jobs or nostalgia or the climate or Monkeyflowers, or all of the above, the key is taking that and spreading it to those around you.
“Your money talks,” she says. “We can do a lot to start to change culture by changing how we invest. Those are small, incremental changes that need to scale, so always maintaining the eye towards, change the culture in which you live, and making sure that change is happening all the way up at the top.”
And once those changes start to snowball, they have massive potential. Research has shown that when it comes to things like electric cars and solar panels, a neighbor getting them is one of the best predictors that you’ll get them too.
We can all relate to the desire to keep warm in the winter, to do the best by our communities with the resources at hand. Now that we’ve got that universal connection, it’s time to build a universal movement to match.