Slipping soundlessly through the streets of uptown Charlotte is a white Chevrolet Volt, so quiet you have to strain to hear the low hum of the motor. True to electric car form, it is barely detectable.
The Volt is one of the 16-car electric vehicle (EV) fleet owned by the city, which is supported by more than 20 charging stations across town. It’s an initiative close to the heart of Erika Ruane ’12 ’14 MPA, Charlotte’s sustainability coordinator, and critical to the city’s overall effort to lower greenhouse gas emissions.
“Historically, people haven’t liked the words ‘sustainability,’ ‘green,’ or ‘environment,’” she said. “The word ‘climate’ is still a hot one. But it’s changing.”
In June 2018, the Charlotte City Council passed a resolution pledging to drastically reduce carbon emissions by 2030 and 2050. “That was a really big deal. It’s my biggest achievement,” Ruane said. Previously, city leaders signed onto the 2015 Paris Agreement, joining more than 200 other U.S. cities that remain committed despite President Trump’s decision to withdraw from it.
Ruane’s path to a career in sustainability formulated during her time at UNC Charlotte, while enrolled in the Master of Public Administration (MPA) program. The experiences and people she encountered set her on a new course.
“I wanted to work in public policy, but not tell people what to do,” Ruane said. “Rather, I wanted to be able to present options so people can tell me what they want to do. I fell in love with the community part of it.”
A suggestion from Suzanne Leland, former director of the MPA program, provided a turning point for Ruane.
“She encouraged me to take classes outside the program, so I took one in the geography master’s program,” Ruane said. “We went outdoors for a class and talked about planning sustainably. The (MPA) program doesn’t have a specific environmental focus, but I was able to gear my studies toward environmental work. It helped me learn about communities and what it takes to be successful.”
When Ruane was four, her parents asked what she wanted to be when she grew up. With nothing specific in mind, her answer was clear, ‘I want to help people.’ Her parents assumed that meant she’d become a doctor. But that was never Ruane’s plan.
“I finally told them I don’t like to look at other people’s blood,” she laughed.
As a child with a passion for service, she wanted to make her Miami neighborhood a better place. So, she started by picking up trash.
“I was always into the environment and sustainability, although I didn’t really know at the time what it meant,” Ruane said. Now when family and friends ask what she does, her answer is simple. “I tell them I work to help the community.”
Poised to become one of the country’s key environmental influencers in the coming years, Charlotte is being noticed by major players.
In December, Michael Bloomberg visited to announce the city is among 20 to win the Bloomberg American Cities Climate Challenge. Charlotte, recognized for its innovative and ambitious climate action plans, will participate in a two-year acceleration program that provides access to tools and resources designed to help the selected cities pursue their individual carbon reduction goals.
Ruane explained that ‘sustainability’ has become a buzzword that means something different to everyone. “Charlotte’s approach is three-pronged,” she said. “Save money, lower greenhouse gas emissions and do the best we can for our citizens.”
With environmental issues currently mired in political discourse, Ruane and other Charlotte officials are approaching sustainability in innovative ways. “New rules for pursuing federal grants makes the process a lot more challenging,” she said. “We’re discovering how to make investments in the community without them when it’s possible.”
“We’ve got only six miles left,” said Sustainability Analyst Katie Riddle to Ruane from the driver’s seat, now traveling south on East 9th Street. Shortly after, they pulled into a narrow lot next to UNC Charlotte Center City and parked by one of two electric charging stations.
Riddle inserts the charger into the Volt’s charge port. It takes about 30 minutes to fully charge an electric car of this size. Ruane knows real change for Charlotte will take time—2050 is a long way off.
“I think I would be really proud of myself,” Ruane said as she considered what her four-year-old self would think of her career choice. “I’ve remained true to what I believe in. I think she would say, ‘Great job, girl!’”