Making Silicon Valley Sustainable

Making Silicon Valley Sustainable

A rush of wind and the roar of an engine that goes suddenly silent–this is the first leg of my commute. From the Park Presidio stop aboard MUNI #28, I get off at Daly City BART (Bay Area Rapid Transit) to catch the Yellow Line to Millbrae Caltrain Station, where aboard the commuter rail line of Caltrain, I head steadily southward to Santa Clara, to the offices of Sustainable Silicon Valley (SSV).

Sustainable Silicon Valley offices in Santa Clara

From the vantage point of the second level of the Caltrain commuter car, I pass  the towns of Belmont, San Carlos, Palo Alto, and Sunnyvale. Cranes and construction crews break up the blanket of concrete, some 60 miles of it, one of the largest megaregions in the United States. They’re working on the buildings of tomorrow–buildings that will have their interior temperature controlled by AI and drinking water provided by the building itself, reusing wasted water provided by its users.

The tech field is embedded in the Bay Area, and the campuses of Google, Microsoft, and Facebook have become as much part of the landscape as the Pacific Ocean and the hills of San Mateo County. Yet despite this amazing collection of brainpower, opportunities to integrate these campuses with their local communities and to put in place technology and best practices to drive down emissions are often lost.

Enter Sustainable Silicon Valley.

SSV has a vision of a net positive Bay Area by 2050: more energy produced than is used and removing more carbon than is produced. Toward this end, SSV teams up with the leading tech companies and local agencies to implement this goal via key focus areas of waste, energy, and water. My focus area is water.

In the past four years, SSV has been working on increasing direct non-potable water reuse, recycling water that would otherwise be wasted for building needs. Direct means that the water is treated on site, not sent to a facility for treatment, and non-potable means that the source of water cannot be drunk directly before treatment. Facebook was the first of the tech companies to install a direct non-potable water reuse facility on its campus. Since then, Microsoft and Google have followed suit with their own plans to do the same.

During my commute to the office, my mind goes through the work I need to do that day. From the start, this has been a demanding and rewarding position. No two days are the same. One day I may be going on a site visit, the next day, editing a report for a grant, and the next day attending a planning meeting.

Cargill site visit with SSV’s Executive Director, Jennifer Thompson

The tasks themselves vary, as the position requires some communication work in outreaching to partners, coordinating meetings, and blog posting; some policy analysis; and some data analysis. I also provide strategic advising on program development and event planning–for example, leading a judging committee for the Bay Area Water Awards.  In the short time I’ve been at SSV, it has felt like year’s worth of work. And the year has only just begun!

With each task at SSV, I’m pulling on tools I learned at Bard: Caroline’s exercises on blog posts and public presentations, Monique’s community mapping exercises that I use to identify potential allies for pilot projects, Gautam’s analytical mantras that ensure that conclusions aren’t rushed to, and that ideas are rigorously tested for accuracy and effectiveness. Without the guidance of Bard, it is hard to imagine being able to have accomplished as much as I have in my short amount of time at SSV.


  1. kathleengorman

    Such an insider’s scope into the Silicon Valley’s sustainability efforts. I had never heard of the concept of non-potable water reuse facilities, or that they were so popular that Facebook.

    I can certainly see how Bard has prepared you for this position. However, as a first year just back from Oaxaca, I have to say your internship reminds me of our visit to a grammar school in San Miguel Suchixtepec. As part of their water management plan, the school made the decision to stop spending time, money, and resources to bring water into the mountains just for plumbing reasons. Instead, they adopted a system of dry bathrooms. During out visit to the school, we learned about their method to use a mixture of dry ash and sand, instead of needlessly using valuable water. We also saw how students would reuse fluids to water and fertilize their gardens. While it miles away from Silicon Valley, it’s interesting to see how the problem of scarce water is being approached.

    Your internship in work in Silicon Valley sounds very rewarding. A shift in the culture of sustainability in Silicon Valley is sure to quickly spread to the rest of the country just like next tech trend. Good luck with the rest of your internship and helping shift that culture!

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