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Building systems engineer helps lessen climate impact of Sandia’s campuses

Image of Climate scientist Robin Jones poses with Joe the Guardian by artist Thomas Dambo
NET-ZERO HERO — Robin Jones, manager of building systems engineering at Sandia, poses in Chicago with Joe the Guardian by artist Thomas Dambo, who uses recycled materials in his art to raise environmental awareness. Robin is part of a group at Sandia that aims to achieve net-zero energy and emissions on the California campus. (Photo by Robin Jones)

Robin Jones, manager of building systems engineering at Sandia, makes a daily effort to only use the resources she needs. Energy efficiency is her lifelong passion, and it shows — from her exuberant discussions about reducing waste, to her desire to make Sandia campuses more energy efficient, Robin is driven by a calling to waste nothing and make use of everything. In addition to her manager role, Robin is part of a team working to make the Sandia/California campus net-zero, which refers to an equal balance of greenhouse gases emitted and removed from the atmosphere.

Robin attended New Mexico Tech for her undergraduate studies and Stanford University for graduate work, where she obtained a master’s degree in environmental engineering. Prior to her work at Sandia, Robin worked in sanitary sewer maintenance at the Compton Field Office of the Los Angeles County Sanitation Districts. She then designed systems that cleaned up various contamination elements, namely diesel fuel and chlorinated compounds, from soil and drinking water. In 2009, Robin joined Sandia as a large-construction project manager before transitioning her work into capital investment planning and then nuclear weapons. In 2018, Robin accepted her current role because it allowed her to return to her passion of conservation and apply her education to solve heavy-hitting energy issues.

Read Robin’s interview below to learn more about her projects in New Mexico and California, her entry into environmental engineering and her take on how to recruit others to join the fight against climate change.

Why are you passionate about climate change?

This is it. This is our planet. If we make it inhospitable for our species, then it’s all over. Have you seen Mars? I would rather live here.

What does “climate security” mean to you?

I think climate security really means security of vital resources. Climate change can affect access to resources, like water, and cause extreme weather events that destroy people’s housing. When necessities of life are endangered, people get worried. When countries get worried, conflict arises. Also, as we encroach on another species’ habitat, they encroach on our habitat, and then we mix diseases and fight for the same resources. This is such a complicated problem.

But if I can do a little thing to help — make something more energy efficient, turn off a light, shop at a thrift store, use only what I need — then there are more resources available and a little less insecurity.

What climate-related challenge are you most excited to work on?

I love the idea of delivering clean water to people and taking away their dirty water. To me, there is no higher calling. And, as an engineer, I can work to provide clean water, cut energy usage and clean up an environment — all of which is essential to human health.

As a facilities organization, it feels really good to change out an old inefficient heating, ventilation and air conditioning system to one that uses a lot less energy, but we also have a role in raising energy awareness among the workforce. Small things can make a big difference.

Several years ago, we put these little stickers in some of the labs at Sandia that said, “shut the sash.” The fume hood uses a fan to pull air outside. When you “shut the sash,” the fan in the hood turns off. We put these stickers in the labs to bring awareness to the use of the electricity the fans require. We found that when people started to “shut the sash” they also started to turn off the lights, turn off their computer and use less water when they wash their hands. The awareness has a chain reaction effect.

At the moment, I am really excited about working to make the California campus net-zero for energy and emissions.

How does your work at Sandia advance climate security?

I am the manager of a strategic planning group for building systems, including the air conditioning system, domestic and hot water systems, electrical system, roofing system, elevators, etc. You name it, if it’s inside a building, my group is doing strategic planning for it. One of the reasons I took this position is because it also has energy management and sustainability opportunities, and that’s really where my passion is. My team does building audits every four years on all of Sandia’s large buildings. The team assesses how much electricity, natural gas and water the building uses. We also evaluate the building environment for comfort and human aspects. We take all these findings and write a report that summarizes the state of the building to help us plan for more efficient use in the future.

I really like not wasting, and I think that comes down to a fundamental thing about my personality.

—Robin Jones, manager of building systems engineering at Sandia

Right now, I am also on special assignment as part of a team to make the California campus net-zero. It’s important to understand that net-zero energy and net-zero emissions are two different things. I will use the example of a building. A net-zero energy building means that all the energy that building is using is being produced locally by renewable sources, for example, solar panels. The panels provide all the energy that you need. Net-zero emissions is a little more complicated and means that you are capturing all the greenhouse gases you are emitting. Now that’s the tricky part. How do you capture what you emit? But our researchers here at Sandia are working on that challenge and many others.

What perspective or capabilities does Sandia bring to addressing the climate crisis?

We have a few programs in place that leverage research and really bring awareness to basic energy-savings habits.

Right now, we are piloting Smart Labs, which is a program that really comes down to only using the energy you need. You figure out what chemicals are in your lab, identify your hazards and then design a system that uses just the right amount of energy to make the lab safe but energy efficient. More is not always better, so Smart Labs helps us maintain a system to exactly what we need and no more.

Another program is called ongoing commissioning. Here at Sandia, we have building automation systems in place that monitor daily operations. This information is fed to a computer program that uses data analytics to detect faults in the building’s operations. This system helps us remain as efficient as possible and maintain healthy and comfortable spaces. The COVID-19 pandemic made things like heating and cooling buildings even more complicated. If we have an empty building because everyone is working at home, how do we heat or cool it for optimum efficiency? On the other hand, if people are in the building during COVID-19, we want to maximize outside air, which isn’t very energy efficient but better for health and safety. These are the decisions that building engineers must balance.

What does the nation or world look like in the future if we are successful in addressing climate change?

I don’t know, but in certain ways, I think things are already better. There has been some progress. I grew up in Los Angeles, and when I was a kid, we used to have smog days where you couldn’t go outside and play at recess. I remember certain days that it hurt to breathe, and my mom, who also grew up in LA, said she remembers days she had to sit down on the curb because her lungs burned so bad. But now they brought in catalytic converters and air pollution regulations, and the air quality in the basin has improved immensely.

How you feel about the climate problem depends a lot on your personal experiences. If you grew up somewhere remote, like Montana, you may not see what all the fuss over air pollution is about. But if you see glaciers melting or bears coming into residential areas or your home now floods every year, you can really feel the problem.

If we are successful in addressing climate change, there will be adequate resources, like clean water and air, for everyone.

What’s your vision for integrating energy equity and environmental justice into Sandia’s climate security efforts?

Energy equity and environmental justice is such a hard issue because oftentimes the people who don’t need it don’t have an issue with it, and those who need it most can’t get it. For example, I put solar panels on my house because I can. I now have a lower electric bill because I could afford the solar panels, but I don’t necessarily need a lower bill. At the same time, there are people who really need lower bills who can’t afford the solar panels. So, the question is, how do we help those who need access to resources, like solar panels, when they can’t necessarily afford them or get access. I don’t know what the answer is, but I think a start would be for everyone to use only the energy they need to help establish resource equity.

If you were trying to recruit or inspire somebody to work on the problem of climate change, what would you say to them?

Well, we’ve all heard about carbon footprints, but I think the key to inspiring others to combat climate change is through talking about a climate shadow. Climate shadow is the example that one person sets by reducing energy usage and the ripple effect that one person has on others in their shadow. I think I would also ask the person, “How are you going to serve your fellow human beings? How can you go into a career to help combat the problem?”

My son wants to design an aircraft for Elon Musk, and I said, “You know what, instead of working on a rocket, why don’t you design an airplane that is emission-free? That would make a huge impact.” One of the larger sources of greenhouse gas that Sandia produces is when our staff travels — airline travel. So, we and the generations following us have this opportunity to make huge impacts by thinking about these questions and problems in a new way. We can invent new things to solve old problems. Instead of thinking, “How am I going to make money?” these generations are starting to think, “How am I going to make a difference?”

How can we educate and involve more people in addressing the climate crisis?

I think the schools are doing amazing work teaching about the climate crisis and talking to kids about what they can do to make changes. When my son and I were both at home during the pandemic, we did this really cool thing called an energy-savings treasure hunt. You go around your home or place of business and use the booklet DOE provides to identify ways to save energy in your home. You answer questions about your appliances, your thermostat and your daily routine. It’s all simple things that kids can understand, but it impacts all of us. I think fun activities like that really open the possibility to teach and involve new people in climate change.

There is also an opportunity to teach through other means, like art. Thomas Dambo, a Danish artist, uses recycled pallets and materials to make massive sculptures around the world. Once again, it brings to mind your carbon shadow and how you can reuse things to make something new rather than just tossing them in the trash.

I’ve also seen places use simple competitions to raise awareness about energy usage, and that’s another way we could teach about climate change and energy efficiency in a fun way. By only using what we need, we could see massive reductions of energy usage that could grow over time.

This article is part of Sandia’s Climate Community Series that highlights Sandia’s work in a diverse range of climate research and categories of action.

Staff are invited to join the Sandia Climate Community by signing up for our climate email list, attending all hands meetings and participating in conversations on Teams. A link to join the community is available on the Climate Security at Sandia website.

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