Skip to main content

Cleantech Game Changer: Chris Castro, Chief of Staff, U.S. Department of Energy

June 6, 2023 Chris Castro

Where you bank matters, because who you let invest your capital can determine our collective future.

Chris Castro has dedicated his entire career to advancing sustainability and clean technology. From founding IDEAS For Us, a student organization turned global NGO dedicated to climate action, to leading the charge for sustainability in Orlando as the city’s Director of Sustainability and Resilience and Mayor Dyer’s senior advisor, to being appointed by President Biden to serve as Chief of Staff of a newly formed office at the U.S. Department of Energy focused on providing financial and technical resources to accelerate clean energy across States, Tribes, and Local governments and communities, fighting the climate crisis has long been at the core of Castro’s mission. Yet, until 2018, as Castro was dedicating his life to promoting clean technology, his money was working against him.

Castro had been banking, like most Americans, with a bank that was not values-aligned. Castro describes the realization that his money was being used in ways that did not align with his mission as an epiphany, stating “My money, as little as it is, was sitting in a bank that ultimately was still financing the next pipeline, even though I’m doing all this work every hour of the day to drive forward sustainability, equity, and climate action.” While Castro was leveraging capital to promote sustainable projects in his professional life, his personal capital was being used to finance unsustainable projects and corporations.

If Castro, one of the leading sustainability professionals in the United States, was unknowingly sending his money towards unsustainable endeavors, what does it say for the rest of Americans? Reflecting on this reality, Castro says, “You can imagine, pretty much everybody’s money is going to the problem.”

Troubled by this reality, Castro needed a new way forward. Thus, when his long-time mentor and friend, Ken LaRoe, came to him in 2018 with an idea to start a green bank, Castro was quickly sold. There began a process to create what Castro describes as a “values-aligned business as a force for good.” Their creation, Climate First Bank, became an alternative to traditional banking, driven by the need for “an entity that instead gets our collective capital… and actually uses our money to invest in the good things.”

The majority of green banks in the US function as funds rather than depository institutions. These institutions leverage private and public capital to make green investments. However, individuals cannot exclusively bank with green banks that are not also depository institutions. Climate First Bank is a green bank and an FDIC-insured depository institution, meaning it has the added function of allowing individuals to bank exclusively with them. When individuals bank with CFB, the investments the bank makes with their money must be values-aligned– not a cent goes towards pipelines or other dirty investments.

Climate First Bank’s commitment to investing according to its publicly stated values is solidified by its B Corp certification, the first of its kind held by a bank in the Southeastern United States. B Corp certification requires a legal commitment to be accountable to all stakeholders, including the environment. Furthermore, B Corp certification requires companies to go through one of two processes to ensure they demonstrate high levels of social and environmental performance and transparency; CFB went through both certification processes, proving its utmost commitment to stakeholders.

Since its founding, CFB has committed to and created innovative solutions in the field of clean technology financing. The bank’s ability to do this effectively is in part a result of its B-Corp status. Castro explains this reality, saying, “A B-Corp is kind of a non-profit, for-profit hybrid– it gives you the ability to invest in the community and in things that you value with shareholder profits that normally corporations don’t allow you to do.” The certification allows CFB to more easily direct its profits toward its mission. For example, CFB is able to buy down and make loans more competitive for green financing because it aligns with its mission. In addition, CFB chooses to focus on providing new types of loan products to drive forward climate action; these products are offered for solar energy, EV charging stations, and building retrofits, among other options. Climate First Bank has also chosen to be a 1% for the Planet member, meaning a minimum of 1% of all the bank’s profits are reinvested in sustainability. In reality, CFB reinvests much more than 1% of its profits into sustainability according to Castro.

Climate First Bank is part of a broader movement to reimagine banking. Castro states the goal of CFB as aiming to “use the same banking model, but actually use it as a way to solve the climate crisis and invest in sustainability.” A coalition of values-aligned banks has emerged as a part of this movement. This coalition, known as the Global Alliance for Banking on Values (GABV), is composed of banks that address an array of values. For individuals looking to align their money with their values, these banks are a great option. Castro elaborates on the growing demand for these institutions, maintaining “There is a lot of interest in sustainability and in climate investing even if you don’t know what that means…people know that it’s the right thing to do, and we’re moving in that direction.”

To keep up with the demand for innovative banking solutions to climate issues, CFB is focusing on answering the following question: how do we ensure consumers are informed so they can use their money in a way that aligns with their values? Castro envisions a future in which individuals can create an account at CFB and complete a profile based on what they care about, ultimately allowing them to receive information about how their spending aligns with their values. Each purchase would receive a value score quantifying the item’s alignment with the individual’s values. Even better, if there is an alternative with a higher value alignment in the community, the bank would redirect you to it. Instead of solely using individuals’ money to invest in values-aligned projects, the bank begins to teach individuals how to invest according to their values in all of their economic interactions. Then, just by banking with CFB, you’re actually supporting your mission. This is a major added value proposition, and likely the future of values-aligned banking.

With the passing of the Inflation Reduction Act (IRA), the activities of values-aligned banks will be bolstered by two main developments: new tax credits and rebates. Tax credits provided by the IRA can be used for an array of clean enhancements including electric vehicles, rooftop solar, battery storage, and AC systems. When Castro looks at this development, he sees major potential for pairing tax credits with loans provided by green banks to maximize impact. Reflecting on the economics of this pair, Castro says, “Most people will have reductions in their utility bill from the first day they turn on the solar… that is because the loan product plus the tax credit… makes the economics really pencil out.” These tax credits are unlimited until 2032, people just have to use them. Making the economics of clean technology enhancements even more accessible are rebates. The DOE’s Office of State and Community Energy Programs has $8.8 billion to administer in rebates to homeowners. These will largely be targeted towards low and moderate-income communities; households under 80% area-median-income (AMI) will be eligible to receive up to $14,000 to make home energy efficiency improvements. Castro reflects, “For a lot of households, they won’t have to spend a penny and they will have new AC and heating systems… it is an amazing opportunity.” To learn more about IRA-supported green financing opportunities, visit

In total, the IRA has allocated approximately $500 billion across the federal government for clean investments. Castro is eager for communities and green banks to take full advantage of this opportunity, as he states, “This is a real exciting time, and I think green banks are well-positioned to really scale up what is about to happen.” In the coming years, policies set forth in the Inflation Reduction Act will bolster the activities of the Climate First Bank and other institutions like it. Castro is enthusiastic about these developments; he believes “this decade is the decade to win.”

Castro refers to the power of values-aligned banking as “the secret sauce” behind solving global climate issues. By giving people options, individuals can begin to direct their capital towards clean investments and solutions to the issues they care about. When people direct their collective capital towards solutions en masse, they begin to reshape the future. As the movement to provide sustainable banking options grows and acts such as the IRA are passed, this future moves closer into sight.

Collective capital holds power. Game changers like Chris Castro and Climate First Bank show us we must use ours wisely.

About the Author

This article was written by Stella Ervin, an honors undergraduate and Cleantech Corner intern at UNC-Chapel Hill majoring in Economics with a minor in Sustainability. She has a passion for green finance and sustainable textile use. Connect with her on LinkedIn.