2013 Science, Technology and Environment

Josh Silverman

Discovered and led efforts to halt the release of more than one million tons of the world’s most potent greenhouse gas from Energy Department facilities.

While the Department of Energy (DOE) has long been committed to reducing greenhouse gas emissions that contribute to global warming, Josh Silverman discovered that many of the department’s facilities were unknowingly emitting a very powerful pollutant.

Silverman, the DOE’s director of sustainability support, examined the operations at the department’s national laboratories, production facilities and power administrations and found that little attention was being paid to the unintended releases of sulfur hexafluoride, the world’s most potent greenhouse gas.

Leading a departmental working group, Silverman identified huge gaps in air pollution controls at DOE facilities and initiated steps to prevent the discharge of these emissions. This included conducting maintenance and repairs to reduce leaks, and deploying technologies to capture and reuse these gases.

The impact has been significant. DOE officials said they have halted the release of about one million metric tons of greenhouse gas since 2009, the equivalent of eliminating polluting emissions from 200,000 passenger vehicles every year.

“Josh Silverman launched DOE’s first-ever inventory of sulfur hexafluoride emissions, quantifying an alarmingly large and previously unknown rate,” said Andrew Lawrence, director of the DOE’s Office of Environmental Protection and Safety Analysis. “The results are dramatic. DOE cut these emissions by more than 60 percent since the first inventory, avoiding the release of over a million tons of greenhouse gases into the atmosphere.

“Silverman’s vision and leadership enabled DOE to uncover a large and previously unrecognized source of greenhouse gas emissions and turn it into a climate change success story,” said Lawrence.

One pound of sulfur hexafluoride, an inorganic, colorless and odorless gas, is equivalent to 11 tons of carbon dioxide, itself a major contributor to global warming. Sulfur hexafluoride is used in industrial electrical facilities and in a variety of high-energy scientific equipment, such as particle accelerators and electron microscopes.

Part of Silverman’s initiative involved not only halting the release of the greenhouse gas by identifying and stopping the leakage, but recycling it. For example, the Argonne National Laboratory in Illinois is capturing the gas, rather than letting it vent into the atmosphere, and reusing it in electron microscopes, accelerators and other high-energy equipment.

Daniel Kreeger, executive director of the Association of Climate Change Officers, said Silverman is “a change agent.” He said Silverman “went against the grain of years of operational practice,” but at the same time has “shown that meaningful change does not necessarily require new technology or a complete overhaul of a system. 

Silverman said the huge release of sulfur hexafluoride from DOE facilities was an “invisible environmental problem” that required immediate attention once it was discovered. “When we realized the size of the problem, I knew there was something we could do about it,” he said.

In addition to curbing the dangerous emissions at DOE facilities, Silverman has been deeply engaged in electronics stewardship and green purchasing.

When Apple Inc. withdrew from a national registry of environmentally sound desktops, notebooks and electronic displays in 2012, the federal community could no longer purchase the company’s products without violating government acquisition regulations. In response, Silverman formed a coalition of 18 federal purchasing entities with huge collective buying power to meet with Apple executives to understand why the company withdrew from the registry. This tactic, combined with outside public pressure, worked. The company soon changed its position and agreed to follow the green standard guidelines.

“I felt Apple should know that if they pulled their products off the registry, we could no longer buy from them,” said Silverman. “When the federal government started to show concern, it got Apple’s attention. Someone had to pull the government together and there was no clear leadership to do that, so my team I and stepped up.”

Silverman also developed the DOE’s GreenBuy Program to drive purchasing of products that have green and sustainable content and the lowest toxicity possible. More than three-quarters of all DOE sites participated during the first year alone, and in 2012 participation remains strong.

“He created an incentive for procurement officials to take into account life cycle impacts of purchases, rather than just initial costs,” said Lawrence. “The work that Josh and his office have been doing is influencing the larger global chain of procurement and purchasing. Josh’s leadership and forward thinking has influenced people in the larger industries that are supplying the federal government. 

Brodi Fontenot, assistant secretary and senior sustainability officer at the Department of Transportation, said Silverman is someone who not only has instituted meaningful environmental changes at DOE, but has introduced sustainable practices to other federal agencies and played a role in educating policymakers.

“Josh is a person who comes to work passionately every single day and truly believes in the power of the federal government to do good and to change behavior. He practices his beliefs and he is changing behavior on the environment,” said Fontenot