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Environmental Solutions – Pieces Are Sorted, but How Do We Put Them Together?

April 11, 2023 Puzzle pieces

Imagine you are putting jigsaw puzzle pieces together. Despite having the puzzle box photo as your key, the 5,000 pieces may drive you nuts. Contemporary environmental challenges are similar to, or even more mind-binding than, puzzling. We have the vision of a clean and equitable economy that works with all in mind and with ever-advancing and faster-updating technologies at hand. However, the question is: How do we put the pieces together?

Only by matching the tabs and blanks of the correctly interlocked and tessellated pieces, can one produce a complete picture of the box cover, which highlights the importance of appropriate, specialized pieces being delivered to the exact location. To answer my question about integrating resources and technologies into a greener future, I interviewed Dr. Henry C. McKoy, Jr. Dr. McKoy was appointed by President Biden to be the Director of the Office of State and Community Energy Programs (SCEP) in the Department of Energy (DOE).

In our conversation, I soon realized how the SCEP, the brand-new office of the DOE, designs place-based strategies according to the position of the puzzle in both its particular environmental and societal settings. Dr. McKoy explained to me the distinctness of places and the significance of listening to and understanding the local communities where they exist. He described it as like designing individual medicines from an understanding of human DNA. “We measure environmental impacts through categories such as buildings, transportation, electricity, and industry, among others. Those all reflect places: homes, office spaces, roads, cars, factories, etc.” Though the grand picture of the nation gives us a direction, only by understanding the essence of unique communities – ranging from economical operations, environmental circumstances, and cultural ideologies – can our existing clean technologies be practiced more efficiently and profoundly.

For a complete image of our vision to appear on our puzzle board, every possible piece must be considered and integrated. Similarly, in solving today’s climate crisis, the SCEP attaches substantial importance to energy investments in historically disadvantaged and underrepresented communities. Lacking prior infrastructure investments compared to their wealthier counterparts, low-wealth neighborhoods adopt clean technologies and information much more slowly and at higher costs. Because of this, Dr. McKoy, the SCEP, and the DOE made it a priority to invest in technologies that would lead to direct economic benefit for the most vulnerable populations. For example, technology that, through improved efficiency, could ease the financial burden of energy use not only in single-family housing but also in multi-story apartments for low-income households. It is also much more common for environmental costs to be asymmetrically borne by low-income communities or communities of color. Dr. McKoy illustrated this devastating concentration with the example of his experience on a tour led by a group of community members. This tour visited places in the community where corporations have dumped waste, which is linked to the SCEP’s endeavor to listen to communities’ voices and bring forth place-based solutions. Dr. McKoy aspires to “[upbuild] critical community infrastructure for those historically disadvantaged communities to be able to absorb and process clean energy investments of capital, information, and technologies for decades to come, resulting in a better quality of life around health and economic mobility.” This goal forms the backbone of the SCEP’s valuable work.

When I asked Dr. McKoy what he would do if he had a $50 billion blank check, he answered in a surprising manner. “I would spend it on finding lost Einsteins, the next innovator, the next patent holder, who will come up with solutions to address climate change.” Indeed, investing in individuals from low-income backgrounds, whose intelligence might be overlooked, and giving them resources to succeed may foster progress in searching for environmental solutions well beyond our imagination. Only when all pieces in the jigsaw puzzle and our society contribute, can the generated effect be optimized.

The puzzle of climate change, however, is not a North Carolina conundrum or an American conundrum. It is a global challenge. It can, therefore, only be resolved through global efforts. Dr. McKoy claimed that as the US is leading the combat of climate change, the paradigm of SCEP projects may absolutely be used elsewhere in the globe. Specifically, the previous work of the Weatherization Assistance Program (WAP) and State Energy Program (SEP), two SCEP programs, demonstrated that they are models that may be exported to other nations that must also address climate challenges and incorporate place-based methods.

Though we face exceptional challenges in assembling the pieces of existing technologies and ample human resources, with the principles of place-based strategies, inclusive consideration, and integrated efforts, we can build an equitable, inclusive, and clean future for all.


State and Community Energy Programs. (2022). States, Tribes, Territories, and Local Communities are at the Forefront of the United States’ Transition to a Clean Energy Economy. U.S. Department of Energy.

U.S. Department of Energy. (n.d.). Office of State and Community Energy Programs.

U.S. Department of Energy (DOE). (n.d.). Home [LinkedIn page]. LinkedIn.

About the Author

This article was written by Yichi Liu, a freshman at UNC-Chapel Hill majoring in Environmental Science. She is currently an IE Cleantech Corner Initiative intern involved with the Energy Policy track of the 2023 UNC Cleantech Summit. Connect with her on LinkedIn.