This is the first in a series of blog posts by the Southern Alliance for Clean Energy (SACE) where we conducted interviews with Knoxville City Councilmembers about climate and energy issues impacting Knoxville and its residents. Each blog provides background on the council member, a summary of the interview, as well as an audio recording of the interview. Read all the blogs in the series here #KnoxvilleCityCouncilClimate and listen to all of the recordings here. To learn more about SACE’s work in Knoxville and our efforts to #RenewTN, go to RenewTN.org.
Seema Singh was elected as City Councilwoman for Knoxville’s 3rd District on November 7, 2017, and sworn in on December 16, 2017. Her current term ends in December of 2021. She was born in Varanasi, India, and became a naturalized American Citizen at age 13. She graduated from Bearden High School and subsequently the University of Tennessee – Knoxville. Singh and her family have called Knoxville’s 3rd District home on and off for over 40 years.
For over 20 years, Singh has been a community advocate, with a focus on medical social work and increase access to healthcare for women, people with HIV/Aids, and the homeless population. And when she took a break from this intense work, she taught ballet, sign language, and yoga to children. Singh currently runs a jail alternative program for domestic violence offenders.
Below is a summary of the interview conducted by SACE’s Civic Engagement Coordinator, Brady Watson. The questions are grouped together for better flow but were not necessarily asked in the order listed. Two common themes presented throughout Councilwoman Singh’s answers were the idea of interconnectedness and the need for increased education and community engagement. Listen to a recording of the interview.
KUB’s Recently Signed 20-year Contract with TVA
I had a previous conversation with the Councilwoman where I expressed SACE’s concerns with the contract, and she shared some of these. Councilwoman Singh stated it had been on her mind and that she did not understand all the details, but worried that it may stop progress by limiting the city’s ability to adopt new technologies or advancements that may happen in the next 20 years. While she has concerns with the contract, she trusts that the staff at KUB are good people and will make decisions in the best interest of the community. She also mentioned a recent announcement by TVA that the public utility is outsourcing jobs to other countries.
Knoxville’s Carbon Reduction Goals
- Cut city government emissions 50% from 2005 levels by 2030
- Cut community-wide emissions 80% by 2050
“Yes, I support these, no question. I believe in science,” said Councilwoman Singh.
Councilwoman Singh harkened back to her Indian ancestry and noted the rapid population growth in India and increased emissions have led to rolling brown zones in New Delhi, where her nieces are subjected to the impacts of air pollution. In speaking to the need to take action on climate, Councilwoman Singh referenced a Chinese proverb, “The best time to plant an apple tree is 20 years ago, the second-best time is now.”
To help meet these goals, the City is in the process of forming a Mayor’s Climate Council which Councilwoman Singh expressed excitement on working with and learning from the various experts that will comprise the Council, including SACE, to inform the City’s climate mitigation plan going forward.
The Councilwoman mentioned the city has already met its 2020 carbon reduction goals and increased use of renewables at the city level can serve as a model for the community as a whole, which is where the real challenge will come in reducing emissions.
“Right now when I’m talking about modeling and showing that it’s possible, this is also a time for us to do a lot of education. To me, there are a lot of people who don’t understand what the consequences are. It feels almost like telling you to eat your vegetables because it will keep you healthy but you don’t see the direct result for doing the right thing. But, way down the road, there are health consequences,” said Councilwoman Singh.
She emphasized the need for transitioning to clean energy needs to be a higher issue and relatable to Knoxvillians stating, “It’s actually like when coronavirus was over in Asia and the US wasn’t getting prepared for it because it was a problem over there and we just seem to completely forget that everything is connected.”
Stating it bluntly, Councilwoman Singh on the prospect of setting renewable energy goals for Knoxville said, “We have to.”
Councilwoman Singh acknowledged that renewable energy goals would be easier at the city level than at the community-wide level, and may elicit some pushback from contractors because of potential upfront costs for onsite renewable energy generation, even though there would be overall lower costs to the building owner or tenant over time. Energy efficiency can also add to upfront costs for buildings but are needed long term, and education will help community members understand that, Singh said.
Councilwoman Singh emphasized that being efficient with your resources just makes sense. During her childhood, her family found ways to save energy, like insulating around their power outlets. When talking about making energy efficiency improvements she asked, “Why not? I just saved myself some money and made a difference in this world a little bit.”
Later in the interview, Councilwoman Singh mentioned the recently completed LED streetlight project that contributed to the City achieving its carbon reduction goals. Councilwoman Singh acknowledged the project began before her term on council, but she supported it stating, “It takes money to save energy.” The LED street light project was completed last year and Singh says it will save the city serious money while also reducing carbon emissions.
The Councilwoman mentioned that added costs for making buildings more efficient could roll down to the community but requirements alone are not enough. While the costs to invest in energy efficiency programs and implementation will pay off in the long run, education will be key to make sure citizens understand this.
“It’s all connected in a web, and if you look at costs that way, it’s pretty minimal. So often we think of these changes/requirements/goals as taking something away from us, and we have to make the sacrifice to meet these. If we could change that [way of thinking about it], to me that would be helpful.”
She also mentioned energy efficiency upgrades may be difficult for some low-income households who will save customers money in the long term but can’t necessarily afford to invest in now.
Additionally, Councilwoman Singh highlighted the need for equity to be taken into consideration in Knoxville’s climate action plans.
“I get really excited about transportation,” Councilwoman Singh said with a laugh.
Councilwoman Singh suggested that perhaps smaller and more flexible transit options with expanded hours and service areas to get people where they need to go when they need to go there. Stating her frustration with current participation in Knoxville’s public transit system, she said,
“When I see 5, 6, 3 people on a large, huge bus, it’s depressing. This system of public transportation we’re trying to get more people interested in, and I’m not sure what the solution is.”
She mentioned the ever-increasing rate of innovation in the transportation sector, and buses should be electric but emphasized the need for more public education around electric transportation.
“I liken it to the flat-screen TV, and the regular TV. You can’t put a regular TV out on the street, nobody will take it. So eventually I see something like that occurring,” Singh said about the appeal of electric transportation once people get more exposed to it versus gas-powered vehicles.
The Councilwoman supported the City’s recent purchase of electric buses but recalled concerns with the purchasing company’s labor practices. In general, she is very supportive of electric vehicles but highlighted the need to ensure equitable access and treatment.
When asked about electrifying the city’s vehicle fleet, Councilwoman Singh views these issues as a holistic picture and supports sustainability measures adding, “We’ve been working towards that for a while.”
She acknowledged clean vehicle options are available, but the city’s fleet is large, with various types and classes of vehicles, so creative alternatives may be needed.
The Councilwoman believes the city should wait to see how technology develops before setting electric transportation goals stating, “Eventually yes. There’s so much change happening with autonomous vehicles and EVs [electric vehicles]. …. I don’t really think we could put our finger on to say ‘let’s do this.”
Adopting More Clean Energy Programs to Advance Climate Goals
Councilwoman Singh mentioned her support of a Green New Deal, especially during times of uncertainty.
“Maybe now is the time we really need to start thinking about as we build up our economic structure and try to hopefully make it a bit more fair, that we can use this time to focus on massive employment in green technology.”
Councilwoman Singh closed by saying she tries to remain optimistic about the future and hopeful we can make a change and work harder to achieve it.